IVAN ILYCH: THE TRAGEDY OF AN UNEXAMINED LIFE

by Robin Gretz
Each of us one day will face illness and death. Yet rarely do we consider whether the choices we make in life can help us face suffering and death with courage and dignity. The Death of Ivan Ilych, by the Russian writer Leo Tolstoy, is the story of a dying man’s struggle to come to terms with the meaning of his life, even as he endures an agonizing death. It is a powerful novel that raises disturbing questions about moral choice, the importance of being treated as a person rather than a patient, and the life-sustaining value of family and friends. This essay examines one man’s suffering and dying in a way that suggests that the choices we make during our lives have much to do with the kind of death we will experience.
When a man dies, he does not just die of the
disease he has: he dies of his whole life.
—Charles Peguy
Occasionally, a novel or story touches us indelibly, leading to the realization that we can never again look at our life in quite the same way. For me, The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy is such a book. For those who have known death, either personally or professionally, or for those who find in literature clues to the diversity of human experience, this story is a valuable pathway to asking whether the choices we make in life can help us face death with courage and dignity.