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Disease and Purpose in Ivan Ilyich

Covid-19 has exposed our fear of sickness and death, but Tolstoy's novella suggests that the real depravity is a life devoid of meaning.

Among the many other things that Covid-19 has brought out of people, none has been so widespread as the fear of sickness and death. When news of the virus broke out, whole populations immediately went into full lockdown, staying in their homes and stopping all work. Even after multiple vaccines and treatments have come out, a great number of people in the developed world are still cautious to the point of paralysis.

This hysteria continues, revealing a serious blind spot. Even though previous eras contended with much deadlier plagues, tyrannical governments, and periodic famines and wars, they did not exhibit such a strong aversion to death—to the point of society collectively shutting down. They lived their lives and took on risks, finding a way to accept and understand the inevitability of life’s end.

As others have already observed, so much of the change in attitude is tied to a loss of meaning. So many people today live lives utterly devoid of purpose outside of consuming goods and gaining social status. Even the solace of work and productivity is denied to them as more and more jobs are made redundant, inessential (as the lockdowns established), and disconnected from physical reality. All that is left to do is to play on the screen, watch the shadows on the cave wall, and aggressively ignore one’s own humanity.

Ironically, the novelists who tried to capture this emptiness didn’t do half so well as the novelist who found a way to somehow redeem the emptiness. Writers like Albert Camus and Franz Kafka told stories of dehumanized protagonists living out meaningless lives and meeting their deaths like dumb animals, but their novels more often seem like a copout from the human condition rather than realistic treatments. By contrast, in his novella The Death of Ivan Illych, Leo Tolstoy tells the story of a protagonist who tries to avoid the search for meaning only to be forcefully confronted with it as he dies a slow, painful death. It is far more realistic, and it illustrates deeper truths about the nature of humanity and its need for meaning.

The novella starts with Ilych’s funeral, as his ostensible friends and family appear to mourn his death. In reality, his wife laments the loss of income, his friends look forward to possible promotions resulting from his death, and even his children seem more confused than anything else. Few of the guests have memories of Ilych, and their sadness is contrived. Of Ilych’s friends, the narrator says, “Each one thought or felt, ‘Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!’”

It is popular to take comfort in the idea that a person will continue to live on in the memory of others. But in most cases, there’s really no reason why a person should be remembered. And in the rare occasions that people do remember a person, it’s almost always in the most superficial ways.

After showcasing Ilych’s underwhelming legacy, Tolstoy tells the story of his life, starting from the beginning. Tolstoy prefaces this with an odd assessment: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been the most simple and most ordinary and therefore the most terrible.” In material terms, his life is indeed simple and ordinary, as Ivan grows up to be a legal bureaucrat like his father and siblings, enjoying neither fame nor fortune yet avoiding pain and hardship. In spiritual terms, this shallow existence is terrible.

It discourages any kind of introspection or originality. For much of his adulthood, Ilych’s life “continued to flow as he considered it should do—pleasantly and properly.” He takes to his job, avoids confrontations with his wife, slowly moves up the corporate ladder, and cultivates tastes and ambitions that are perfectly mundane: “His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.” These things effectively distract him from the vapidity of his existence and his eventual demise.

Of course, many people today find themselves in the position of Ilych. A comfortable lifestyle and accompanying superficiality are now the norm. More than a way to contribute to the world, work is often an escape from individual responsibility and personal drama. As such, the workplace is drained of warmth or human connection—and this carries over to the home, which is held captive by the digital media and systemic narcissism. In one sense, life is “pleasant” (a word that Tolstoy repeats often in the novella), but in another sense it’s a “lie” (another word that Tolstoy repeats in the novella).

This illusion holds for a good two decades until Ilych comes face to face with his own mortality. While putting up curtains, he sustains an injury that turns into a disease that leaves him in intolerable pain from his left side and a bad taste in his mouth. His doctors show about as much consistency and competence as many of today’s medical professionals, and thus Ilych’s condition gradually worsens.

At this point, Ilych does not experience any epiphanies or revelations; rather, he doubles down on his resentment for everyone, wallows in self-pity, and nurtures an irrational hope for some miraculous recovery. Sickness only brings out the worst in him, as the virus brings out the worst in people today. Both they and Ilych not only want to avoid death themselves, but actively wish death upon others.

It’s only at the end where Ilych starts to experience regret and find genuine meaning in his suffering. To his great sadness, he finally perceives the illusions of status-seeking and consumption (“his pleasant life”) that occupied his entire adulthood: “There, in childhood, there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live if it could return. But the child who had experienced that happiness existed no longer, it was like a reminiscence of somebody else.” Ilych realizes that childhood innocence—less the ignorance of youth and more an openness to higher truths—enabled the only real happiness he ever experienced.

In the final moments of the novella, Tolstoy treats the reader to Ilych’s Passion. Instead of suffering on a cross for three days while a terrified public watches on, he suffers for three days in his bed mostly alone. But, just as Christ forgives his murderers who act in ignorance, Ilych does the same for his family and himself. Finally, as with Christ rising again, Ilych’s tragedy turns into triumph as the narrator reveals, “In place of death there was light.”

In describing Ilych’s deathbed enlightenment, Tolstoy does not suggest that all people will go through this experience. Rather, he is suggesting that every person will need to deal with their own humanity, and essential to that is the need for meaning and purpose. One can either do this consciously or find oneself bombarded with it unexpectedly.

Tolstoy sketches out what meaning and purpose are, consisting of a knowledge of interior and exterior reality. Ilych realizes that his preoccupation with a pleasant life was more a diversion from self-knowledge and was entirely ephemeral—his whole wellbeing depended on creature comforts and arbitrary labels. He also realizes what he is to others, which at the time is mostly a nuisance and a burden.

A century and a half later, the greater part of society finds itself in this same existential predicament as Ilych. Today’s lifestyles deliver a pleasant life that somehow disconnects a person from the things that truly matter, alienating people from themselves and others. And, as Tolstoy warns, at some point every person will go through some kind of crisis that exposes this spiritual chasm and requires a response, regardless of how one feels about it.

Auguste Meyrat is an English teacher in the Dallas area. He holds an M.A. in humanities and an M.Ed. in educational leadership. He is the senior editor of The Everyman and has written essays for the Federalist, the American ThinkerCrisis magazine, The American Conservative, and the Imaginative Conservative, as well as the Dallas Institute of Humanities and Culture.