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Ivan Ilych is dead. His death is hardly what one would call “mourned”, and his family and friends think only of how they can profit from his timely demise. He has led a terrible life, and suffered through a generally meaningless existence. One might wonder how the title character in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” manages to find redemption in the process of his death. And indeed, his death is a process, in which he denies the lack of meaning in his life, questions it, accepts it, and attempts to redeem himself for it. It may seem a bit ludicrous that Ivan, who has led a life not much different from that of a self-absorbed lemming, can be forgiven for all of his sins in a matter of hours. However, through the process of dying, Ivan is redeemed. While his death is certainly painful and he struggles “as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself” (166), it ends in revelation, forgiveness, and joy.
Ivan Ilych leads a trite life, as do his peers: conventional in every sense of the word. It is only in death, however, that he realizes this. Ivan not only allows himself to follow societal standards, but follows them with such accuracy that he seems to lose any individuality that he may have had to begin with. His home is “just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means that want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves” (138). Though this may seem unintentional, it is not; he tries, sometimes with difficulty, to make himself fit in. When he begins to have marriage troubles, he compares his marriage to life, in which his duties are “to lead a decorous life approved of by society” (134). Only in the midst of his death does he begin to question his life. Ivan wonders for the first time ever if his life was for naught, and if perhaps he could have lived a better way. The question occurs to him, “what if my whole life has been wrong?” (164) At last, he realizes that just because society deems something correct, it does not necessarily make it “right”. He wonders whether he has spent his life as he should have, and comes to the conclusion that he has not. Though this is not the beginning of his death process, it is certainly the beginning of his revelation.
Ivan evolves beyond merely realizing that he has lived his life inadequately. He sees that he has sucked his family into his petty world, and may have ruined their lives as well. The indifference with which he handles his family prior to his death is astounding. He simply wants to maintain the cover of a functional, normal family; even when he married his wife, his thoughts were not of love, but of himself and his image. He thought only, “Really, why shouldn’t I marry?” (133) knowing that he would eventually need to marry in order to properly “fit in”. He has even passed his air of indifference – one might even say callousness – onto his family. His wife falls in love with him before they are wed, then begins to hate him over the years. She wishes him dead, “yet she did not want him to die because then his salary would cease” (141). Ivan’s daughter, newly engaged, is annoyed with his illness because it brings with it a melancholy that dims the brightness she feels in light of her upcoming wedding. Even Ivan’s friends do not feel badly when he dies. Everyone connected to him feels only displeasure or annoyance that they now must perform the unpleasant duties associated with a death.
On his deathbed, Ivan finally realizes the impact that he has had on his family, and attempts to reconcile with them. He knows that his life and death have been hard on them, whether their tears are sincere or not, and thinks to himself, “it’ll be better for them when I die” (166). This marks the first time in his life that Ivan thinks of somebody other than himself with genuine compassion and heartfelt sincerity. He does his best to apologize for the life into which he has submerged them, but manages only to get out, “sorry for him…sorry for you too” (166), and then fails at an attempt to say “forgive me.” Here, Ivan finally comes to understand what life should be about, and begins to be forgiven.
In the final stages of his death, time stands still for Ivan, and he is able to find closure with himself, with his life, and with God. Throughout the process of his death, Ivan is in enormous pain. He screams constantly, and only ceases to feel pain when he realizes that his life was wrong. Immediately following his apology to his wife and son, he feels the pain “dropping away at once…from all sides” (167). He can no longer feel any pain at all, and asks himself where it has gone. Ivan finally moves past his fear of death. Previously, he did not believe that he could die, but he now realizes that death is not something to be afraid of. He asks himself where death has gone; his fear has disappeared because he has realized that he will be forgiven. Finally, Ivan has closure with God. In the beginning of his illness, Ivan blames God for his pain and suffering. He weeps because of “the cruelty of God, and the absence of God” (160). However, in the final stage of death, he is at peace with everything because he knows that “He whose understanding mattered would understand” (167). It is now, approaching death, that Ivan is finally redeemed. He understands that everything will be fine, and feels no fear or pain. Ivan Ilych dies, and in the moment of his death, he finds redemption.
Ivan’s death is a slow, cruel process: he suffers for three long days in such terrible pain that everyone around him feels certain that his death is imminent. It is during this process, however, that Ivan is able to find redemption; any shorter period of time would be insufficient. He has led a meaningless life, a “wrong” life: he has made those around him suffer, and he has wronged himself, as well. Only when he realizes his mistakes and is filled with regret is his pain eased. Only when he sees the pain that he has caused and attempts reconciliation is he forgiven, and only when he is no longer fearful of death does he truly find redemption and joy. Ivan’s death is the result of his life, and it would have been very different had he paid heed to the inscription on his own watch chain: “respice finem” (130), or “look to the end”.
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