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The Death of Ivan Ilych


Luke 12:13-21

3022 words


13  Someone in the crowd said to him, "Teacher, tell my brother to divide the family inheritance with me."

14  But he said to him, "Friend, who set me to be a judge or arbitrator over you?"

15  And he said to them, "Take care! Be on your guard against all kinds of greed; for one's life does not consist in the abundance of possessions."

16  Then he told them a parable: "The land of a rich man produced abundantly.

17  And he thought to himself, 'What should I do, for I have no place to store my crops?'

18  Then he said, 'I will do this: I will pull down my barns and build larger ones, and there I will store all my grain and my goods.

19  And I will say to my soul, 'Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.'

20  But God said to him, 'You fool! This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be?'

21  So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God."



The Death of Ivan Ilych [The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories 95-156 (Signet Classic, 1960)] is probably Leo Tolstoy’s greatest and most powerful short story.  He began writing it in 1884.  It took him two years to finish it.

Tolstoy describes Ivan Ilych as "an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man" [105] who is dying of an unknown disease and who realizes as death approaches that his life has been a sham.  Tolstoy spends many pages tracing the evolution of this mistaken life.  He begins with Ilych’s days as a law student.  He was "a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man, though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered to be his duty: and he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority" [105].  Upon completion of his law studies, Ilych dressed himself with the help of a "fashionable tailor" [105], and found his first position through the influence of his father.  He did his work, however, as well as he could.  He "performed the duties entrusted to him . . . with an exactness and incorruptible honesty of which he could not but feel proud." [106].  

He was a successful lawyer.  Eventually he became a judge, and was successful and well respected in that position also, and, of course, he was proud of his success.  He grew a beard and learned to play bridge.  Ivan Ilych was one of the boys, an insider, a pro, an established professional.

Ilych married Praskovya Fëdorovna Mikhel (You have to love those Russian names—or hate them), but the marriage did not go well.  Ilych felt that his marital problems were all his wife’s fault, and he dealt with his marital discord by spending more time at the office—which made him more successful and more proud.  Tolstoy writes, "As his wife grew more irritable and exacting and Ivan Ilych transferred the centre of gravity of his life more and more to his official work, so did he grow to like his work better and become more ambitious than before" [110].  Marriage and family became for Ivan Ilych a useful facade. "He only required of it [married life] those conveniences--dinner at home, housewife, and bed--which it could give him, and above all that propriety of external forms required by public opinion." [110].  In other words, he was married because people expected a respected and successful judge to be married.

Over time, Ilych became more aloof toward people.  He allowed only official relationships.  A woman would come, for instance, wanting some information.  Ivan Ilych would say, “That is not my job,” but if the woman had some business with him in an official capacity, something that could be expressed on officially stamped paper, he would do everything he could, as well as he could, to take care of her business, and he would be courteous and even kind as he did so.  As soon as the official relations ended, however, so did everything else; he would have nothing more to do with the woman.  Simply put, Ivan Ilych made an art of official aloofness.

Then one day Ivan Ilych was working on a ladder in his study and he fell.  He was unable to locate any visible injury, so he assumed everything was all right.  Later, the family had a dance, and there is a quarrel with Praskovya Fëdorovna about forty-five rubles she has spent on the confectioner's bill. "It was a great and disagreeable quarrel. Praskovya Fëdorovna called him ‘a fool and an imbecile,' and he clutched at his head and made angry allusions to divorce." [119]. But the quarrel quieted.  Ivan Illych forgot about the fall, though sometimes he did notice “a queer taste in his mouth and felt some discomfort in his left side." [120].

The discomfort became a persistent, irritable pain.  When Ilych finally visited a doctor, the doctor treated him exactly as Ivan Ilych treated others.  To Ilych the question was: Is this illness serious?  But the physician did not answer that question, spouting instead all sorts of medical terminology.  The physician did not treat Ilych like a human being, but like a machine that is not working as it ought to.  This was the way Ilych also treated people.  As a judge, he heard cases as points of law and never saw the real people that were involved in those points of law.  Thus, Ilych realized that the doctor is a fraud, but he did not yet realize that he also was a fraud.

The pain, however, grew worse and "the taste in his mouth grew stranger and stranger." [125].  “There was no deceiving himself: something terrible, new, and more important than anything before in his life, was taking place within him of which he alone was aware." [125]

While playing bridge with his friends, he was so distracted by the ever present "gnawing pain" that he overbid a hand and became upset at his friends.  “They had supper and went away, and Ivan Ilych was left alone with the consciousness that his life was poisoned and was poisoning the lives of others, and that his poison did not weaken but penetrated more and more deeply into his whole being" [126-127] .

One evening, a brother-in-law visited and was astonished at how much Ivan Ilych had deteriorated.  Ilych saw the astonishment and realized how sick he was.  He retired to his room to read and reflect on his pain, and in doing so he stumbles into a new insight: "It's not a question of appendix or kidney, but of life and . . . death. Yes, life was there and now it is going, going and I cannot stop it." [129]. "There was light and now there is darkness. I was here and now I'm going there! Where?" [130].

Ilych knows now that he is dying, and he is afraid: "When I am not, what will there be? There will be nothing. 'Then where shall I be when I am no more? Can this be dying? No, I don't want to.'" "It cannot be that I ought to die." "How is one to understand it?" [130, 131, 132]

Ilych struggled against these intruding thoughts of death; he attempted to recover the happiness he had so taken for granted. He returned to the courts; He read papers; He talked with colleagues; He attempted to conduct the usual proceedings.  He tried not to think about the pain, and failed.  He made mistakes, became confused; Somehow, he would bring the court to a close, and go home.  Thus, the pain dominated his life, and there was nothing he could do about it, except suffer and eventually die.

Ilych, fighting the thought of death, resented his friends who acted as if nothing was wrong.  There was "falsity around him and within him," a falsity that seemed to poison his relations with everyone in his life.  Ronald Sampson, in his book, The Psychology of Power, interprets the falsity that surrounds Ilych's life as Tolstoy’s main line of reasoning.  Sampson writes: "The way in which human beings customarily deal with facts that are painful or otherwise unacceptable is to deny them or, if this is not possible, to ignore them." We see this, first, in the way Ivan Ilych has lived his life, and then, in the "world of protective falsehood and pretense" devised by those around him. It is, says Sampson, "this enveloping, stifling aura of unreality and deception that tortures Ivan Ilych more than all else." [See Ronald V. Sampson, The Psychology of Power 126-139 (New York: Vintage Books, 1968)].

Suffering from loneliness and despair, Ilych, perhaps for the first time in his life, finds a need for truth. Consumed by thoughts of his impending death, he begins to question how he has lived.  He remembers a time before the suffering when he enjoyed life.  He remembers his days as a law student, and realizes that the real pleasures of those early times have been lost. "It is as if," Ilych says, "I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death." [148]. 

The thought occurs to him, “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done.”  But he immediately dismisses such an absurdity. No, he thinks, “I did everything properly” [148]  He has done everything people said he should do.  They said become a lawyer, so he became a lawyer.  They said become a judge, so he became a judge.  They said have a wife and family, so he had a wife and family.  They said have a hobby and a circle of friends.  He did that.  He took up bridge and became known as a sociable man.

But as the days and weeks go by his confidence in the correctness of his life fades.  He begins to contemplate what he has previously considered absurd—namely that he has not lived well.  He remembers times when he struggled a little against doing what everyone said he was supposed to do.  He quickly suppressed those struggles, he always did what THEY said.  Now he thinks that perhaps he should have listened to his own heart and mind instead of ordering his life the way THEY said he ought to.  He sees that his whole life have been “ a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.” [152].  He hates all that he has been, and he hates all the people around him because they are part of this terrible fraud.


That is a summary of Tolstoy’s short story, now I would like to make some comparison with the parable of the rich fool as found in Luke 12.  In Tolstoy’s story, Ivan Ilych represents the ideal human being, from a worldly point of view.  He was successful, well-off, well-liked.  We imagine parents telling their children, “You should be like Ivan Ilych.”   With regard to the parable, we do not know if the rich fool was well liked, we do not even know his name, but certainly  he was admired by most people.  He was not a lawyer nor a judge, he was a super-successful farmer.  He had an abundance, and he wanted more.  Ivan Ilych eventually realized that this whole way of thinking is a swindle and a deceit, but the rich fool never got that far.  But the point of Jesus’ parable is the same as Tolstoy’s story.  I should note that Tolstoy was a Christian.  He may have gotten the idea of the story from the parable.  In any case, the point is that a worldly way of looking at things may on the surface seem very attractive, and this is the way most people think—most people think that the best of all lives is to be rich and famous—but when confronted with death, this way of thinking totally falls apart.  It does not work.  Ivan Ilych is a long time dying; the rich fool dies suddenly, in a single night; but the point is the same in both cases.  They lived the way everyone said you ought to live, and death showed what a fraud this way of living is.

Most people in our society deny death.  It is almost like there is some sort of conspiracy, like most people have gotten together and vowed to pretend that death does not exist.  This is a little like denying gravity.  We can deny that gravity exists, but if we jump off of a tall building, I promise you that we will find out that it exists.  So it is with death, it is inevitable, but because most people in our society deny death, they have a false sense of values.  The way they are living is all screwed up.  They seem to think that you can have it all and have it forever, when the obvious fact is that you cannot.  When death calls, it does not matter whether you have money, it does not matter whether people like you; you are still dead, so none of that matters. 

So Jesus calls us to a different way of living.  In John 13, Jesus says, “I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another"(34-35).  This is a commandment that resounds throughout the New Testament.  In I Thessalonians 3:12, the apostle Paul prays for us saying, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you.”  Love is the mark of the Christian disciple.  The Christian life abounds in love.

And notice that this is not optional behavior for Christians.  We cannot separate belief in Jesus from love for others.  It is unfortunate that the way the gospel is preached often leaves out love.  We tell folks all you have to do is believe in Jesus.  So they make their profession of faith before the session and the congregation, and they think that is all there is.  They do not understand that believing in Jesus is not just a verbal profession.  It is not just that we say certain words; it is that we live a certain way.  Apparently, this misunderstanding of the gospel has always been a problem in the church.  We read in I John 4:20, “Those who say, ‘I love God,’ and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen.”  We surmise that John wrote this because there were some in the early church who made a great profession of Christianity, and talked about how they loved Jesus, and yet they could not get along with anyone, and were a constant source of turmoil in the church.  John says that Christianity is not a way of talking, but a way of behaving.  It is easy to talk about loving God whom we do not see.  It is far harder to love that cranky fallible human being with whom we come in contact everyday.  But what John is saying to us is that it is all one love.  Love of God, love of people, is the same thing and you do not have one without the other.  To put it another way, if you do not love people, you do not believe in Jesus.  Real belief implies real love.  Real belief effects behavior and the only behavior acceptable to a Christian is love.  That is what Jesus means when he says that people will know that you are Christians by the way that you live love.  That is the only real way to live.  Everything else is fake.

Now in the parable of Luke 12, the rich fool never understands any of this.  Thus, he lives a fraud and dies deceived.  In the short story, however, Tolstoy does not let Ivan Ilych die without redemption.  At the very end of the story, after three days of screaming pain, he realizes that though his life has been a mistake, he can still make things right.

He expresses love for those around him by asking their forgiveness.  He has hated them because they are part of the fraud he has lived, because they are healthy and he is sick, because they never seem to understand that he is dying.  He knows that he must purge himself of that poison, that he must forgive and be forgiven.  And as he does this, he realizes that though the pain is still there, it no longer dominates his thoughts and though death is still coming, he is not longer afraid of death. 

Tolstoy writes, “In place of death, there was light.”  And Ivan Ilych says, “So that is what it is!”  He then adds, “What Joy!”  Amen.




If you have questions or comments, email Tony Grant

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