National Endowment of the Arts - The Big Read
The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible manifestations.

Leo Tolstoy, 1854 (Copyright Bettmann/Corbis)

Alfred Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

Gentlemen, Ivan Ilyich is dead!

Josephine Reed: Now the Big Read!

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

Ivan Ilyich had been a colleague of the gentlemen assembled here and they had all been fond of him. He had been ill for some weeks and his disease was said to be incurable. His post had been kept open for him, but it had been speculated that in the event of his death Alekseev might be appointed to his place and either Vinnikov or Shtabel succeed Alekseev. And so the first thought that occurred to each of the gentleman in this office, learning of Ivan Ilyich's death was what effect it would have on their own transfers and promotions or those of their acquaintances.


In addition to the speculations aroused in each man's mind about the transfers and likely job changes this death might occasion, the very fact of the death of a close acquaintance evoked in them all of the usual feeling of relief that it was someone else, not they, who had buried.

Reed: That's Alfred Molina, reading from Leo Tolstoy's 1886 Russian classic, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. A story about a man who confronts his mortality and discovers the terrifying shallowness of the life he has lived.

Jay Parini: Tolstoy's novella is really an examination of the hypocrisies of society and how it's built on lies and how the material world in all of its fancy houses and beautiful furniture—all of this is designed to numb us from the true realities of life.

Olga Grushin: It's about facing the fear of death, I think. It's about going beyond the superficialities of your life to some essence of life.

Reed: Welcome to The Big Read, a program created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. The largest reading program in American history, The Big Read is designed to unite communities through great literature. Here's your host, poet and former chairman of the NEA, Dana Gioia.

Gioia: The first chapter of The Death of Ivan Ilyich takes place just after the demise of the title character, who served as a judge in St. Petersburg. His friends and colleagues learn of his death from the newspaper, writer Jay Parini:

Parini: We begin with his colleagues and their reactions to the death. They're all sitting around at their government palace, the ministry of justice, being quite thrilled by the death. They're thrilled for two reasons. They're thrilled because they are glad it's not them who's dead and because they think that this death is going to open up some positions, so various people will move up the line.

Gioia: Novelist, Martin Amis.

Martin Amis: It opens with his funeral, so obviously there is going to be no last minute remission for poor Ivan. A great coup to begin with the funeral I think, because then the death backdrop is there and we know where we are heading.

Gioia: Novelist, Olga Grushin.

Grushin: So everyone seems to be quite self involved and then you realize that that's sort of one of Tolstoy's main points here is that they're this way and so uncomfortable because they don't think this has anything to do with them and they don't want to face the fact that they'll all have to go through the same thing, and so they're sort of keeping at an arm's length that something unpleasant that happened to someone they knew that has nothing to do with them.

Gioia: Critic, Susan Balée.

Susan Balée: With his surviving friends, who are very much what he was like before he got sick, propriety tells them that they have to make a condolence call, but what they really want to do is go play cards.

Gioia: Even Ivan Ilyich's closest friend and colleague Pyotr Ivanovich would rather join the evening card game than attend the funeral of this man he has known since law school. Pyotr Ivanovich dispenses with his usual nap and reluctantly goes to pay his respects.

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

The body lay, as the dead invariably do, in a peculiarly heavy manner, with its rigid limb sunk into the bedding of the coffin and its head eternally bowed on the pillow exhibiting, as do all dead bodies, a yellow waxen forehead (with bald patches gleaming on the sunken temples), the protruding nose beneath seeming to press down against the upper lip. Ivan Ilyich had changed a great deal, grown even thinner since Pyotr Ivanovich had last seen him, and yet, as with all dead men, his face had acquired an expression of greater beauty—above all, of greater significance—than it had in life. Its expression implied that what needed to be done had been done and done properly. Moreover, there was in this expression a reproach or a reminder to the living. This reminder seemed out of place to Pyotr Ivanovich, or at least inapplicable to him. He began to feel somewhat uncomfortable and so he crossed himself hurriedly (all too hurriedly, he felt, from the standpoint of propriety), turned, and headed for the door.

Parini: The Death of Ivan Ilyich is an extremely funny book. It's a very dark humor. The fact that when a beloved colleague dies, the first thing people think about is their own promotions, it is pretty funny. It's also true.

While Tolstoy was a child of Russian aristocrats, he's Count Leo Tolstoy, so he came from the very highest levels of Russian society.

Gioia: Born in 1828, Tolstoy experienced a great deal of death early in his life. Both of his parents died by the time he was nine, two brothers also died, and five of Tolstoy's children never reached adulthood.

Dr. Sherwin Nuland: He was a student of death and you can tell it reading his novels...

Gioia: Dr. Sherwin Nuland.

Nuland: Death was a fascination with him almost to the point of obsession, as he was seeing it in earlier years through the deaths of relatives, serfs on his estate, soldiers on the battlefield. He knew a great deal about death.

Gioia: Tolstoy was notoriously rowdy as a young man.

Writer, Cynthia Ozick.

Cynthia Ozick: He was a carouser and he drank and he worse than philandered. He was completely wild and profligate.

Gioia: Susan Balée.

Balée: Throughout his young life, he was always alternating between debauchery and then extremely ascetic behavior where he would have a physical regimen, something he had to do every day.

Gioia: Although Tolstoy's protagonist, Ivan Ilyich resembles the author in many ways, they came from different levels of Russian society. The young Ivan Ilyich was much more even tempered than his author, yet he had no lack of professional ambition.

Balée: He's very much of a striver. He's a social climber. He very much cares about what other people think. I mean, a lot of this book is about internal realities versus external appearances.

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

As a law student, he had become exactly what he was to remain the rest of his life: a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man, but one strict to carry out whatever he considered his duty, and he considered his duty all things that was so designated by people in authority. [...] He had adopted their manners and their views on life and had established friendly relations with them.

When he graduated from law school with a degree qualifying him for the tenth rank of the civil service, and had obtained money from his father for his outfit, he ordered some suits at Chalmers, the fashionable tailor, hang a medallion inscribed respice finem on his watch chain, took leave of his mentor and prince, who was patron of the school, dined in state with his friends at Dunham's, and then he set off for one of the provinces to assume a post his father had secured for him there as assistant on special commissions to the governor.

Gioia: Olga Grushin.

Grushin: And because he's a very intelligent, amiable young man, he quickly moves up and he makes right acquaintances and he eventually moves to St. Petersburg in the capacity of a judge.

Gioia: Sherwin Nuland.

Nuland: Ivan Ilyich is a middle-level bureaucrat in the ministry of justice. He was a classical bureaucrat. We recognized him almost immediately within the first few pages. We've all met people like him, a man who had somehow taken his occupation and exchanged real life for it. The occupation became what motivated him.

Gioia: The Librarian of Congress and Russian historian, James Billington.

James Billington: So he was a rising member of the professional bourgeois class. The definition of this class was their perpetual unhappiness because the attainment of the little better society made them more selfishly preoccupied with having art or doing as well as somebody else. You know, it's like that famous phrase somebody came up with, saying that if you run a rat race, you're still a rat.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: After he gets a promotion and becomes a still more eminent judge, and moves to another city and has more money and has more prestige and he begins to furnish his house by himself, making all of the choices himself, all the interior decoration.

Parini: He loves more than anything his beautiful house.

Gioia: Jay Parini.

Parini: And he goes to great pains, his great fun in life is buying the curtains, and of course it is buying these curtains that finally lead to his death.

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

During court sessions, he sometimes became distracted, wondering whether he should have straight or curved cornices for the draperies. He was so preoccupied with these matters that he often did some of the work himself—rearranged the furniture, rehung the draperies. Once, when he mounted a stepladder to show a perplexed upholsterer how he wanted the draperies hung, he missed a step and fell, but being a strong and agile man, he held on to the ladder and merely banged his side against the knob of the window frame. The bruise hurt for a while, but the pain soon disappeared.

Parini: And it's that injury, so slight at first, which then builds to the final, fatal illness. So he's finally killed by material things—by the life, the false life that he's tried to pretend is real.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: Decorating a room is a pretty superficial thing to do, and maybe very gratifying, but it is superficial, and his whole life has been superficial. His whole life has been lived in keeping up with the Petrovich's.

Gioia: Martin Amis.

Amis: Curtains is right because his life has been all surfaces, all appearances—it is that obsession and that finicky status conscious obsession that does for him in the end.

Ozick: Little by little we learn that this was the beginning of a most terrible disease, which is never defined for us, and this moment, this utterly a nonchalant moment, is destiny. And that's quite frightening, but it's also exactly the way life is.

Gioia: You are listening to The Big Read from the National Endowment for the Arts. Today we are discussing The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.

The minor injury that Ivan Ilyich suffers while hanging curtains soon grows more serious. His ordinary amusements, like playing cards, no longer bring him pleasure.

Susan Bavet.

Balée: So he goes from being able to play cards and distract himself with the things he's always distracted himself with, and then suddenly he can't do that anymore because the pain begins to gnaw and pretty soon, he is forced to acknowledge that this pain is real and that he's in decline.

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

After supper his friends went home, leaving Ivan Ilyich alone with the knowledge that his life had been poisoned and was poisoning the lives of others, and that far from diminishing, that poison was penetrating deeper and deeper into his entire being.

Gioia: Olga Grushin.

Grushin: When the pain increases, he has constant arguments with his wife over her soup and her cooking and she finally says, why do you not go see a doctor.

Parini: One expensive doctor after another expensive doctor comes to examine Ivan Ilyich on his sick bed.

Gioia: Jay Parini.

Parini: The one doctor goes through tremendous trouble feeling the body and going through the examination, but it's all false. He seems to understand instinctively that he's not going to get better. His illness is fatal and it's undiagnosed.

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

The pain in his side exhausted him, never let up, seemed to get worse all the time; the taste in his mouth became more and more peculiar; he felt his breath had a foul odor; his appetite diminished and he kept losing strength.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: Tolstoy—here he is, this great proponent of vast ideas and in a strangely paradoxical, really self-contradictory way, he's also a master of the way we live minute by minute psychologically.

Gioia: Martin Amis.

Amis: He keeps on running through the contingencies that led to the fall, the miseries of recurrence where it seems to go ahead and then it comes back at you, and that is like the psychological sufferings, which are just as great.

Gioia: Olga Grushin.

Grushin: Slowly, slowly, he realizes that he's dying and the medical concerns from that point start falling off and the spiritual concerns come to the four of them and their doctor sort of fade away.

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

After Ivan Ilyich locked the door of his room and began to examine himself in the mirror—first full face, then in profile. He picked up a photograph he had taken with his wife and compared it to what he saw in the mirror. The change was enormous, then he bared his arms to the elbow, examined them, pulled down his sleeves, sat down on an ottoman and fell into a mood blacker than night.

Grushin: And we follow heart tick by heart tick, heart beat by heart beat his decay.

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

He slept less and less. They gave him opium and began morphine injections. But this brought no relief. At first the muffled sense of anguish he experienced in this semiconscious state came as a relief in that it was a new sensation, but then it became as agonizing, if not more so, than the raw pain.

Gioia: Tolstoy wrote his two epic novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina before the age of 50. Soon after, he underwent a radical religious conversion.

Jay Parini.

Parini: After his so-called conversion in the 1870s, he said he would no longer write fiction unless it could somehow illumine the moral life and he dismissed as trivial activity the writing of War and Peace and Anna Karenina.

Gioia: Writer N. Scott Momaday.

N. Scott Momaday: By that time, he had considered his life as a writer to be immoral. He wanted to become a preacher. He wanted to turn away from the creative life and take up a kind of mystical religious life...

Parini: And from then on devoted himself to matters of moral education, religious enlightenment. I mean, he set about taking the four gospels in the New Testament and revising them. Taking out the supernatural bits.

Gioia: James Billington.

Billington: He started a train of symbolic resistance to modern forms of authority. He was almost an anarchist really and to the gods of material progress, machines and all of the things that were being celebrated and discovered, he stood apart from and resisted.

Gioia: Jay Parini.

Parini: Here is the contradiction in Tolstoy's life: on the one hand, he is raised in the tradition of a 19th Century Russian aristocrat during the days of the Czar. The other side of Tolstoy: there was the Russian peasant side to him. I mean, as a young man, he grew up in the country. He associated with the serfs, the Russian word would be “mujjik” and he is very much identified with these people. He likes their simplicity. He likes their sincerity and he likes the frankness of their faith.

Gioia: Tolstoy had a very complex relationship with the peasant class throughout his life. In his younger, wilder years, he acted very much as a futile lord. He didn't hesitate to fog the servants on his estate, and once he even lost dozens of them to a gambling debt. In later years, his feelings about peasants changed drastically.

Martin Amis.

Amis: Tolstoy, although this does not detract an iota from his work, he played pretty fast and loose with some peasant girls and he knew the dark side of this relationship, but he also knew that this emotion could be very positive and could be reciprocated.

Gioia: Olga Grushin.

Grushin: Tolstoy believed that the Russian people are unique, that there was some kind of blessed holy presence in Russia and he believed that the simple Russian people who lived close to earth and toiled on the earth, they embodied this idea.

Gioia: One of the most important characters in the book is a young peasant who helps Ivan Ilyich as his condition worsens.

Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: There is a young man who is really at the bottom of society. His name is Gerasim.

Momaday: This is a peasant who is very honest and very clear in his mind.

Gioia: N. Scott Momaday.

Momaday: He enables Ivan Ilyich to confront death in a way that no one else in the story does. There's nothing hypocritical about him, and Ivan Ilyich perceives that and takes strength from it.

Gioia: Sherwin Nuland.

Nuland: What's interesting is that Gerasim overtly says, you're going to die, and yet Ivan Ilyich gets comfort out of that. He gets comfort from the fact that somebody's being truthful to him. He gets comfort over the fact that there is pity here and dying people need pity.

Gioia: Martin Amis.

Amis: And the intimacy and the nobility of Gerasim is something that Tolstoy celebrates and it's by far the most positive relationship in the novella.

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

...Ivan Ilyich would send for Gerasim from time to time and have him hold his feet on his shoulders. And he loved to talk to him. Gerasim did everything easily, willingly, simply, and with a goodness of heart that moved Ivan Ilyich. [...] Everything that he did showed that he alone understood what was happening, saw no need to conceal it, and simply pitied his feeble, wasted master. Once, as Ivan Ilyich was sending him away, he came right out and said: “We all have to die some day, so why shouldn't I help you?” By this he meant that he did not find his work a burden because he was doing it for a dying man, and he hoped that someone would do the same for him when his time came.

Gioia: N. Scott Momaday.

Momaday: In a way, I think The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a reflection of Tolstoy. He identifies with the character, so one wonders, you know, how he confronted death—Tolstoy himself—but what were those last moments when he's journeying off to some promise land and he dies in a railway station. What is he thinking about?

Parini: Well, Tolstoy's own death was an extraordinary thing.

Gioia: Jay Parini.

Parini: At the age of 82, one morning, he woke up and decided he had it. He was going to take to the road as a wondering monk and so he take to the road with his private doctor and unfortunately, Tolstoy quickly became ill and at a railway station in Astapovo, he could not continue. And so, the station master gave him his own house, a little cottage. Tolstoy set up there with his doctor and essentially went through a death passage very like that of Ivan Ilyich. For some days, he was slowly dying.

Gioia: Dr. Sherwin Nuland is the author is the bestselling book, How We Die.

Nuland: The phenomenon of dying alone, in which you are the only person who can manifest any evidence that there is knowledge of what is happening, is dreadful.

Gioia: Cynthia Ozick.

Ozick: As Ivan Ilyich himself sees all around him, people are essentially indifferent and they go about their business.

Gioia: Martin Amis.

Amis: And there's also what I think as going to come to us all—your life is going to seem worthless at the end. I know a Noble Prize winner who was assailed by these doubts towards the end.

Gioia: Sherwin Nuland.

Nuland: Then there is the seeking by a man whose life has essentially been empty except for his work. The seeking for something and he doesn't know what it is. He knows there's something missing in his life and then at the very last moment, the realization of what it is he has never had since childhood at least, and what he has never had is love.

Molina reads from The Death of Ivan Ilyich...

Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and the side and made his breathing even more constricted: he plunged into the hole and there, at the bottom, something was shining. What had happened to him was what one frequently experiences in a railway car when one thinks one is going forward but is actually moving backward and suddenly becomes aware of the actual direction. "Yes, all of it was simply not the real thing. But no matter. I can still make it the real thing—I can. But what is the real thing?" Ivan Ilyich asked himself and suddenly grew quiet. [...] He searched for his accustomed fear of death and could not find it. Where was death? What death? There was no fear because there was no death. Instead of death, there was light. “So that's it!” he exclaimed. “What bliss!” All of these happened in a single moment, but the significance of that moment was lasting. For those present, his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his chest; his emaciated body twitched. Then the rattling and wheezing gradually diminished. “It is all over,” said someone standing beside him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul. “Death is over,” he said to himself. There is no more death.” He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.

Gioia: Thanks for joining The Big Read. This program was created by the National Endowment for the Arts in partnership with the Institute of Museum and Library Services. It was written and produced by Dan Stone. Readings from The Death of Ivan Ilyich were by Alfred Molina. Classical selections by Bach, Tchaikovsky, and Rachmaninov, used courtesy of Naxos Music. "Not Dark Yet" by Bob Dylan used courtesy of Sony BMG Music Entertainment. Original sound effects by Brent Findley at Sonic Magic Studios. Production assistant Adam Kampe; administrative assistants Pepper Smith and Erika Koss. Special thanks to Ken Hoffman, Uri Bradshaw, Jeff Rosen and to our contributors, Martin Amis, Susan Balée, James Billington, Olga Grushin, N. Scott Momaday, Dr. Sherwin Nuland, Cynthia Ozick, and Jay Parini.

For the National Endowment for the Arts, I'm Dana Gioia.

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