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"But however much he thought, he found no answer [why he was dying]. And when it occurred to him, as it often did, that it was all happening because he had not lived right, he at once recalled all the correctness of his life and drove the strange thought away." This is the elegant story of the agonizing decline of a most average of men until his premature death. Ivan Ilyich leads the life most of us lead, driven by career, climbing the social ladder, and supporting his family, never stopping to reflect until bedridden by his illness. His perspective of life and the world around him changes profoundly when he finally begins to question brutal truths, causing him to lose tolerance for the attitudes and ways of those closest to him, including his former healthy self. "I am leaving life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me, and there's no correcting it, then what?" Meanwhile, those around him show no interest in the least to understand his circumstances or to understand what he has come to know as sacred truth, and the frustration he suffers from their denials cause him more suffering than his illness. Meanwhile, they anticipate his death and upon its arrival do not rejoice, but rather use it as their own means to achieve the same things which he had previously been working towards: career advancement, climbing the social ladder, and supporting their families. In short, they treat his death for the purposes of those things in which he had finally seen the folly in the last months of his life.
At it's essence, the story is about the human capacity to change and learn as lives evolve, and that it's never too late to find peace. Any person who has undergone profound transformation, either through effort on their own part or through drastic life experiences, will relate to Ivan Ilyich's struggle, and especially to the profound shift in relationships he experiences with those around him, whose lives remain static and unchanged in the face of his own evolution, and how difficult it is to evolve when one is surrounded by friends, family, and colleagues who do not.
This story is also about the virtue of being able to tell hard truths, and the comfort that the truth can bring even when it communicates bad news. No one around Ivan Ilyich would admit that he was dying despite his own inner feeling that it was so, except for one of his peasant servants, who spoke bluntly and truthfully, endearing him to Ilyich as the only person he could stand to be around until his death, the only other healthy person so enlightened as a dying man. And when you're dying, there's no time for anything except blunt, simple truths.
27 of 30 people found this review helpful
We are all going to die. Just last week we were told so in no uncertain terms, even going so far as to be marked with the dust to which we will ultimately return. But most of us deal with the irrevocable fact of death in the same way the characters around Ivan Ilyich deal with it: worrying about promotions at work or whether there’s a sturgeon available for dinner or if we can get together a bridge foursome after dinner. That’s the way Ivan Ilyich dealt with the fact of death, too; at least until he realized he was dying.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a concentrated tonic. Running a little over two and a half hours, it is at once dreadful and uplifting, hopeless and hopeful. Yes, doing everything “right” is the surest way of getting it all wrong. But sincere acts of humane kindness can overcome years of sustained indifference. The thought Ivan Ilyich refuses to consider (“What if my life…has been not the right thing?”) becomes, when he accepts it as a working premise, the way to some relief from his doubts and sufferings. Though his wife only urges the Blessed Sacrament upon him because it is the “right” thing to do, it really is the right thing to do. As in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, another piece of apt Lenten listening, we leave our protagonist at the very beginning of the beginning of the right road. Binx Bolling has the rest of his life to find and follow it. Ivan Ilyich can look forward to the cleansing fires of Purgatory.
Simon Prebble, who is fast becoming one of my favorite readers, does a masterful job with a book that is profound in a way out of all proportion to its size.
4 of 4 people found this review helpful