Iván Ilych wasn’t so bad. He beat neither his wife nor children. Every day he worked, and provided a home for his family while fairly prioritizing his children’s education. So he didn’t like to be home. How was he to cope with a nag? He lived beyond his means, too, but so does the average good American.
Maybe that is the antithetical core of The Death of Iván Ilych: roar, socialists! Iván’s happiness declined as his material success rose, serving as a warning against capitalism, a tale of redemption through death, a biblical embrace of true riches coming with the crossing over. Iván was “done in” by his own guts, the same stomach it took to reclaim his life, to leave his brother-in law’s home and obtain the specific salaried job he’d set out to snag. But it was not enough, as it is never enough; Tolstoy points out Iván’s new home was just one room too short and his pay some five hundred rubles too little.
The death of Iván is no different than the death of a salesman, is no different than the death of you and I. Regardless of greatness and however defined or perceived, be it number of social media followers or number of antiques, real estate location or portfolio, or any of the other composites making up an image many find ideal, it is all the same.
Tolstoy’s tale echoes a message of the simple life being the realm of the godly; can one live in the spirit when obtaining worldly goods is one’s aim and thus one’s master? Is this in fact the camel through the needle’s eye?
These basic principles fail to consider the fact those living simply and godly bear the brunt of societal oppression, becoming the very foundational brick laying of great kingdoms and democracies, the earthly riches in which they themselves, backs broken, do not enjoy.
It is an old tale. Just as King Solomon tells us there is nothing new under the sun, he also relates the wiser he became, so was the greater his depression. Thus the simplicity Tolstoy esteems in his own story is a movement toward “ignorance is bliss.” A cheap comment: how Russian. A respective reflective: Is this the tree of knowledge bearing the forbidden fruit?
In the end, all is vanity, as Preacher, the son of David, king in Jerusalem, affirmed. We forget in our own vanity the line between wise and fool is thin; in our distorted pride we are convinced it is our accomplishments that decide. Solomon ultimately asks, “How does the wise man die?” then answers, “The same as a fool.” Perhaps the depression from wisdom tainting Solomon was rooted in the knowledge of our names, strivings and accomplishments being less than a speck in the great scheme of things. Our vanity, in the end, is irrelevant yet essential, for it is mere vanity that fuels but every function. And in this way, Iván, in his own way was made.