Jesus, Anarchy & Suicide: The Death of Ivan Ilyich
A deep dive into the works of Leo Tolstoy
By Micah Dewey
November 20, 2020
Throughout the novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy, the author asks many deep philosophical questions framed in a timeless matter. Tolstoy’s conversion to Christianity influences the story through literary motifs and themes positioned in an anti-hedonist religious perspective that explicitly, within the first few pages of the novella, denigrates the materialist aspirations of the bourgeois aristocracy. While The Death of Ivan Ilyich is seemingly intertwined in an ultra-religious societal framework of pre-revolution Russia, Tolstoy’s contempt of philistinic ‘virtues’ could easily be applied to modern critiques of celebrity culture in the 21st Century.
Tolstoy wrote this story after his conversion to Christianity. It is evident in the motifs and language used surrounding the life and actions of both Ivan Ilyich and Gerasim, Ivan’s butler. Ivan represents a life lost to vanity and nihilism, all in a stark contradiction to Gerasim’s constant servitude and selflessness. Tolstoy uses this contradiction to explain his anti-materialist worldview while also propagating a religious parable written in the language of contemporary religious anarchism.
There are potentially profound literary references to Christian theological theory in the symbolism that Tolstoy chooses to utilize. Specifically, the occupation of Ivan Ilyich and his companions as judges and lawyers who are living extravagantly off of state power. It could be theorized that these symbols directly correlate to the story of Jesus in the Temple chastising the moneylenders and corrupt Pharisees.
And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” (The Bible, John 2:15–16)
Instead of pushing over the tables and running amok as Jesus did in the temple, Tolstoy utilizes Gerasim as a non-violent subservient substitute for Christ in the story. As a pacifist, Tolstoy would not have wanted to philosophically defend violence or the casual portrayal of power, even in a righteous cause. One could theorize that this was a specific decision the author made rather than a convenient coincidence. Possible evidence that supports this theory comes from Tolstoy’s other work, The Kingdom of God is Within You. In this short essay, Tolstoy refers to the courts themselves as an explicit tool of violence, saying:
…Can a Christian, remaining a Christian, go to court, taking part in it and condemning people, or seeking in it defence by means of violence, or can he not? (Tolstoy).
Tolstoy uses the character of Gerasim as a visible representation of Christ. He is not a disturber but a servant to those who commit violence, embrace greed, and whose philistinism is so exaggerated that instead of mourning the loss of a friend and colleague, they are more preoccupied with their gambling and personal advancement than the consolation of the widow and the loss of their friend. People like Ivan Ilyich use Christ or redemption for their benefit and not in the service of others. The butler is simply a tool that the aristocrat uses to feel redeemed while never living his life in a way that would be more representative of the freedom that he has discovered in death.
Tolstoy’s personal theological beliefs, combined with his anarchic disposition towards government and religious law, really paint a picture of how he viewed his life of privilege before his conversion to Christianity. In My Confession, Tolstoy condemns the Church’s hierarchical system and the power it has over the rights and freedoms of those who live under it.
“[T]he Christian government is not in the least obliged to be guided by the spirit of humility, forgiveness of offences, and love of our enemies” (Tolstoy et al.).
In the same way that Ivan Ilyich uses Gerasim as a tool to serve his selfish desires, the government used its power as a control on individual rights and freedoms. It justified these actions by using that same tool, religion, or more specifically, Jesus.
Looking at modern celebrity culture, it is reasonably sure that Leo Tolstoy would have hated what fame and fortune does to most people. There are a few examples that match Tolstoy’s beliefs on the meaning of life. In My Confession, Tolstoy theorized that there are four potential responses that a person can have towards death.
- Epicureanism or Hedonism
- Holding on
If one understands what Tolstoy believed, it is possible to consider what these responses would look like in the most philistinic segment of modern society, celebrity culture.
The 27 Club is a notorious list of celebrities, rock stars, and actors who all died at twenty-seven. One of the club’s most famous members is Nirvana’s former lead singer, Kurt Cobain, who committed suicide at age 27 with a gunshot to the head. As shocking as this story is, it is one that Tolstoy would have looked upon as righteous. Death by ignorance or hedonism has a much lower moral value than does suicide or merely surviving. Tolstoy stated in My Confession:
“The third escape is that of strength and energy. It consists in destroying life, when one has understood that it is an evil and an absurdity. A few exceptionally strong and consistent people act so. Having understood the stupidity of the joke that has been played on them, and having understood that it is better to be dead than to be alive, and that it is best of all not to exist, they act accordingly and promptly end this stupid joke.” (Tolstoy et al.).
If Tolstoy was alive today, long after Christian theological governments’ relevance, he would probably be a modern fatalist or ‘doom theorist. The constant desire for more material possessions and fame will inevitably lead people to one of the four destinations on questioning the meaning of life. Many people are choosing between hedonism and suicide, while the YOLO generation has chosen ignorance. While we may not be famous or influential individually, those of us who continue to survive not in ignorance but in defiance of the absurdity of life, can, just like Leo Tolstoy and Ivan Illych, continue to live in acceptance of our suffering until either old age, or one of the other two options is more palatable.
The Bible, English Standard Version, Crossway Bibles, 2016
Tolstoy, Leo, et al. My Confession; Critique of Dogmatic Theology. Howell, 1905.
Tolstoy, Leo, et al. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Penguin Classics, 2016.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Kingdom of God Is within You: or, Christianity Not as a Mystical Teaching but as a New Life Conception. Scott, 1894.