Problems with the Preaching (2); The Triumph of Aesthetics
Readers adverse to being preached at have found the main character’s suffering progression to eventual moral enlightenment to be beside the point. Tolstoy appears to emphasize the excruciating and slow death of his main character almost as a kind of divine retribution, and that emphasis grates upon the aesthetics of the story.
Tolstoy never leaves any doubt that the aimless bourgeois existence of Ivan, together with all others in his social circles and class, is beyond reproach. Throughout the progression of his illness Ivan struggles to find an ethical justification for his life, refusing to admit to himself that his life has been worthless. When he finally comes to this admission, the author is ready to shrive him. In the last moments of his life he feels himself pushed down into a womb-like black sack, and at the bottom he sees a light. Here are the final lines.
“Suddenly it was clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all disappearing at once from two sides, from ten sides, from all sides. He was sorry for them [his relatives, his family], he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and release himself from these sufferings.
‘How good and how simple!’ he thought. ‘And the pain?’ he asked himself. ‘What has become of it? Where are you, anyway, pain?’
He concentrated hard, seeking out the pain.
‘Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.
‘And death . . . where is death?’
He sought his former customary fear of death and did not find it. ‘Where is it? What death?’ There was no fear whatsoever because there was no death.
In place of death there was light.
‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly exclaimed aloud. ‘What joy!’
All of this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something gurgled in his chest, his enervated body twitched. Then the gurgling and wheezing became less and less frequent.
‘It’s finished!’ said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. ‘Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘Death is no more.’
He drew in a breath, stopped in the middle of a sigh, stretched out his limbs, and died.”
A powerful ending to an extremely powerful work of fiction. Tolstoy has often been criticized for showing Ivan Ilyich the light, presenting his character with that brief vision of what it’s all about (“So that’s what it is! What joy!”), because no one on this side of mortality can possibly see the other side.
But a more just criticism involves the fact that Ivan Ilyich is allowed to die only after he acknowledges the lifelong error of his ways. Tolstoy puts this trial judge on trial for his life and has the universe pronounce him guilty. When he admits his own guilt he appears to have been saved. But what about innocent and upright people? They too die of cancer. The issue of death and suffering ultimately has little to do with how pure your soul is.
The writer Ivan Bunin, much influenced by Tolstoy, reacted to “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” as follows: “But in ‘Ivan Ilyich’ there’s a certain erroneous emphasis. Ivan Ilyich lies there thinking, I didn’t manage to do this, I forgot that, what a vile life I’ve lived. But the most important thing is not that at all . . . . . most important is the horror of death itself, the hideous fact of nonbeing, of departing from life.”
Bunin is right. Tolstoy the moralist demands that Ivan Ilyich search for some ethical justification for his life, but in the end it is the suffering, rather than the issue of moral corruption that is prominent. Perhaps Ivan Ilyich is guilty, perhaps he does deserve to pay for his vile life, but why do we sympathize with him? Because no one deserves to suffer that much and because Tolstoy’s description of the dying process is so artistically perfect that the mundane Ivan Ilyich comes to symbolize the torment of all suffering humanity.
There is where the real power of the story lies, not in its moral message. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is maybe the most powerful piece of fiction in world literature describing the progress of a slow wasting illness, and the reason people still read it with profit today is not because it makes your conscience hurt, but because it makes a spot near your kidney hurt—while, simultaneously, lighting up the aesthetic centers in your brain to make that brain gleam with the pleasure of reading great art.