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"

LibriVox Recording
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, 1968)]

 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." [16]. 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 suggests?

 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." [127] 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 him. [109]

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?" [152]. 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?

Ilych's response is instructive:

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. [152]

"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 properly?" [148]

Ronald Sampson makes the following psychological point about "The Death of Ivan Ilych":

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 text]

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 text]

"The Death of Ivan Ilych" & Tolstoy Resources

Caring for Ivan Ilyich
Blake Charlton & Abraham Verghese

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Articles & Essays

The Ambiguity of "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
Victor Brombet, Raritan


Andrew D. Kaufman discusses "The Death of Ivan Ilych"
7:05 mins.

Andrew Kaufman: 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
Ch 1 12:02 mins. Ch 2 & 3 11:29 mins. Ch 4-10 10:36 mins. Ch 11 & 12 10:08 mins.

Tolstoy & His Writings

Leo Tolstoy: Film Biography
30:45 mins.

Reminiscences of Tolstoy
by Ilya Tolstoy

Introduction to Tolstoy's Writings

Tolstoy Foundation

Literature: Leo Tolstoy
9:32 mins., audio

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