Saturday, December 6, 2008

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy and Martel-Harper Challenge Wrap-up

This is the second, and final, book I read for the Martel-Harper Challenge, hosted by Dewey at The Hidden Side of a Leaf blog. (The first book was To Kill A Mockingbird, and my blog post about it is here.) I am very sad to say that as of very recently, Dewey is no longer with us, but I wanted to finish this challenge because it is such a terrific idea.
The challenge is based on the books that author Yann Martel sends to the Prime Minister of Canada, Stephen Harper, with recommendations of why he should read them. The Death of Ivan Ilych is the first on this list of books, and here is the letter that accompanied it. (This is the only letter that seems to have gotten a response, even if it is only a couple of sentences.)
This was a fascinating short story (at 60 pages, maybe it could be called a novella?). I found it at first entertaining, in its satirical depiction of upper-middle class Russia in the late 1800's. The story opens with Ivan Ilych's funeral, where his acquaintances have come to pay their respects. He cannot be said to have any friends, even his own family does not seem to feel true sorrow or grief at his death. It is a farce, where everyone must pretend to feel something they do not. The story then goes back to tell the tale of Ilych's very typical, mundane life. He does everything that is expected of him, moves through life in exactly the way he should. The way that Tolstoy pokes fun at this lifestyle is very entertaining, even when Ilych first realizes that he is ill. As the story proceeds to be about his slow and painful death, it becomes less satire, and more of a look at what it means to live, and therefore what it means to die.
In his letter to the Prime Minister, Martel points out that anyone, anywhere in the world can read this story and relate to it, regardless of the fact that none of us are living in tsarist Russia. All of us understand the fear of death, and the fear that our lives our meaningless, that we made a mistake somewhere in our lives, didn't live them the way that we should have. Tolstoy is an expert as showing us the truths of life, and that in the end, we are all the same.

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