I see now that I was wrong about Leo Tolstoy lacking a sense of humor. At Amatuer Reader’s suggestion I took another look at the opening chapter of The Death of Ivan Ilych–it’s pretty funny. Funny in the same, slightly off-kilter, dark way that Gogol and Dostoevsky are funny.
The Death of Ivan Ilych opens with the departed character’s friends arriving to provide comfort to his widow. She is more concerned with her own situation, understandably. What will become of her? How much Ivan Ilych suffered in his final days and hours and how his suffering upset her. It was all very hard on her. Ivan Ilych’s friends are sorry that he died, but not as sorry as they are relieved that it happened to someone else instead of them. And who will they get to replace him at the whist table.
After the first chapter the novella leaps backwards in time to give us the life and death of Ivan Ilych, an ordinary man who did fairly well in the world but not well enough to leave much of a mark. The final half of the novella tells the story of his illness and death in a way that kept reminding me of Franz Kafka’s story “The Metamorphosis” which is about a man who wakes up one day to discover he has become a giant insect.
Ivan Ilych’s experience of illness is quite like Gregor Samson’s transformation. The illness arrives suddenly and without explanation. Neither his doctor’s nor his family are able to help him or comfort him or even really understand what he’s going through. No treatments provide relief; there is no cure. As his illness progresses, Ivan Ilych becomes detached from the world, isolated much like Gregor Samson did. In the end, both are completely alone whether they are among people or not. In the end, Ivan Ilych loses the ability to speak and becomes isolated inside his body, aware of what is going on around him but unable to comment just like Gregor Samson.
It’s been a while since I read Kafka, so I’m relying on long-term memory here, but I think the two would make a very interesting pair for a college seminar, maybe a high school AP English class. More adventurous book clubs could do the two together as both are quite short. My own book club would never have gone for it since both are quite sad, too.
Not really sad. Reading each didn’t make me sad so much as they made me thoughtful, contemplative perhaps. I can’t recall exactly how I felt about the end of “The Metamorphosis”but The Death of Ivan Ilych left me feeling a quiet satisfaction. In the end Ivan Ilych loses his fear of death. While he doesn’t exactly welcome its arrival, he’s undisturbed by it in a way that I found kind of comforting. Tolstoy even gives him a moment of joy as he sees the final light.
The Death of Ivan Ilych was an excellent read; it now on my retirement re-reads shelf. I’m sure I’ve got a copy of Kafka around somewhere, too.