I first read this book when I was 19 and have since returned to it several times. Currently I use it in an intro to philosophy course that I teach - so I find myself reading it 1-2 times per year.
This simple and short tale is about the death of a judge named Ivan Ilych. Specifically, it is about his coming to face his death as he slowly dies from some unspecified terminal ailment.
The book can be read as a chilling description of the recognition and process of dying. Tolstoy convinces us that we have entered the psyche of a dying man, and Ivan Ilych’s awareness of his approaching death is truly frightening ... Tolstoy forces us to watch a man slowly die and demands that we apply this experience to ourselves.
There is more to the story, however, than a man facing his approaching death.
Until he is confronted with his mortality and imminent death, Ivan Ilych is a vain little man. Concerned only with conforming to the status quo and doing that which is socially approved, Tolstoy informs us that Ilych's life was "most simple and commonplace - and therefore most horrifying."
The central theme of this little novella is that our denial of our own mortality - our pushing ourselves away from the fact of our death - is intimately bound up with living inauthentically. Ivan Ilych and his entire social circle completely distance themselves from the fact that they will die, to the extant that they even feel, at a raw emotional level, that it will never really happen to them!
It is only when he recognizes that he is dying that Ilych is finally able to see that his life was empty and inauthentic - and only when he fully admits to this inauthentic life does he finally experience freedom, joy and love.
Having finally, albeit at the very end of his life, lived authentically Ivan Ilych dies in peace and achieves a kind of victory.
Tolstoy tells us that the corpse of Ivan Illych wore an expression that served as “a reproach and a reminder to the living.” A reproach no doubt to stop being dishonest, to come to terms with our mortality, and thereby to be forced to live authentically.
Despite the novella’s dark tone and somber themes, Tolstoy concludes with a strong note of optimism and joy. At truly rewarding read! Indeed, so much is packed into this short little tale that much more could be said. The best thing I can say, however, is read it yourselves and prepare to be deeply moved and powerfully challenged.
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