The story begins at its chronological end, which is to say perhaps that the surest importance revealed in The Death of Ivan Ilych is his demise, as it is the result of a life led by grief because of an unwillingness to serve. Ilych’s death reflects the themes of the society in which the Novel was written.
Present in this Tolstoy classic is the notion of marriage as an infringement upon comfort and propriety; personified pain; mental anguish; and above all, the purpose of man cloaked in isolation. Described as simple, ordinary, and therefore terrible, Ilych’s time was consumed by the desire to separate his work life from his real life. He maintained a prosperous and decorous lifestyle approved by society, and whenever this was disrupted he would grow angry and despondent toward his family. Ilych’s happiness was contingent upon fleeting circumstances. Because of his unwillingness to serve, Ilych could never have achieved happiness like his servant Gerasim. Gerasim displayed characteristics of likability, compassionate, willingness, and poor in spirit, which is to say he was an exemplary servant.
Though his tests surely outweighed his testimonies, Ilych was able to move beyond denial and accepted the fact that he was, in fact, going to die. This prompts the following quote:
“…the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.”
At risk of sounding grandiose, much of Ilych’s problems could have been avoided if he had found a way to be happy through servitude, or perhaps just being satisfied with living comfortably instead of pleasing society.
As educators, it is important to inform students of their responsibility to their community. While Ilych desired to appease society by means, students should desire to positively influence those around them. Many charities have been heavily impacted by pop culture. An example would be Lance Armstrong’s yellow bracelets which turned cancer awareness into a new fad accessory. Students could indulge in the same sort of exposure by forming a charitable group that is named after their school mascot and spending every other Saturday giving back to their community by: volunteering at soup kitchens, donating time to Habitat for Humanity, or even keeping it in-house and picking up trash around campus. The purpose of this project is to close the gap between servitude and happiness, because one does not exist without the other according to Tolstoy.
Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, edited by Peter Simon, 3rd ed., W. W. Norton & Company Ltd., Inc., 2014, pp. 1442-1479.