Sophomores who enroll in my world literature survey read major works dating from the mid-seventeenth century to the present. Deciding on which texts to assign, however, is always a daunting task. Developing a semester reading plan is akin to performing battlefield triage: some of the authors in the Norton Anthology of World Literature must be included, some must only be considered for inclusion, and some must go begging as I hem and haw my way to a list of representative texts. The one text I always include is The Death of Ivan Ilyich. While some might think Tolstoy’s story of one man’s misspent life is not likely to engage a classroom of young people, many of my students consider it the most compelling text I require them to read.
It was almost thirty-five years ago when Leo Tolstoy and The Death of Ivan Ilyich first came to my attention. I was then a sophomore majoring in English and reading almost anything I could get my hands on. Until then the only Russian writer I had read was Dostoevsky, the only Russian novel Crime and Punishment. Even so slight an acquaintance with Russian literature had nonetheless convinced me that I knew something about the relative merits of Russian novelists. After an initial reading of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, I remember that Tolstoy struck me as decidedly inferior to Dostoevsky. For one thing, no one was murdered with an axe. There was also the question of how I could possibly have anything in common with a grown man dying a slow death after falling from a ladder while hanging curtains. Curtains? Seriously? My professor, an elderly man known for his obvious comb-over and R-rated neckties, insisted The Death of Ivan Ilyich was indispensable. That I came to agree with him without much prompting on his part is what I see happen among my students every semester.
As in any literature survey course thirty-five years ago or today, students are asked to run a kind of gauntlet for fifteen weeks. They must navigate a variety of texts in rapid succession and, even if the professor succeeds in bringing some semblance of continuity to this march of literary significance, most are likely to wonder what hit them by semester’s end. I often find myself thinking about the challenging nature of a world literature survey while preparing to cover the first six chapters of Tolstoy’s novel. I wonder if there is anything new and exciting I can do to help today’s students appreciate Ivan Ilyich’s incorrigible normalcy. Perhaps a good English language film version starring recognizable actors has escaped my notice, one that also succeeds in capturing the spiritual malaise of late nineteenth-century Russian society and the emptiness of Ivan Ilyich’s life. Alas, if there is I haven’t found it yet. And so I grab my textbook and head to class, trusting Tolstoy will once again work his magic simply by way of the written word.
One reason many of Tolstoy’s books are so long ‒ my 1,215 page edition of War and Peace must weigh about four pounds while Anna Karenina, coming in at a relatively modest 866 pages, is still something of a doorstop ‒ is because he was nothing if not thorough. In addition to being thorough, however, Tolstoy could be incredibly succinct. Few writers have been as capable of delineating a character or developing a scene with the same skill and economy that Tolstoy possessed. A perfect example of this comes at the very beginning of the second chapter in The Death of Ivan Ilyich when we learn that “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (818). I read that sentence out loud in class. After a few moments of silence, I slowly read it out loud once again and then ask for comments. Even if my students are not yet certain how and why an ordinary life can also be terrible, the juxtaposition of those adjectives is sufficiently thought provoking. They sense that Tolstoy has chosen his words with a definite if not immediately obvious purpose. Then with those two words hanging in the air so to speak, we spend the remainder of the class going over the next four chapters and focusing on how Tolstoy charts the initial stage of Ivan Ilyich’s terrifying journey.
The story of Ivan Ilyich’s ordinary life is not supposed to look terrible on the surface, and my students pick up on that. He plays by the rules, establishes and maintains professional relationships, makes friends, and prospers as a result. In other words, we might say that he is adept at social networking and reaps the benefits. But of course Tolstoy wants us to look below the surface of Ivan Ilyich’s ordinary life, for in reality it is based on a false premise. Like the adept social networker he proves to be, Ivan Ilyich acts in the service of superficial conformity, mistakenly believing this will guarantee happiness and success. He marries, for example, because “it was considered the right thing by the most highly placed of his associates” (821). He also forgets, or more likely never considers, the one task he will have to perform alone: coming to terms with his own mortality. And because his life has been based in large part on a false premise, he is unprepared to carry out this task. As his illness progresses and different doctors offer conflicting diagnoses, fear and anguish gain the upper hand in his life.
I begin the next class by sharing excerpts from two commentaries on The Death of Ivan Ilyich. William Edgerton notes that “as we finish the story, we suddenly realize that its ending illuminates its title: the meaningless physical life of Ivan Ilyich was really his death, and his physical death marked the beginning of his spiritual life beyond time and space” (300). The class spends a few minutes considering how even a title as seemingly obvious and uncomplicated as this one can nonetheless be charged with significance ― how it can seem to express one thing and yet mean something entirely different. This leads seamlessly to Philip Rahv’s insight that “the art of Tolstoy is of such irresistible simplicity and truth, is at once so intense and so transparent in all of its effects, that the need is seldom felt to analyze the means by which it becomes what it is, that is to say, its method or sum of techniques” (53). Each of these observations allows me to reiterate what I have been saying since the beginning of the semester, which is that great literature requires little more of readers than their attention. Too often my students are convinced, or have come to believe for some reason, that all writers are engaged in a game of hide and seek, cleverly concealing meaning in places where they are least likely to look for it. The Death of Ivan Ilyich shows that even if we might disagree about the import of a particular passage, meaning in Tolstoy’s novel is neither hidden nor a game.
The Roman philosopher-poet Seneca is typically little more than a footnote when it comes to a sophomore survey of world literature. If students ever hear anything about him it will more than likely be in one of the excellent essays T. S. Eliot wrote regarding the influence Seneca exerted on Shakespeare’s tragic vision. But in one of his Letters From A Stoic (Epistulae Morales ad Lucilium), which I share with my students, Seneca points out “that death ought to be right there before the eyes of a young man just as much as an old one.” Why? Because “everyday . . . should be regulated as if it were the one that brings up the rear, the one that rounds out and completes our lives” (58). That the Roman concept memento mori (remember death) would become fully integrated in Christian teaching is both well established and familiar to many of my students; that it informs Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written a few years after his conversion to Christianity, is equally evident.
While The Death of Ivan Ilyich may seem intended for a mature reading audience, in my view it is actually more suited to the young. Not everyone agrees. Based on discussions I’ve had with colleagues, many of whom are a good deal younger than I, Tolstoy’s story is a “downer.” And a “downer” it is for Ivan Ilyich as well, at least until that moment when his son creeps to his bedside and kisses his dying father’s hand. Then a light shines forth. Ivan Ilyich soon relinquishes his hold on life out of deference to the living and the full import of Tolstoy’s story materializes before our eyes. For despite its title, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about life and how to we ought to live it. With so much of their lives still before them, I’m not sure there is any more important question for college students to ponder. Nor am I familiar with another author who brings the question as dramatically to life as Tolstoy does in this novel.
Edgerton, William B. “Tolstoy, Immortality, and Twentieth-Century Physics.” Canadian Slavonic Papers 21.3 (1979): 289-300. Web. 3 Jan. 2013.
Rahv, Philip. “The Green Twig and the Black Trunk.” Leo Tolstoy: Modern Critical Views. Ed.Harold Bloom. New York: Chelsea House Publishers, 1986. 53-66. Print.
Seneca, Lucius Anneas. Letters From A Stoic. Trans. Robin Campbell. New York: Penguin Books Inc., 1969. Print.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The Norton Anthology of World Literature. Ed. Martin Puchner et al. Shorter Third Edition, Vol. 2. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: W. W. Norton & Co., 2013. 812-50. Print.