Unmasking the fear of death with Tolstoy

During this pandemic when we’re feeling the anxieties of infection and death, The Death of Evan Ilyich (1886), by Leo Tolstoy gives us the message of our capacities to respond to the fear of death in ways we never knew we could. It reminds us that, fear isn’t real. Human, as a species, is not defined by fear.

By Nayan Sayed Jibon

YES, we’re scared. We’re on the edge, unable to think properly. Our focus flutters and floats around flea-like from one update to the next. We follow the news, because we feel we should but soon we wish we hadn’t, because it’s sad.

The thought of dying alone with a respiratory sickness is so horrifying to hide under our masks. We are separated from one another but we can’t keep our distance from the fear of death. This led me to question, how can I accept my own mortality, so that I can live my life to the fullest during this terrifying situation?

Then I found a novella The Death of Evan Ilyich (1886), by Leo Tolstoy which helped me not only to understand the author’s philosophy towards death but also the psychology behind it. As a result, I could gather some emotional courage to embrace my fear of death during this COVID-19 pandemic situation.

Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), a Russian writer, is regarded as one of the greatest authors of all time. He is best known for his novels like War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). But due to his unusual firsthand experiences of death and dying, he also wrote extensively about the inevitability of death for our understanding of life itself. Some of his most memorable meditations on this theme are found in his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In the novella through the story of a dying Russian judge, Tolstoy successfully narrates the different episodes of ‘dying’ some eighty years before its discovery by Swiss-American psychiatrist Elizabeth Kubler Ross. In her book On Death and Dying (1969) Kubler Ross outlined five stages that a dying individual goes through.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, as its title suggests, depicts the death of an ordinary middle-aged Russian judge, but it is also about a man who overcame it. Like everyone in his social circle, Ivan Ilyich lives a superficial life and dedicates his life to climbing the social ladder and seeking the bliss which he believes is found at the top. Initially he was contented with his life but gradually he becomes unhappy as his marriage deteriorates so he starts ignoring his family life and focuses on becoming a magistrate. 

One day he falls awkwardly upon hanging curtains for his new home and becomes ill. Doctors offer all kinds of diagnoses and medicines but he cannot recover and within some weeks, Ivan Ilyich could see that he is a bedridden dying man. In his death bed Ivan’s main source of comfort becomes his servant Gerasim. He is the only person in the house who does not fear death, and the only one other than his own son who seems to show compassion for him.

As Ivan’s interaction with Gerasim becomes deeper, Ivan begins to question the how can he accept death without being unhappy? Gerasim guides Ivan in his last days, and allowed him to realise the difference between a superficial and an authentic life and how to accept death with ease. He says, ‘We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?’ Apart from the philosophical thought, Tolstoy also shows the psychological stages of a dying person.

According to Ross, denial is the initial emotional response to the knowledge of death. In this stage people often say, ‘No, not me. It can’t be!’ From chapter five we find Ivan Ilych gets the idea that he is going to die but he could not get used to the idea and immediately denies it. In chapter six he says, ‘It can’t be me having to die. That would be too horrible.’ After a while, he entered the stage of anger, blaming god for imposing this kind of misery and pain to him, and expecting an answer, ‘Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me here? Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?’

Then he started talking to god asking for the meaning of his life. During this ‘bargaining’ period he started to look back and after much argumentation with himself he realises that he may not have done anything meaningful during his whole life. Consequently he enters into the ‘black hole’ of depression. He learns that it is impossible to turn back and fight against the forces, now he can only wait for the moment.

Finally, the door of acceptance was opening in his scared mind, with his understanding of the inevitability of death. Ivan Ilyich during this stage realises that he has not lived his life in the best way and he was dead long before he was called to die. He was materialistically driven and blinded most of his life by shallow pleasures. He eventually finds solace from the selfless love and kindness from his family and servants and embraces death. ‘Death is finished,’ he said to himself. ‘It is no more!’ 

Therefore, The Death of Ivan Ilych is Tolstoy’s parable representing the mystery that living well is the best way to die well. Tolstoy tells us that we don’t fear death, we fear life because we feel that we don’t live our destined time on earth as we were supposed to. It also echoes with the Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius who told us that ‘it is not death that a man should fear, but he should fear never beginning to live’.

During this pandemic when we’re feeling the anxieties of infection and death, this story gives us the message of our capacities to respond to the fear of death in ways we never knew we could. It reminds us that, fear isn’t real. It is like wearing the uncomfortable personal protective suit around our mind and feeling we’re being protected.

In doing so, we have allowed this fear into our house, our head, and our heart. It’s circulating like the ghostly virus — looking for prey in every thought and every action. But we must remember that human is not defined by fear. We are a hope and a faith-driven species that seeks to live life to the fullest and not die.

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