The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Jumping from Saunders to Tolstoy is about as severe a reversal as I can think of. In the span of a few days I went from laughing at jovial, yet pertinent satires to reading about an evocative, philosophical musing on life and death.

When I slid The Death of Ivan Ilyich back onto my shelf my initial reaction was: that was pleasant… and depressing. Depressing because the novella grapples with an idea I haven’t given much notice as a young man in his mid-twenties: the horror that your tenets of a ‘good’ life can easily change. Indeed, they are virtually guaranteed to do so throughout your existence. Sadly, there is no objectively ‘good’ way to live one’s life. If we devote ourselves to one moral aspect of life we deem necessary our attention must by some degree be withdrawn from another. A saintly life is nigh impossible.

That’s a sobering reality, particularly for the deeply religious among us that are eternally concerned with the afterlife. After all, how can we know how to truly live, or that we’ve lived a good life, until we’ve neared the end and have the chance to gaze back along our journey and analyze our deeds, the choices we’ve made given the options that were available, and which urges we succumbed to and which we overcame.

I think one of the most effective methods to hold back the screaming hordes of moral conundrums and existential questions we face is to read and analyze literature. Through it we can experience hundreds, if not thousands, of different lives and examine a multitude of philosophical approaches to life. I’m reminded of this quote from A Dance with Dragons:

“A reader lives a thousand lives before he dies, said Jojen. The man who never reads lives only one.”

The Death of Ivan Ilyich may not have solved any of my mysteries but I can confidently say I’m one step closer.

Rating: 4 out of 5 comforting butlers

Currently reading: American Gods by Neil Gaiman

On Deck: I’m Thinking of Ending Things by Ian Reid


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