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The Death of Ivan Llyich

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Death-this is the eventuality of all mankind. We all are familiar with it but it seems to escape our minds, even becoming obscure, basically because none of the living has ever experienced it. We can neither fathom its nature nor substantiate its facets and phases. With this fate comes many emotions, sometimes joy but more often than not regret. Ivan Llyich is the best example of this. This article examines two phases of Ivan-his life prior to illness and his defining moment plus the accompanying lessons. The last bit of the article is a hint at the idea of the immortality of the soul.

In his novella, Leo Tolstoy paints a picture of a judge man with two faces-the failing father and husband, and the ambitious and prosperous career man. Like most kin do when faced with relationship qualms, he turns to his job for comfort, and with good results. He flourishes while, with equal measure, his family drowns in sorrow, frustration and disappointment in him as a father and husband. All this is ironically concocted with a growing hate for his family.

Llyich falls and fatally wounds his side one day while drawing the curtains. He refuses to see a physician in spite of his deteriorating condition. His wife forces it on him and brings a physician to examine him. He is bedridden and within a few days realizes that he does not have long to live. He tells this to all around him, but none of them admits it to his face, except his sympathetic son and his faithful servant, Gerasim. He hates them for denying the facts and fearing that he may die.

To Gerasim, he confesses, after deep contemplation, that he has not lived a good life and at this point is gripped with immense regret. He regrets having lived an artificial life and wishes that he had lived an authentic one. He makes the distinction between the two. An artificial life masks the true meaning of life and leads to the morbid fear of death as well as strife to serve self-interest. On the other hand, an authentic life is marked by compassion and sympathy.

Just after this realization, “some force” strikes him in the chest and side, and he is brought into the presence of a bright light. His hate for those he leaves behind is replaced with sheer pity, because he has found at last a joy in authentic life and they will continue walking the artificial path, fearing death. In the middle of a sigh, he dies.

Ivan’s life, like many, was focused on material things, rather than the building of good relationships with others, especially family. Leo Tolstoy points this out at the anticlimax, where regret for the kind of life Ivan lived opened a door to reform. His message seems to be: You do not have to wait till your deathbed before making things right. He also gives Ivan a joyful exit by letting him discover what life should have been about.

At his death, Leo hints at the idea of immortality of the soul and the existence of a parallel life since Ivan seems to have the intent of using the “new” lesson learnt elsewhere. He finds at last a joy in authentic life while it saddens him the his family will continue in that of artificialness, and seems neither to get sad nor to regret that he will not exercise that joy with his family no more, indicating a hope for continuation of his life, at least elsewhere.

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