The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written by Leo Tolstoy, 1886.
Much of life is spent choosing between the outer, physical, material being and the inner, spiritual being. The nature of death serves as an intriguing dichotomy. From the physical perspective, death in and of itself is an unremarkable, inevitable event. Death is the epitome of conforming to the physical world, therefore confining oneself to the limitations of the physical body. However, death is also the pinnacle of relinquishing oneself from the physical and into the spiritual. While everyone must come to death, therefore everyone must ultimately be subject to the more powerful influence of the spiritual over the physical, everyone has the ability to resist spiritual transcendence, and it is in this choice of resisting the spiritual or resisting the physical that the nature of one’s dying process is defined. Tolstoy parallels this dichotomous competition between the two realms, as it pertains to Ivan Ilyich’s dying process, through his representation of time and space.
The entire novella consists of twelve chapters. These chapters, however, are not equally representative of Ivan Ilyich’s lifespan. The first four chapters cover nearly forty years of his life. The second four chapters cover several months, and the last four chapters cover only a little over four weeks of Ivan’s life, up until the point at which he dies. Also, the length of the chapters themselves decreases as Ivan becomes closer and closer to death. For the most part, each chapter is somewhat shorter than chapter preceding it. This is first of all to indicate the shortening of Ivan’s life; he has less and less time in the physical world, therefore Tolstoy gives him less and less time in the novella. However, although the chapters cover shorter periods of time, more time in the novella is spent dwelling on these shorter periods of time in Ivan’s life. This is because, as Ivan becomes closer to death, he becomes more aware of the spiritual aspects of one’s life, relationships, etc. In the first forty years of his life, he was primarily focused on the physical world; he placed value on material things, he made decisions with the intent of feeding his own desires, and he based his opinions of morality on the presence and quality of material things as opposed to spiritual things, and on the outer indications given him by his friends and family. For instance, Tolstoy describes:
The preparations of marriage and the beginning of married life, with his conjugal caresses, the new furniture, new crockery, and new linen, were very pleasant until his wife became pregnant…Ivan Ilyich had begun to think that marriage would not impair the easy, agreeable, gay, and always decorous character of his life…But from the first months of his wife’s pregnancy, something new, unpleasant, depressing, and unseemly…unexpectedly showed itself.
As indicated in this portion of the text, Ivan was very unhappy as soon as he was required to put his attention on his wife and her needs, and take his attention away from his more “decorous” subjects. This time in his life is given less attention because, while it is significant to understanding Ivan’s character, it is insignificant in regards to the nature of death. Death does not worry itself with these material things, in fact, the process of dying is actually the process of transcending the physical, of refocusing one’s attention on the inner and spiritual, and of relinquishing one’s care for the outer, physical world. This process reaches its climax when Ivan finally values inner things over outer, and in doing so, is finally able to “release them and free himself from these sufferings.” The more aware Ivan is of the importance of the spiritual aspects of one’s life, the more significant his current state of living is during the process of dying, therefore more time is dedicated to it. This creates a dichotomous, and somewhat contradictory, relationship between the two perspectives of time. The last four chapters may cover a shorter period of Ivan’s life, but this third section of four chapters dedicates more time to this shorter period, dwelling on what is apparently the only true, genuine, and valuable period of Ivan’s life: his death.
Similarly, Tolstoy also dedicates less and less space to each period of Ivan’s life. In his early life, Ivan travels from town to town, moving about frequently, therefore occupying a large span of space. In his middle years, when he is married and his children are a little older, he limits himself to one city and one apartment, settling down with his wife and two children. One may note that, although Ivan was still primarily focused on material things in his middle years, his life is now subject to circumstances which do not allow him to be completely oblivious to the spiritual aspects of life; he now has relationships that must always be tended to, in some manner, with his wife, his grown daughter, and his young son. Once Ivan becomes ill, the space which he occupies decreases even more as he finds himself confined to the study. He is closer to death, and he is considering abstract things more and more, such as his observation that his daughter seems impatient with his illness. When he dedicates his thoughts to transcendent concepts, his physical pain increases. This seems to indicate that the spiritual and physical realms are in opposition to one another, as though the two are in competition and fighting for Ivan Ilyich’s devotion over the other. The text describes this phenomenon as he considers what lies beneath his relationships with those around him:
He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself—all that for which he had lived—and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death. This consciousness intensified his physical suffering tenfold. (ch. XI, pg. 776)
This increase in pain due to the increased effects of the limitations of the physical body, and the decrease in the space he occupies, reflects the seemingly competitive relationship between the physical and spiritual realms that defines the dying process. Ivan has begun considering more abstract, less material aspects of his life, therefore his physical world is diminishing, both his occupied space and his body itself, because the physical world is losing significance. This must be done in order to allow his spiritual self to be “free,” in other words, to take up more room.
As Ivan is at the height of the dying process, he occupies even less physical space as he is further confined to just the sofa. However, once again, as he becomes less and less of a physical being requiring physical space in the physical world, he becomes more aware of his spiritual being. He does this to such an extent that he is able to understand that death is not an ending, rather death itself is ending. In fact, death is simply the transition from the physical to the spiritual. This new understanding allows Ivan to essentially defeat death by succumbing to it, for “in the place of death there was light.” In fact, Ivan finds joy in this understanding of death. Because he has reached spiritual transcendence, “death is finished…it is no more.” At this point he no longer occupies any physical space, but is free to occupy an infinity of spiritual/abstract space.
“Ivan’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible,” thus his life is not the main focus of the novella because there is little one can learn from it. However, because of the nature of his life, there is much one can learn from focusing on the nature of his death in regards to his life. As Ivan himself becomes more aware of this, extraordinary shifts occur in the physical realm, including the space Ivan occupies, and the time symbolically dedicated to each period of his life. When Ivan is finally dead, literally speaking, he no longer occupies any physical space and there is no more time to be dedicated to his life, so, in order to reflect this concept, the novella abruptly discontinues. This is also perhaps Tolstoy’s reasoning for beginning the novella with events that occurred after his death, so as to not disturb this concept. So as Tolstoy uses this relationship of time and space with the nature of death, he provides the reader with a somewhat unconventional understanding of the dying process: Rather than life being over, and spiritual transcendence being subject to the limitations of the physical body, death is over, and spiritual transcendence has finally occurred.
I wrote this several years ago, in 2014. My thoughts were pretty good, but my articulation of those thoughts is…meh. This could be better.