Friday, April 4, 2014

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Forgive my absence.  We had spring break last week, and an online class started this week - so I've either been resting or really busy!

Before the break our class tackled The Death of Ivan Ilych.  One of my students asked me pointedly, "are all our readings going to be depressing?"  That's an appropriate question, especially considering next week we are reading about King Leopold and the atrocities he committed in the Congo.  I am actually restructuring the latter part of the semester and adding a few lighter texts, to take the edge off the heaviness of the readings.

The Death of Ivan Ilych, in a nutshell, is about a Russian Bureaucrat who does all the right things.  He works as a legal official, and moves up the career ladder.  He marries a woman he is attracted to initially, but does not love, and they have several children, three of whom die.  The death of these children is treated in a matter-of-fact way, and his slight attraction to his wife ended with her first pregnancy.  Ivan began to spend more and more time at the office and playing bridge with friends, and less and less time at home.  He observed his duties, but there was no love expressed to his family, or even to his friends.
Then he is awarded a promotion.  They prepare to move into a new home, and Ivan spends much of his time, energy and money decorating the new home.  He falls from a ladder while hanging drapes, and injures his side.  Initially it seems like nothing, but the pain in his side steadily worsens, and within several months is it the cause of his death.

Tolstoy's family
Ivan's illness is treated with unconcern by his wife and daughter, and friends.  Only his servant Gerasim cares for him and acknowledges the severity of his illness.  Ivan comes to the terrible realization and it occurs to him that "maybe I did not live as I ought to have done . . but how could that be, when I did everything properly?"  (Tolstoy, Ivan Ilych).  Despite living a life of duty and propriety, he realized at the end of his life, that he should have lived in a very different way.  In the end he reconciled himself to his fate, and died joyfully, knowing he was releasing those around him and freeing himself from suffering.

We had a great discussion in class about what's important in life, the choices we all have to make, the relationships that are vital to us, and the people who will be there when we die.  We talked about the themes of isolation, happiness, modernization and lies and deceit.  I had the class write their own epitaphs, and though I wish we had more time, they did a good job.  The exercise reminded me of one of Stephen Covey's Principles of Highly Effective People -- keep the end in mind.

Count Leo Tolstoy
Before we discussed the book, I did a brief overview of Leo Tolstoy and his life.  He was a fascinating man--as are all the authors we are reading.  Tolstoy wrote the classics War and Peace, and Anna Karenina.  Tolstoy did his share of carousing in his youth, but experienced a religious conversion of sorts when he was older.  He rejected traditional orthodoxy, and created his own version of Christianity, based largely on the Sermon on the Mount.  Tolstoy influenced many world leaders, including Mahatma Ghandi and Martin Luther King Jr.  Many came to visit him and learn from him.  At the end of his life, Tolstoy left his wife, got a train, and took it to the last stop.  He died shortly thereafter at the station master's house.  There is a movie about his life entitled "The Last Station." 

Tolstoy's ideas about how to live are worth emulating:

  •       Live simply
  •       Abstain from tobacco, alcohol
  •       Practice chastity and vegetarianism 
  •       Live by the principles of love, truth, and peace.
  •       Reject violence and government
  •       Live by 5 rules    –Love enemies    –Do not be angry    –Do not fight evil with evil    –Do not lust    –Do not take oaths

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