Tolstoy The Death of Ivan Ilyich
The Death of Ivan Ilyich was published in 1886 after a period of depression and personal intellectual turmoil (1875-1878) that ended with Tolstoy's conversion to Christianity.
During an interval in a trial, some legal professionals converse in a private room. Peter Ivánovich, the protagonist’s closest friend, reads in the obituaries that Iván Ilyich has died. Iván Ilyich had been terminally ill for some time. He was the colleague of the men present. The men immediately think of how Iván Ilyich's death may result in promotion for them all. Each man thinks gratefully that Iván Ilyich is dead and not himself. They also think of how they will be forced to go through all the tedious business of paying respects and visiting the family.
Iván Ilyich is the second son of a bureaucrat. He attends law school. He admires all those people who are in a high station in life and tries to imitate them, in whichever way he can. After law school, he qualifies for a position in the civil service. After a career setback, Iván Ilyich fights for a post with high salary and ends up with a job in Saint Petersburg. He throws himself into decorating. One day, when draping the hangings, he slips and bumps his side. The pain goes away before long. But then, it grows in his left side and he has a chronic unpleasant taste in his mouth. He becomes more irritable and sees a physician who diagnoses his illness as an appendix problem. He is forced to take opium to fight the pain and his mental anguish becomes more terrible as he fights the realization that he has wasted his life. He has dreams of a black sack with no bottom into which he is endlessly being pushed. (Sherlock Holmes also has dreams like these when he is in the possession of cocaine in the Seven Per Cent Solution). When the end seems near, at his wife's behest, Iván Ilyich takes communion and becomes a Protestant Christian.
During the last three days of his life, Iván Ilyich screams in agony. But on the third day, he has a revelation. As his son touches his hand, Iván Ilyich finally recognizes that the way he has lived his life has been hypocritical and empty. He falls through the bottom of his dream's black sack and sees a great light. The light is comforting. He accepts that compassion is the key to correct living and tries to ask his wife for forgiveness. He feels no hatred now for others but pities them. He retreats into his inner world at the end. Though he seems to be in agony, internally Iván Ilyich is at peace when he dies.
Like death or abandonment, alienation is one of the deepest-rooted fears experienced by human beings. As social creatures, humans have the need to identify themselves as one of a group, whether that group is a family, a culture, or a religion. Alienation is the central theme in Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Ilyich' as it is in Kafka's `Metamorphosis' and Albert Camus’ `Stranger'.
“He in his madness prays for storms, and dreams that storms will bring him peace”. “They had supper and went away, and Ivan Ilyich was left alone with the consciousness that his life was poisoned and was poisoning the lives of others, and that this poison did not weaken but penetrated more and more deeply into his whole being.” “With this consciousness, and with physical pain besides the terror, he must go to bed, often to lie awake the greater part of the night. Next morning he had to get up again, dress, go to the law courts, speak, and write; or if he did not go out, spend at home those twenty-four hours a day each of which was a torture. And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him.”
As a writer, Leo Tolstoy was deeply concerned with the idea of the meaning of life. He recognised that what conventional society mistakes for life's meaning -- success, social position, political or corporate power -- were ultimately meaningless in the great scheme of things. Also, Tolstoy saw tremendous irony in the fact that our human lives are so transitory and our fortunes are subject to the whims of fate; yet, we act as if we will live forever with ultimate control over the progress of our existence. He illustrates this in his story ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich.'