The next time you have an hour to read, devote it to Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych. It is a brisk and deeply subversive critique of 19th-century Russian society, and Tolstoy states his case with an elegant sensitivity to the theatrics of social life and a breathtaking sweep of moral judgment.
Ivan is a mid-level Russian bureaucrat in a bitter marriage and, like many other great characters of Russian fiction, sliding into debt. But for a moment, things are looking up. He has just wrangled a new position with a higher salary (5,000 rubles a year), and sets out cheerfully to appoint a residence befitting a man of his income. He purchases antiques on the cheap to give the house an aristocratic air, and he busies himself with every detail of the domestic display, from the china pattern to the color of the drapes. Tolstoy is plain about the delusional nature of Ivan’s satisfaction. While Ivan considers his house to be uniquely glamorous, “In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves.”
Ivan might have gone on living with these delusions, but an accident intercedes. He slips on a step-ladder and “knock[s] his side against the knob of the window frame.” He appears unhurt at first, but over time the pain grows. His is a long slow death which provides ample time to reflect on the choices he made in life and to observe the constipated way his friends and family respond to his decline. Tolstoy presents Russian society as a world of trifling appearances, ordered to deny the basic facts of living and dying. In one perfectly rendered scene, Ivan’s daughter and wife come to see him, just before heading out for a night at the opera. Their visit is a matter of pure convention. It would look bad to enjoy themselves without at least a nod to Ivan’s plight, but really they regard him as a burden and a buzzkill. They can only muster nervous conversation about the upcoming performance and then leave in haste. “When they had gone,” Tolstoy writes, “it seemed to Ivan Ilych that he felt better; the falsity had gone with them.”
Tolstoy’s critique of materialism and appearance is a familiar one to us. But underneath the social satire, there is a bracing moral judgment that, oddly enough, seems more foreign to us than any of the peculiarities of Russian culture. While Cheever and Fitzgerald looked at American culture in something of the same way that Tolstoy regards feudal Russia, their stories lack the same sense of a defined alternative that might be reached if the falsity could be swept away. Ivan Ilych reads like a Christian parable, and Tolstoy, who converted to Christianity late in life, suggests that there is truth to be had for those who can shake free of appearances.