The Death of Ivan Ilyich: Spiritual Awakening
He went to his study, lay down, and once again was left alone with it. Face to face with It,
unable to do anything with It. Simply look at It and grow numb with horror" (Tolstoy, 97).
Death takes on an insidious persona as it eats away at Ivan Ilyich, a man horrified at the prospect of losing his life. Even more horrifying is the realization that despite his prominence and prosperity as a Russian high court judge, Ilyich has done nothing to make his life worth saving.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins at the end, with his associates receiving the news of his passing. Here, Tolstoy emphasizes the diffident attitude the living often have toward the dead and their unintended insensitivity to what they can't comprehend. His colleagues are more preoccupied with what kind of personnel changes his death causes and getting in a game of whist than the loss of this individual. Even his wife, while playing up her bereaved widow status, considers how she can profit from his passing. Aside from the realistic portrayal of his truly devastated son, those who survive the dead man seem to consider him an inconvenient corpse.
The story then flashes back to develop Ivan Ilyich as a living man. At first, the indifferent attitude of his loved ones seemed justified, since he leads a rather empty, superficial life common to the late 1800's. It appears that if someone else died, his first thoughts would turn to whist as well. Propriety, not morality, dictates his actions and he relishes power and glory. He is a consummately impervious individual, impervious to conscience, empathy, and understanding. This does not make him an evil man. More intriguingly, he is admired by all for his social propriety and personal charm.
The first crack in Ilyich's aloof veneer comes from a bump on the hip he receives after slipping off a ladder. From here, he develops a mysterious degenerative disease that causes him great pain and mental anguish. His familiars remain indifferent to his plight, driving him to greater anger, despair, and desperation. With exhausting pain and sorrow, Ilyich reassesses the value of his life in his final hours, allowing him to confront his imminent death with greater honor than he had ever achieved in his life.
The pathos of these ending scenes display Tolstoy's brilliance in characterization. Through his grotesque description of the illness itself: the morphine shots, reoccurring pains, and the degradation of assisted bowel movements, Tolstoy...