Ivan Illyich as he is dying asks, “how have I lived?” ( We don’t have to be dying to ask this question). As he asked this question, “Pictures of his past rose before him one after another. They always began with what was nearest in time and then went back to what was most remote — to his childhood – – and rested there. If he thought of the stewed prunes that had been offered him that day, his mind went back to the raw shrivelled French plums of his childhood, their peculiar flavour and the flow of saliva when he sucked their stones, and along with the memory of that taste came a whole series of memories of those days: his nurse, his brother, and their toys. There also the further back he looked the more life there had been. There had been more of what was good in life and more of life itself. All the enthusiasms of childhood and youth passed without leaving much trace on him. “

Again Ivan asked, “How have I lived? I have lived well and pleasantly.” Tolstoy judges Ivan’s life, “as been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

Tolstoy describes Ivan’s life, “…from early youth he was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them. In life, he succumbed to sensuality, to vanity, and latterly among the highest classes to liberalism, but always within limits which his instinct unfailingly indicated to him as correct.”

Regarding his misdemeanours, they were  “… all done with clean hands, in clean linen, with French phrases, and above all among people of the best society and consequently with the approval of people of rank.”

His marriage- “Praskovya Fedorovna came of a good family, was not bad looking, thoroughly correct young woman and had some little property. Ivan Ilyich had at first no definite intention of marrying, but when the girl fell in love with him he said to himself: “Really, why shouldn’t I marry?”

“As his wife grew more irritable and exacting and Ivan Ilyich transferred the center of gravity of his life more and more to his official work, so did he grow to like his work better and became more ambitious than before… The whole interest of his life now centered in the official world and that interest absorbed him….his success with superiors and inferiors, and above all his masterly handling of cases, of which he was conscious — all this gave him pleasure and filled his life, together with chats with his colleagues, dinners, and bridge. So that on the whole Ivan Ilyich’s life continued to flow as he considered it should do — pleasantly and properly.”

Once they had given a dance. “And the dance itself had been enjoyable. The best people were there, and Ivan Ilyich had danced with Princess Trufonova, a sister of the distinguished founder of the Society “Bear My Burden.”

“So they lived. They formed a circle of acquaintances among the best people and were visited by people of importance and by young folk. In their views as to their acquaintances, husband, wife and daughter were entirely agreed, and tacitly and unanimously kept at arm’s length and shook off the various shabby friends and relations. Soon these shabby friends ceased to obtrude themselves and only the best people remained in the Golovins’ set. Even Ivan’s reading was dictated by fashion, “After dinner, if they had no visitors, Ivan Ilyich sometimes read a book that was being much discussed at the time…”

He reflects, “I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.”

So they (Ivan’s family) lived, and all went well, without change, and life flowed pleasantly. It seemed that his rut of routine and fashion had robbed him of his enthusiasm, and stalled him in the stream of his becoming. It is a cautionary tale of the sedative blanket of routine and fashion.

Striving for aequanimitas,

John Mary Meagher


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