Early in my Sick Lit class, I always teach The Death Of Ivan Ilych.
The story has an interesting structure.
For one thing, it’s a circular narrative — meaning it begins and ends in, essentially, the same place. With Ivan’s death. My students and I talk about the effect of the circular narrative…about how circular narratives replace suspense with dread. My students like this because they understand it.
For another thing, the story is top-heavy: the first four chapters take up as many pages as the last eight. I point this out to my students. And then I point out how, in the last eight chapters, Ivan imagines his life as “a train moving with increasing velocity.” The structure of the story strengthens this feeling. And strengthens the dread. My students like this, too. For many, it is an Aha! moment.
My students also like looking for symbols of death in the first four chapters — they like searching for death, peeking out from behind the drawing-room curtains in the “pleasant” and “decorous” life Ivan has established with his wife.
But I’ll tell you what they don’t like. And it’s the same every year. They don’t like the ending. They more than don’t like it. They hate it.
Here’s what happens:
Ivan is dying. He is on his deathbed with his wife and his son standing nearby. Friends come and friends go and Ivan tries to say things but his words are mostly unintelligible. His son comes over and kisses his hand and, after nearly seven chapters of fighting and dreading and cursing death, and fighting and cursing his family, Ivan is suddenly unafraid. And sympathetic. He looks at his wife, maybe for the first time in the whole story. He looks at his son. And he feels pity. He waves his wife and son away, he doesn’t want his son to see this anymore. As they are leaving, he tries to say “forgive me” but it comes out as “forego.” His family leaves and he dies, alone and unafraid.
When we get to this ending in class, many of the students groan in frustration. Some of them flip their books shut in disgust. Others become more vocal.
This is bullshit! they say.
It’s Tolstoy, I respond.
Worst ending ever. It’s terrible!
No. It’s beautiful.
It’s uplifting. And it’s true.
How? How is this beautiful? His son didn’t get to hear his last words.
That doesn’t matter. And Tolstoy…Tolstoy shows us why it doesn’t matter. Tolstoy is saying that…that real, redemptive change is possible even in the last moment of life. He’s saying that life has value even, and maybe especially, in its final instant. And…and he’s saying that life’s value is inherent, not connected to our relationships or to a performance or to our last words. That no one has to know about our last moments for them to be valuable…no one has to record them. He’s saying that if a tree falls in a forest all by its lonesome…it still makes plenty of sound. He’s saying that love and sympathy and true human connection are never wasted…even if they come at the last possible second…even if they come when you’re all alone…
At this point, I pause. My students pause and look at me, a little skeptically.
What do you think?
This is bullshit, they say.
Continue to PART TWO