Tolstoy's the Death of Ivan Ilych: Satire, Religion, and the Criticism of Denial

By Donnelly, Jerome | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Spring 2013 | Go to article overview

Tolstoy's the Death of Ivan Ilych: Satire, Religion, and the Criticism of Denial


Donnelly, Jerome, Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


I

A CRUX IN THE MIDDLE of Leo Tolstoy's novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych, finds Ivan mulling over a syllogism that he had learned in school, "Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore, Caius is mortal," and now coming to the realization that he had always thought of that "mortal" figure as "an abstraction," distinct from himself: "not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite separate from all others" (5:280). (1) Like the middle-aged narrator of Dante's Divine Comedy, Tolstoy's middle-aged Ivan Ilych finds himself in a dark forest, mired in a worldliness he realizes is false and impelled to seek direction and meaning. Though both are in mid-life, Dante's character is at the beginning of his journey, whereas Ivan's is coming, prematurely, to its end. Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych has gone through life knowing, as everyone knows, that life leads eventually to death, yet, like so many, he has kept that reality at bay by implicitly regarding death as something that happens to other people. Despite the simplicity of the story's shape--a circular structure that begins and ends with Ivan lying dead and between these bookends of mortality an account of his life and illness--there remains considerable critical confusion about its meaning. My purpose in this article is to show how the criticism of The Death of Ivan Ilych has failed to provide fully coherent readings of the novella by relying on historically and logically questionable assumptions that refuse to admit the possibility that the text expresses a religious view. Putting aside those assumptions, I show how the narrative is grounded in traditional Christianity in a reading that considers what critics otherwise have been unable to explain.

Modern critics have dismissed claims by earlier (and mostly) Russian critics, who, for example, argued for a "mystical" religious element in Tolstoy's novella, despite the author's own rationalism that seeks to suppress it (D. S. Mirsky), or asserted that Tolstoy continued to hold Orthodox Christian views (V. V. Zenkovsky), or speculated that Tolstoy may have wished to die reconciled with the Orthodox Church (Ivan Bunin). In reaction to such assertions, which were often little more than that and remained unsupported, modern critics have had little difficulty in sweeping them aside, arguing instead that The Death of Ivan Ilych is simply an expression of Tolstoy's heterodox views, sometimes explicitly adding the proviso that his novella should be read "in Tolstoyan terms," thus precluding any possibility of a reading in terms of a more orthodox, traditional Christianity. (2) Modern criticism has dealt with Tolstoy's novella primarily by interpreting it based on views of the Tolstoyans, either explicitly or implicitly. The Tolstoyans, led by Vladimir Chertkov, admired Tolstoy's religious heterodoxy--a minimalist Christianity, which meant constructing a humanist Jesus and reducing Christianity to a social ethic. (3) Chertkov exerted a powerful influence over the aged author and was successful not only in persuading Tolstoy to transfer the copyright of his works from his family to him but in taking control over Tolstoy in his last days as he lay dying in a railroad station, preventing his wife from entering his sickroom, and keeping from him the fact of her presence outside. As Sophia Tolstoy's recent biographer points out, Chertkov and the Tolstoyans distorted the historical record, conducted a "smear campaign" that "branded her as evil," and to a considerable extent engaged subsequently in "shaping our knowledge of Tolstoy." (4) That includes shaping the meaning of his novella. Their work established the basis for the restricted view of Tolstoy that now pervades modern readings of The Death of Ivan Ilych.

To ground a reading on what an author says or writes elsewhere is always dangerous, especially in the case of a writer like Tolstoy, whose expressed views and attitudes are notoriously unfixed, not only in his personal life but also in his philosophical and social attitudes. …

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