Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a simple but heart-breaking story of a dying man. In this passage, Ivan finds it very hard to translate his far outside view about his death to a near inside view:
Ivan Ilych saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.
In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.
The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius — man in the abstract — was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother’s hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? “Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible.”
Such was his feeling.
“If I had to die like Caius I would have known it was so. An inner voice would have told me so, but there was nothing of the sort in me and I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different from that of Caius. and now here it is!” he said to himself. “It can’t be. It’s impossible! But here it is. How is this? How is one to understand it?”
He could not understand it, and tried to drive this false, incorrect, morbid thought away and to replace it by other proper and healthy thoughts. But that thought, and not the thought only but the reality itself, seemed to come and confront him. (more)
We could each gain great insight into ourselves if only we could consistently take the features we believe apply to many folks around us, and honestly ask ourselves if they apply to us as well. Folks around us are often boring, failures, irritating, misguided, vain, and, yes, dying. Are we?
In Tolstoy’s story the people around Ivan overwhelming cared about how Ivan’s death would affect them. They were eager to appear like the proper sort of caring person, but in fact didn’t care much. To comfort themselves, they preferred to blame Ivan for his problems, and refused to directly acknowledge that he was in fact dying.
Reading reviews of the story, I find that some (e.g.) also prefer to blame Ivan for his sad death. Tolstoy presents Ivan as a flawed person living a flawed life, and reviewers seem to think that Tolstoy was saying this is why his death was sad. Which seems to me to miss the point: no matter how your life went your death will be sad, especially since most around you will be focused more on how your death affects them than on how it affects you.