Ivan Ilych is Alive

One of the purposes of this blog is to help people access the world of literature. (You can pronounce it the boring way, or you can do it properly, the way Michael Caine would – “litshratshurr“). I do this through book reviews and short reflections on things that I’m reading. Not only does this help me process what I’m reading, it also hopefully gives others a taste of the benefit from engaging with this material, which often feels too distant and intimidating. One of the things that compelled me to make the effort to read “the classics” was hearing how they had such an impact on others, and observing others appreciate them.

Recently I was listening to Karen Swallor Prior in discussion with Matthew Barrett on the Credo Podcast. One of the things that came up was Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, and that discussion prompted me to re-read it. One of the nice things about this story is that it is so short. Everyone has heard of Tolstoy, but most people do not have the courage to take on some of his better-known novels such as War and Peace (1400 pages) or Anna Karenina (950 pages).

If you would like to read it, you can download it here (I’m not sure about the quality of the translation – but hey! it’s free). Note that the following reflection contains spoilers if you haven’t read the story yet.

I am struck by the power of words, ideas, and story. In only 50 pages or so, Tolstoy harnesses that power and delivers to the reader a profound encounter with truth. One of the first things that strikes me in the story is the brutal honesty of the internal dialogue. Tolstoy gets inside the mind and around the various self-deceptions we employ and reveals what is truly there in all of its ugliness. It is done in a matter-of-fact way:

Each one thought or felt, “Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!” But the more intimate of Ivan Ilych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.

The story reveals how hard it is to come to believe something that you really don’t want to believe, something that has profound and far-reaching implications for the verdict of how you lived your life. We oppose these kinds of paradigm-shifts in many areas of our lives because re-evaluation is costly. We are invested in our way of seeing things. Within the story this is seen in everybody’s stubborn denial of their own mortality (save for the peasant Gerasim), and especially in Ivan’s wrestling with whether he has lived a good life. There were many layers to peel away before he could get to the honest core of this question. It is only at the end of a long struggle that he breaks through his own defenses to the truth:

… the question suddenly occurred to him: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.

… 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.

There is another dimension to this. Just like Ivan has been living in a cocoon of self-deception, the same is true for his colleagues and his family in their own ways. As mentioned above, they are all in denial about their own inevitable death. But without the harsh and inescapable pain to shock them into a sober honesty, we do not see these characters make any progress towards escaping that deception.

At the very end, in the last two or three hours of Ivan’s life, he experiences a conversion and rebirth. He breaks through into light. Tolstoy does not name Christ, but rather describes the change of heart and makes an oblique reference to God:

At that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. His wife came up to him and he glanced at her. She was gazing at him open-mouthed, with undried tears on her nose and cheek and a despairing look on her face. He felt sorry for her too.

…He tried to add, “Forgive me,” but said “Forego” and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand.

… He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.


In place of death there was light.


“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

Modern secular readers are probably tempted to view this as a moral reformation or a kind of epiphany, but Tolstoy clearly has something deeper in mind. It is quite common in literature for the conversion of characters to be described in ways that hint at Christ but do not explicitly name him. I’m not entirely sure of the reason for this. C.S. Lewis discusses it somewhere, commenting on the habit of medieval Christians to ‘hide’ Christ in pagan themes and deities in their fiction, something he does in his writing as well.

Nevertheless, the Christian reader can recognize many (though not all) of the elements of true conversion: conviction of sin, repentance for sin, and a changed heart with new desires. Is this fictional portrayal sufficient to point others towards faith in Christ for their salvation? No. But what good fiction (and good art generally) does is faithfully represent some part of reality, it serves as a signpost on the good road. In doing so it adds one more voice to that choir made up of countless voices, singing not the same note but a great and variegated harmony.

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