Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins
Ivan Ilych and the Well-Worn Path
Leo Tolstoy, "The Death of
Ivan Ilych," in The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories
95-155 (New York: New American Library, 1960) (Louise Maude & Aylmer
Maude trans.) [online
text of the Maude trans.]
Audio Recording of "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
read by Laurie Anne Walden; Constance Garnett translation
Leo Tolstoy's fictional lawyer,
Ivan Ilych, presents a psycho-literary case study of a lawyer who set
out with high hopes, followed a well-worn path, devoted his life to
work and pleasant amusements, and ended up with up with bitter disappointment
and a sense that his life has been a failure. Consider Ronald Sampson's
observation that "[w]hereas we accept our own routine existences
with unreflecting equanimity, the mirror which Ivan Ilych holds up reflects
a picture from which we shrink with fear and revulsion." [Ronald
Sampson, The Psychology of Power 126 (New York: Vintage Books,
James Boyd White argues that there
is a way of reading texts like "The Death of Ivan Ilych" so
that they can be put to work in our own lives. White contends there
is "a way of engaging the mind with a text, and learning from it
. . . ." [James Boyd White, When Words Lose
Their Meaning 5 (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1984)].
"[O]ne element in the relationship between reader and writer is
a kind of negotiation in which the reader constantly asks himself what
this text is asking him to assent to and to become and whether or not
he wishes to acquiesce." . A text, argues
White, "teaches us how it should be 'read' . . . it teaches us
how it should be understood and lived with, and this in turn teaches
us much about what kind of life we can and ought to have, who we can
and ought to be." [ix-x]
How are we to read "The Death of Ivan Ilych" in the way White
What kept Ilych on the well-worn
path? By well-worn path, I mean that Ilych's life is not a mystery to
us. His motivations and ways of engaging the world are all too familiar
to us. Ilych lived a life we can understand, a life not unlike the lives
we see lived around us. Ilych adopted and accepted well-defined roles,
a strong sense of career and work, compartmentalization of his professional
life and of his life at home. Ronald Sampson notes that "throughout
his professional life [Ilych] had assumed the lawyer's functionary pose
to his clients." And when Ilych becomes ill "the doctor assumes
his doctor-patient' relationship, and his wife the understanding
tolerantly affectionate marital role. All alike share in the falsity
that accompanies the etiquette of middle-class relations." Sampson
notes that Ilych, "a commonplace man," "puts his petty
pleasures and ambitions before the question of the meaning of his life."
[Sampson, at 138 ]. Sampson contends that Ilych has a capacity
"for comfortable adjustment and elasticity of conscience, with
antennae so delicately and quickly attuned to sensing the currents of
dominant opinion, Ivan Ilych was admirably equipped to rise in the world
and advance his career; and this Ivan Ilych was most anxious to do."
 To follow the well-worn path, in Sampson's
view, is to let our "petty pleasures" consume us.
Ilych has, in his professional
life as lawyer/bureaucrat, a way of honing in on problems and making
sure that he consider nothing but the case before him. He had
a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant
to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated
case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its
externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter,
while above all observing every prescribed formality.
["The Death of Ivan Ilych," at 107-108]
Is this a description of a good lawyer at work? Or is there reason
to be suspicious of this description of lawyering?
How do you respond to Ilych's studied
efforts to separate his personal and professional life?
In official matters, despite his youth and taste
for frivolous gaiety, he was exceedingly reserved, punctilious, and
even severe; but in society he was often amusing and witty, and always
good-natured, correct in his manner, and bon enfant, as the governor
and his wife--with whom he was like one of the family--used to say of
Ilych has a strong sense of his own rectitude, pursues his legal career
with dedication, and does not let his personal and family life interfere
with his work.
Ivan Ilych possessed this capacity to separate his
real life from the official side of affairs and not mix the two, in
the highest degree, and by long practice and natural aptitude had
brought it to such a pitch that sometimes, in the manner of a virtuoso,
he would even allow himself to let the human and official relations
mingle. He let himself do this just because he felt that he could
at any time he chose resume the strictly official attitude again and
drop the human relation. And he did it all easily, pleasantly, correctly,
and even artistically. [117-118]
Compartmentalization allows him to do what his official duties require
and to ignore everything else. Simply put, Ilych makes an art of official
aloofness, convincing himself and others that his compartmentalization
of personal and professional life has been successful.
What brings about Ilych's "fall"?
He asks: "What if my whole life has really been wrong?"
. How is it possible to pose such a question about one's
own life? Aren't there times when we have no chance but to pose the
question and deal with the fallout that results?
It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible
attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most
highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he
had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and
all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement
of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests,
might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to
himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending.
There was nothing to defend. 
"Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done," it suddenly
occurred to him. "But how could that be, when I did everything
makes the following psychological point about "The Death of Ivan
Each man [and woman] has an inner self which exists,
however weakly, and tries to be heard and to influence conduct.
Failure occurs because of the external pressures which make it impossible
for the individual to act up to the demands of the ideal self without
arousing acute fears or putting beyond reach keenly desired pleasures.
In the grip of the ensuing conflict, the individual is subjected
to powerful temptation to deceive himself as to his real situation
and his duties in that situation. . . . [T]he conflict appears on
the surface to be resolved in the most comfortable and inexpensive
fashion. But the resolution of the conflict is a false one; and
therefore unconsciously it continues the more fiercely for being
repressed. [Ronald V. Sampson, The Psychology
of Power 139 (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) (1966)]
G.H. Perris, in ""Leo Tolstoy as Writer," in G.K.
Chesterton, G.H. Parris & Edward Garnett, Leo Tolstoy (London:
Hodder & Stroughton, 1903) notes that "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
is "the most powerful of all his [Tolstoy's] works."
Supplemental Reading: Paul Gewirtz, A Lawyer's Death, 100 Harv.
L. Rev. 2053 (1987) (reflecting on Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan
Ilych" and the compartmentalization of our lives into professional
and private realms); Ronald V. Sampson, The Psychology of Power
129-139 (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) (1966)
"The Death of Ivan Ilych": A Commentary Outline
"The Death of Ivan Ilych" is a widely-used reference
for those who teach the "death and dying" gemre of literature.
The novella can also be found as assigned reading in philosophy, religious
studies, and medical humanities courses.
"There is an urgency about storytelling in the wake of death which
cannot be the urgency of a race against time--for the time of that life
has been forever cancelled--but is somehow the urgency of report, and
of reparation. Giving an account can help to settle accounts. An urge
emerges to display to ourselves and to others what we should have said--yet
surely couldn't have said, and anyway didn't-- before the central narrative
was over." [Joseph Brooker, What We Talk About
When We Talk About Death, 27 Cardozo L. Rev. 847 (2005)]
On self-deception: Archaeology
of Criticism: Self-Deception, James R. Elkins, West Virginia University
For further reading on self-deception, see: Daniel Goleman, Vital
Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception (New York:
Simon & Schuster, 1985); Shelley Taylor, Positive Illusions:
Creative Self-Deception and the Healthy Mind (New York: Basic Books,
1989); Todd S. Sloan, Deciding: Self-Deception in Life Choices
(1987); Gardner Murphy, Outgrowing Self-Deception (1975); Villy
Sørenson, Tutelary Tales 1-24 (Lincoln: University of Nebraska
Press, 1988); "Self-Deception and Autobiography: Reflections on Speer's
Inside the Third Reich," in Stanley Hauerwas, Truthfulness
& Tragedy 82-98 (1977); "The Allegory of the Cave," in Plato, The
Republic, Book VII (Jowett transl.) [online
There is a story by Katherine Anne Porter, "The Jilting
of Granny Weathall," that you might read in conjunction with Tolstoy's
"The Death of Ivan Ilych." [online
"The Death of Ivan Ilych"
& Tolstoy Resources
for Ivan Ilyich
Blake Charlton & Abraham Verghese
Death of Ivan Ilych
Articles & Essays
Ambiguity of "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
Victor Brombet, Raritan
Andrew D. Kaufman
discusses "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
Lecture on "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
1:22:11 mins. The Kaufman lecture begins at 9:50 mins.
John Knapp Commentary
on "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
13:55 mins., audio
Scott Yenor on
"The Death of Ivan Ilych"
12:30 mins.; commentary by Scott Yenor, Associate Professor
of Political Science, Boise State University
12:02 mins. Ch
2 & 3 11:29 mins. Ch
4-10 10:36 mins. Ch
11 & 12 10:08 mins.
Tolstoy & His Writings
9:32 mins., audio
and Literature Home Page