Game Changing Books
Discover the Terrifying Precision of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Illych and Avoid Living a Life Without Impact
I first read The Death of Ivan Illych as an undergrad, and later assigned it to students. Recently craving fiction, I tugged the paperback from it’s snug seat on the shelf and devoured it in a single sitting.
The central theme — on living a life without meaning — struck me with much greater depth this time around. In contrast to those first readings, I am now an adult, a husband, and a father times three. I am gainfully employed, and filled with a desire to accomplish more than time will ever allow. At some point in the last half decade, I began coming to terms with my own inevitable mortality. It settled on me as two clear truths: there will be limits to what I can accomplish in this life, and my health is outside my control.
Throughout his powerful novella, Tolstoy exacts the mundane of dying with terrifying precision, begging an existential examination of Ivan and reader alike. The call is as much to arms as it is to lament — yes, grieve time you may have wasted, then quickly repent of living a life without impact.
In this call, Tolstoy cuts with small, precise knives. Ivan’s life does not matter. His wealth, social airs, and comfort leave Ivan hollow. Anxiety and fear fill the hollowness. He fears death. He is isolated. Surrounded by wife and children, he is lonely. And to their discredit, Ivan’s family has not forgotten him, they avoid him. They chase their own shallow pursuits — self-indulgent desires from which a dying man distracts.
“Strong, healthy, and obviously in love, [his daughter] was impatient with illness, suffering, and death, which interfered with her happiness” (114).
And nearly fourteen decades later, the fear of death still plagues us. Perhaps not those in their twenties or thirties — I certainly dodged that fear in those first readings.
But now, Ivan’s fear feels different. I accept Tolstoy’s invitation to measure my own life before it is too late. To help, Tolstoy offers Gerasim, a peasant who cares for Ivan. Only Gerasim preserves Ivan’s dignity — a vivid display of caregiving and compassion.