the death of ivan ilyich

death of ivan ilyich cover

  That moment started three days of incessant screaming, screaming so terrible that even two rooms away one could not hear it without trembling. The moment he had answered his wife, he realized that he was lost, that there was no return, that the end had come, the very end, and that his doubts, still unresolved, remained with him.

"Oh! Oh! No!" he screamed in varying tones. He had begun by shouting: "I don't want it! I don't!" and went on uttering screams with that "O" sound.

For three straight days, during which time ceased to exist for him, he struggled desperately in that black sack into which an unseen, invincible force was thrusting him. He struggled as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of an executioner, knowing there is no escape. And he felt that with every minute, despite his efforts to resist, he was coming closer and closer to what terrified him. He felt he was in agony because he was being shoved into that black hole, but even more because he was unable to get right into it. What prevented him from getting into it was the belief that his life had been a good one. This justification of his life held him fast, kept him from moving forward, and caused him more agony than anything else.

Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and the side and made his breathing even more constricted: he plunged into the hole and there at the bottom, something was shining. What had happened to him was what one frequently experiences in a railway car when one thinks one is going forward but is actually moving backward, and suddenly becomes aware of the actual direction.

"Yes, all of it was simply not the real thing. But no matter. I can still make it the real thing--I can. But what is the real thing?" Ivan Ilyich asked himself and suddenly grew quiet.

This took place at the end of the third day, an hour before his death. Just then his son crept quietly into the room and went up to his bed. The dying man was still screaming desperately and flailing his arms. One hand fell on the boy's head. The boy grasped it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry. At that very moment Ivan Ilyich fell through and saw a light, and it was revealed to him that his life had not been what it should have but that he could still rectify the situation. "But what is the real thing?" he asked himself and grew quiet, listening. Just then he felt someone kissing his hand. He opened his eyes and looked at his son. He grieved for him. His wife came in and went up to him. He looked at her. She gazed at him with an open mouth, with unwiped tears on her nose and cheeks, with a look of despair on her face. He grieved for her.

"Yes, I'm torturing them," he thought. "They feel sorry for me, but it will be better for them when I die." He wanted to tell them this but lacked the strength to speak. "But why speak--I must do something," he thought. He looked at his wife and, indicating his son with a glance, said:

"Take him away...sorry for him...and you." He wanted to add: "Forgive" but instead said "Forget," and too feeble to correct himself, dismissed it, knowing that He who needed to understand would understand.

And suddenly it became clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him suddenly was vanishing all at once--from two sides, ten sides, all sides. He felt sorry for them, he had to do something to keep from hurting them. To deliver them and himself from this suffering. "How good and how simple!" he thought. "And the pain?" he asked himself. "Where has it gone? Now, then, pain, where are you?"

He waited for it attentively.

"Ah, there it is. Well, what of it? Let it be."

"And death? Where is it?"

He searched for his accustomed fear of death and could not find it. Where was death? What death? There was no fear because there was no death.

Instead of death there was light.

"So that's it!" he exclaimed. "What bliss!"

All this happened in a single moment, but the significance of that moment was lasting. For those present, his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his chest; his emaciated body twitched. Then the rattling and wheezing gradually diminished.

"It is all over," said someone standing beside him.

He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.

"Death is over," he said to himself. "There is no more death."

He drew in a breath, broke off in the middle of it, stretched himself out, and died.

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Excerpted from The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. Translation copyright © 1981 by Bantam Books. Excerpted by permission of Bantam Books, a division of the Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.