How to Live? What We Can Learn from Ivan Ilych's Death
Felps (Maryann)
Source: The English Journal, Vol. 102, No. 1 (September 2012), pp. 52-56
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Near the first of every school year, I have the opportunity to talk to my students about death, usually in the midst of our study of Beowulf or Gilgamesh. Occasionally, the discussion results from the recent news of the death of a public figure or, closer to home, a family member. Regardless of the circumstance, my students learn my personal philosophy regarding the inevitability of death and its consequences in the form of a question that I will ask throughout the school year as the situation arises and a particular text addresses the issue. The question is not "Are we going to die?" The question is, "How shall we live?"
  2. At that point, the conversation quickly advances beyond any morbidity associated with the topic to a discussion involving both the inevitability of death and the relatively brief time in the scope of the world's history that we live. Great writers from antiquity to the present day have much to say on the subject, but I find one text to be particularly effective in its "life lessons" for young people: "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich".
  3. Ivan Ilych1 is a bureaucrat in 19th-century Russia. He is schooled in the legal profession and becomes a judge. Along the way, he meets and marries Praskovya Fyodorovna because it's the "thing to do" — his "duty," he's fond of thinking, which means whatever conventions are comme il faut. They have children who are educated well, and they live in a bourgeois area of town in a home furnished like everyone else's. Ivan entertains himself with bridge2 and dinner parties, but when the relationship with Praskovya becomes strained, at first due to finances and then, later, to his illness, Ivan retreats to his office to work.
  4. His illness, which is never clearly diagnosed, results from a fall3 he has while showing the decorator exactly how he wants his parlor drapery hung. At first, Ivan believes it to be only a bruise, but as weeks and then months go by, his illness becomes quite serious and the doctors are unsuccessful in treating him, themselves not agreeing on the source of Ivan's pain.
  5. He eventually dies, but not until he comes to the realization that he has squandered his life, that, in fact, he has never questioned how to live his life beyond what others expected of him. His death begins at his birth and continues until his body gives way — at which point, Ivan gains life in a redemptive gesture.



In-Page Footnotes

Footnote 2: Footnote 3:

Text Colour Conventions (see disclaimer)

  1. Blue: Text by me; © Theo Todman, 2018
  2. Mauve: Text by correspondent(s) or other author(s); © the author(s)



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