Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, The
by Leo Tolstoy
8/10 (Bleak, Similarity across stories)
After reading War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and after an unfortunate and aborted digression into Dickens (Our Mutual Friend), I decided to finish my Tolstoy cycle with this book. After 200 pages of Dickens, picking up Tolstoy again was like returning to my mother’s arms after a scary childhood fall. There was a comfort in the narrative, a richness in the prose and a confident mastery that was wholly lacking in Tolstoy’s British contemporary.
It impressed me that while I had to consciously force myself to pick up “Mutual Friend” over the course of two weeks and 200 pages, eking through at most a half-chapter at a time, this collection of four short stories (novellas?) immediately absorbed me and I eagerly sought out even the shortest available moment to read a snippet. I can’t quite explain Tolstoy’s power to do this. I felt it in W&P and to a lesser extent in AK. It’s not that the narrative is very exciting, or even that the prose pops off the page like, say, John Fante. But still, it’s as if Tolstoy retains some ghostly power to reach his hand up from the page and grab you by the eyeballs so that you can’t put him down.
It’s just complete mastery of the written word, that’s the best way I can describe it. And it’s also memorable, believable, well-developed characters that follow a trajectory that has an inexorable, predetermined quality to it. That’s a large part of what compels: you know what’s going to happen but are riveted to see how it comes about. The four stories here are very similar thematically, many of them could even be about the same exact people from different points of view, but they all differ appreciably in the areas that are emphasized.
“Family Happiness,” one of Tolstoy’s earliest stories and consequently one of his most hopeful, deals with the courtship and infatuation of a young girl (uniquely in Tolstoy I believe, delightfully told from her perspective in 1st person). In the end (SPOILER ALERT) it does not quite go as wonderfully as she expects, indeed it follows almost the exact path that her betrothed beforehand laments it must, yet the protagonist still arrives at a serene satisfaction with her somewhat muted life. (END SPOILER) That’s the most hopeful you’re gonna get in this book. You can see strong elements here of what would later become Levin and Kitty from AK, and it makes sense since both couples are autobiographical. Indeed, Tolstoy draws directly from his own experience for three of these four stories.
You also see the beginning of Tolstoy’s antiquated misogyny, where the women are expected (and the good ones even delighted) to submit themselves completely to the power of their husbands. The best men are the ones who control their wives completely, and the weak ones allow their women liberties that for Tolstoy almost inevitably result in destruction.
The title story, next chronologically, departs somewhat from the concentration on marriage and focuses more on the general hypocrisy of society. Ivan Ilyich is a fine member of high society who upon his mysterious, terminal illness, must come to grips with the fact that despite societal approbation, he has actually led a completely immoral life. This realization, though horrific for him, results in his salvation.
Here, already being in a Dickensian mindset, I found some humorous passages that resembled the best of what Dickens has to offer:
He was the son of an official, whose career in Petersburg through various ministries and departments had been such as leads people into that position in which, though it is distinctly obvious that they are unfit to perform any kind of real duty, they yet cannot, owing to their long past service and their official rank, be dismissed; and they therefore receive a specially created fictitious post, and by no means fictitious thousands — from six to ten — on which they go on living till extreme old age. Ch.2
Then, describing the decorations with which Ivan so enthusiastically adorns his apartment (and from which he ostensibly obtains his fatal injury):
In reality, it was all just what is commonly seen in the houses of people who are not exactly wealthy but want to look like wealthy people, and so succeed only in being like one another — hangings, dark wood, flowers, rugs and bronzes, everything dark and highly polished, everything that all people of a certain class have so as to be like all people of a certain class. And in his case it was all so like that it made no impression at all; but it all seemed to him somehow special. Ch.3
Even his (eventually fatal) injury is amusingly absurd, Kafkaesque when Kafka was in diapers. Indeed, The Metamorphosis appears to owe a lot to this story with its horrifying alienation and dreadful, rotting descent. And if you hadn’t already noticed in “Anna Karenina” the emerging presence of Tolstoy’s somewhat — ahem — rigorous morality, you see it unmistakably here.
This morality is fully blaring in the next story, “The Kreutzer Sonata,” which is structurally the weakest yet contains the most articulate, profound and compelling moral and philosophical arguments that I’ve seen in any of his writing. Really the “story” is a diatribe, thinly veiled as Tolstoy’s own thoughts (which he admits in the afterword). The diatribe is surprisingly progressive in its acknowledgement of the implicit sexism rampant in all of Russian civilization, even equating marriage to prostitution, yet he eventually gives it a strangely misogynistic twist.
Please forgive the length of this following passage. I quote so much not only because it sums up Tolstoy’s position, but also because I happen to agree wholeheartedly and believe it to be a still-timely message for any civilization that so brazenly continues to perpetrate the casual objectification of women. It is even progressive by today’s standards:
Take all poetry. . . and you will see that woman is an instrument of enjoyment. . . But no, first the knights-errant declare that they worship women. . . and now people assure us that they respect women. Some give up their places to her, pick up her handkerchief; others acknowledge her right to occupy all positions and to take part in the government, and so on. They do all that, but their outlook on her remains the same. She is a means of enjoyment. Her body is a means of enjoyment. And she knows this. It is just as it is with slavery. Slavery, you know, is nothing else than the exploitation by some of the unwilling labour of many. Therefore to get rid of slavery it is necessary that people should not wish to profit by the forced labour of others and should consider it a sin and a shame. But they go and abolish the external form of slavery and arrange so that one can no longer buy and sell slaves, and they imagine and assure themselves that slavery no longer exists, and do not see or wish to see that it does, because people still want and consider it good and right to exploit the labour of others. And as long as they consider that good, there will always be people stronger or more cunning than others who will succeed in doing it. So it is with the emancipation of woman: the enslavement of woman lies simply in the fact that people desire, and think it good, to avail themselves of her as a tool of enjoyment. Well, and they liberate woman, give her all sorts of rights equal to man, but continue to regard her as an instrument of enjoyment, and so educate her in childhood and afterwards by public opinion. And there she is, still the same humiliated and depraved slave, and the man still a depraved slave-owner.
They emancipate women in universities and in law courts, but continue to regard her as an object of enjoyment. Teach her, as she is taught among us, to regard herself as such, and she will always remain an inferior being. . . High schools and universities cannot change that. It can only be changed by a change in men’s outlook on women and women’s way of regarding themselves. . . Ch. 14
Lamentably, Tolstoy somehow goes from this supremely enlightened position — a more compassionate perspective of women from a man I cannot imagine, especially at the time — and then blames women for “bewitching” men into marrying them, spending much of the rest of the next two stories condemning them for their feminine wiles. To be fair, he certainly appears conflicted about it and can’t quite make up his mind who is more at fault, the “devilish” woman or the weak male for falling prey to sexual desire. The notorious “Tolstoy is a woman-hater” arguers would do well to parse those sentiments more closely; after all, he can’t even decide on an ending to his last story due to this internal conflict.
That last story, “The Devil,” is the most forgettable of the bunch. (Guess who the titular “devil” is. . .) It seems in large part like a rehash of “Kreutzer,” but from a less psychotic protagonist. Here we see Tolstoy’s ideal wife, Liza, who submits herself completely to her husband, so much so that she really has no personality but rather adopts his. I can’t help but think he creates this ludicrous “person” just so he can prove that nobody, not even the perfect woman, can tame a man’s sinfully deviant sexuality. That is, as I understand it, his ultimate hypothesis: man’s only salvation is abstinence (the epigraph to this story even suggests castration might be appropriate).
It is somewhat relieving, as I mentioned above, that Tolstoy appears to at least equally blame the man for being weak. It’s hard to imagine people so universally impulsive that they couldn’t walk by a woman without whipping it out, as it were. I think it more likely that Tolstoy suffered from some acute sexual compulsion (combined with religion-based repression) that made this facet of human existence one of the central obsessions of his life. I’m just glad that he used these stories to work the problem out and did not let them overly contaminate his two novels.
There’s another note from “Kreutzer” that I wanted to mention. A barely-developed point that Tolstoy makes on the need for abstinence during the “sacred” stage of the mother’s pregnancy and lactation, or the “growing another of us,” as he puts it (paraphrase). On first glance the idea seems old-fashioned and fanatically spiritual at best, downright ludicrous at worst. But the more I thought about it the more it had a certain logic to it. Why shouldn’t the couple forgo their own pleasure in deference to the needs of their child during that time? Why shouldn’t they channel their sexual energy into prayers and meditation on the well-being of their baby? Would it cause lasting damage to them or the baby? Could it conceivably improve their child? At the very least it makes excellent practice for the concept of placing your children above yourself, something which must take place to some degree in any healthy family. Put it this way: after consideration the notion doesn’t seem nearly as insane as it does on first thought, and I love coming across completely new (to me) ideas like that.
A note on the translation: I did not read the Pevear/Volokhonsky translation as I did with W&P and AK, but given some of the endnotes I wish I had. It’s not that I particularly noticed any stuffy language while reading, it’s just that the notes expressed confusion and even reproach over some of the word choices, so I fear I may have lost something of Tolstoy’s original style/tone, a problem I never felt with P/V. And speaking of “stuffy,” the introduction was plenty of it (I read the Wordsworth Classics w/intro & notes by Dr. T.C.B. Cook).
Overall, I loved this book. It’s not perfect, similar to W&P, but it is enjoyable, fascinating, and lasting. I would not recommend it as a place to start with Tolstoy — it is too bleak and not representative of his two greatest works. Unfortunately I don’t think there’s any easy way to jump into Tolstoy, and my recommendation continues to be “War & Peace,” which comes first chronologically. Daunting, yes, but oh-so-worthwhile. While I gave this the same rating as W&P, it’s only for lack of technical ability to discern. If able I’d give W&P a 4.5 and this a 4.