The Death of Ivan Ilyich and the Good Lie

Jessica Lim explores the moral value of conversations about mortality through the lens of Leo Tolstoy’s short story on the subject.

As a species, we are often not very good at talking to people who are dying about matters of mortality. This is something that runs across cultures. 

Lulu Wong’s recent film, The Farewell, explicitly tackles an Asian cultural trait in which family members refuse to tell a family member with cancer that they have cancer. Whilst this is not something every Asian family does, it is not uncommon. As an eleven year-old in Australia, I vividly remember asking my mother why we could not tell my Chinese-born grandmother about her bowel cancer diagnosis, why we had to keep telling the ‘good lie’ that seemed so important for my family to maintain. 

In western societies, too, talking about death or dying is something we find difficult, sometimes even taboo, and the Marie Curie foundation provides practical tips on how to approach such conversations. 

This is not merely a recent phenomenon. Leo Tolstoy engages with the paradox in which the things a dying person seeks to hear and feel may be at direct odds with the ways in which family members and doctors treat that dying person in his short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a masterpiece among short stories. In a narrative sense, the duration of the chapters plays with the idea of temporality as a way of experiencing life: each chapter progressively becomes longer as each chapter covers a shorter span of time, showing how, for Ivan Ilyich, time slows down as he faces his own mortality. 

The opening page announces Ivan Ilyich’s death. The story begins as his close acquaintances begin to fulfil ‘their very tedious social obligations’ by attending his funeral service and calling on his widow. Tolstoy captures, in a caricature, the way in which death can provoke in us a sense of relief that it was not us who died; he also captures the ways in which death is an event, a social phenomenon, with specific cultural requirements that often seem far removed from the person at the centre, the person who has just died. It is a narrative choice for Tolstoy to distance his readers from Ivan Ilyich as an individual; he is not even physically present in the story until several pages in the first chapter, and he is referred to repeatedly simply as ‘the dead man’, in an ultimate act of linguistic and emotional depersonalisation. 

This act of distance and distancing is central, in fact, to much of Ivan Ilyich’s life. The story has a refrain in which Ivan Ilyich seeks a comfortable life: ‘as it ought to, that is, pleasantly and decorously’, a refrain repeated in chapters two and three as Ivan Ilyich fulfils the expected social obligations of finding a wife and seeking career progression. By presenting the narrative to readers as though describing a fish in a fish bowl, in which readers are given few of Ivan Ilyich’s personal thoughts or emotional responses, we are shown the ways in which Ivan Iyich has sought social conformity to the point where his own emotional life is, ironically, lifeless, though his physical health is good. His illness, when it comes, is absurd in its domesticity; while sorting out curtains, he struck his side. 

The cruelty of impersonality when it comes to human care is one of the central themes in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. When the doctors diagnose Ivan Ilyich’s illness, they fail to answer his question: ‘was his condition dangerous, or not? But the doctor ignored this improper question.’ Instead, the medicalisation of Ivan’s undiagnosed illness means that he is subjected to a string of medical terms he cannot understand: ‘such-and-such and so-and-so indicate that within your body you have such-and-such and so-and-so; but if the investigations of such-and-such and so-and-so fail to confirm this, then we will have to conclude the presence of such-and-such and so-and-so instead.’ The experience of being overwhelmed by medical terms when one has deeply personal, individual concerns is one we still face, today – ‘But is it serious? How does this affect my day-to-day life, my relationships?’ we want to know. The over medicalisation and professionalisation of death, Tolstoy implies, feeds the cruel impersonality in which care becomes torture, and unnamed medicines become almost synonymous with poisons that fail to bring healing. 

In the face of mortality and unanswerable questions, the worst option, Tolstoy suggests, is silence. Ivan Ilyich does not talk with his work partner about his illness; he does not talk with his family. Even though he is in constant pain, ‘The greatest torment Ivan Ilyich suffered was the lie – the lie which everybody accepted for some reason, which said that he was ill, not dying, and that all he had to do was keep calm and take the treatment, and then something very good would come of it.’ This great lie, which Ivan Ilyich was fed – which my grandmother was fed – is never very convincing. Near the end, my grandmother knew that she was dying. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, so does Ivan Ilyich. As Ivan Ilyich spirals into existential angst, the only person who brings him comfort is his servant, Gerasim, who makes space for Ivan Ilyich’s illness; who holds his legs up to relieve his pain; who even says, ‘We’ve all got to die. So why grudge a little trouble?’ It is only Gerasim, the peasant, who can articulate the universality of mortality: ‘we’ve all got to die.’ The communal, imperative, declarative statement is unlike the medical mumbo-jumbo Ivan Ilyich is fed by doctors; and instead of the cold comfort of lies and medications, Gerasim offers presence: ‘a little trouble’, in which Gerasim gives Ivan Ilyich companionship and the chance for human connection.  

When Ivan Ilyich finally dies, his personal experience of death is radically different to that which outsiders perceive. His widow perceives his last days as perennial pain: ‘It was unbearable. […] Ah! what I suffered!’, Praskovia Fedorovna says, showing how, sometimes, it may be that our experience as witnesses to the suffering of others troubles us more than death itself. For Ivan Ilyich, though, his final days are a time of spiritual reckoning and enlightenment. He is forced to come to terms with the fact that he regrets the values by which he lived, seeking a life that moves ‘well and pleasantly’. In a series of Christ-like allusions, Ivan Ilyich spends three days in spiritual torment before he experiences a spiritual epiphany, apologises to his family, and finds release. When Ivan Ilyich confronts his fear of death, he finds, ‘Instead of death, there was light.’ There is the utterance of Christ’s final words from the Gospel of John, ‘It is finished’ (John 19:30), which suggest that Ivan Ilyich’s pain has been a participation into the sufferings of Christ, and have won for him spiritual freedom and spiritual transcendent glory. The contrast between the perception of Ivan Ilyich’s death, and his personal experience of death, highlight the mysteries of the human soul; the ways in which we cannot always speak for the emotional and spiritual experiences of others. 

Yet, at the same time, The Death of Ivan Ilyich demands us to enter into the emotional and spiritual questions, fears, and journeys of those who are ill and dying. There is no chapter beyond that in which Ivan Ilyich finally dies, and ‘it is finished’, but the entire story is a journey of bringing us, the outsider, the reader, into deep companionship with Ivan Ilyich in a time where none of his family enter into his suffering or allow him to articulate his fearful questions about death or dying. We are encouraged to leave the short story challenged to consider: are there ways in which we contribute to the impersonal ‘care’ of those in pain? Are we, like Gerasim, able to provide emotional space and physical support for those who are ill and dying, or are we, like Ivan Ilyich’s family, responsible for torturing him with the pain of the lie that he is not dying? In the face of our inevitable mortality, can there ever be a ‘good lie’?

Posted: 9th March 2020

Categories: Reflections