Illustration of the Process of Dying in Leo Tolstoy’s Novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich

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Death Grips

Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich presents the life and death of a mild everyman and the fallout of his departure. By undergoing the process of dying Ivan Ilyich concomitantly confronts Angst– his story and the reactions of auxiliary characters in the novella typify ideas presented in the philosophical argument of Heidegger on being-towards-death. Through the process of death Ivan Ilyich is the sole character forced to overcome das gerede (the chatter) for the sake of eigentlichkeit (authenticity). As Ivan embraces the ultimate inevitability of death, the process of dying is liberation from the quazi-significant objects of social merit surrounding him. The constructed reality Ivan Ilyich spent his life subscribing to vanishes, he dies having transcended the common person’s understanding of meaning.

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The novella begins by depicting the everydayness that forms the setting of Ivan’s death. Ivan’s death is being discussed leisurely by his colleagues and long time friends. The impersonal discussion highlights two aspects of Heidegger’s argument. First, that “the publicness of everyday being-with-one-another “knows” death as a constantly occurring event… As such it remains in the inconspicuousness characteristic of everyday encounters” (319). Despite Ivan’s young age and unknown ailment, the event of his death is casually accepted seemingly as a necessary condition. The mentality presented is that someone would have died, these men just happen to know who in this instance. The narrator expands on their thoughts, saying, “the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, “it is he who is dead and not I” (Tolstoy, 2). This sentiment mirrors a stoic phrase of Epicurus, “Why should I fear death? If where I am, death is not. If death is, I am not. Why should I fear that which cannot exist when I do?” Rather than letting this thought process evoke intimations of stoicism however, Heidegger urges that, “The public interpretation of Da-sein says that “one dies” because in this way everybody can convince him/herself that in no case is it I myself, for this one is no one” (Heidegger, 320). Clearly, the men’s attempts at projecting death away from themselves by thinking of it as an indeterminate event “not yet objectively present” is a crude coping mechanism diverting their attention from the significance of their own impending deaths.

Ivan Ilyich’s friends and colleagues are an interesting foil because his death is unmistakably the possibility of any of their deaths. Their lives are nearly interchangeable; they are all government employees, some even schooled together. The men look to each other to establish the objects of their desires– their collective interests are tools for engaging a developed notion of how one should live. They are confirming the validity of each other’s projects through their converging interests. Heidegger notes that “the dying of others is seen often as a social inconvenience, if not a downright tactlessness, from which the publicness should be spared” (321). Indeed this is the case. Peter Ivanovich, Ivan Ilyich’s best friend, remarks what an inconvenience it is to their bridge game that a player should die. Ivanovich’s condolences are brutally selfish and inconsiderate of the reality that Ivan Ilyich is dead. The men do not engage with their death anxiety, their Angst, so it persists to loom over them. Their detachment is not from Ivan, but themselves.

Praskovya Fedorovna’s strict belief in the medicine highlights another of Heidegger’s ideas about being-towards-death. Praskoyva enforces a regiment of medicine onto Ivan Ilyich, despite the fact that he feels no better or worse having taken it. As Ivan continues to decline, Praskovya reprimands her husband to the doctor, stating, “You see he doesn’t listen to me and doesn’ t take his medicine at the proper time. And above all he lies in a position that is no doubt bad for him — with his legs up” (Tolstoy, 37). Neither the medicine, nor the position Ivan Ilyich rests is accountable, clearly. This is Heidegger’s notion that, “in being-with-one-another, the “neighbors” [in this case, Praskovya] often try to convince the “dying person” that he will escape death and soon return to the tranquillized everydayness… this tranquilization is not only for the “dying person” but just as much for “those who are comforting him” (Heidegger, 320-321). Praskoyva is desperately clinging to the faint chance that Ivan will recover fully. The medicine is the object that bridges her desire and the current reality of her husband’s decline. Since the disparity between reality and her expectation is widening, she falsely assigns blame onto Ivan Ilyich. It is easier for Praskovya to blame Ivan for mistakes than it is to accept that his death, and her own, is unavoidable.

The significance of all the ancillary character’s actions is that they determine the complete inauthenticity surrounding Ivan Ilyich. The characters around him exemplify that “being toward the end has the mode of evading that end—reinterpreting it, understanding it inauthentically, and veiling it.” These characters come across as deplorable; Peter Ivanovich is self-centered and views his friendship with Ivan instrumentality, something maintained because he benefits from it. Praskovya is a mean wife who degrades Ivan and has no ability to appreciate him. They are not bad characters though, Heidegger would say they are merely inauthentically living for themselves. Ivan, however, comes to recognize that other people can’t save him from das nichts (the nothing), and this is the major turn of the novella. Ivan’s realization finally leads him to stop living for others, to stop worrying so much about what the people surrounding him think. In his time of dying, Ivan Ilyich is phenomenally adequate.

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