born to die and born to live

dealing with mortality and tolstoy on my birthday

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych follows Ivan, a fairly ordinary, unremarkable member of the Russian upper class with an unsurprising fate (Tolstoy blatantly foreshadows Ivan’s death before the end of the first page). Objectively, Ivan’s life is simply average, as he goes through the motions of getting a job, getting married, and advancing in his career. Yet as he goes through the motions, we can’t help but want to shake him, wake him up, and remind him that he will die one day. At the height of his career, Ivan falls while hanging new drapes for his house.  His condition quickly deteriorates, and he dies at only 45 years old.


This short story was the assigned reading for RUSS1300: “Russian LIterature in Translation II: Tolstoy to Solzhenitsyn” on the week of my birthday. I found it quite paradoxical to read about death on the day that I honor my birth, though perhaps birthdays are also like our death days, since on those days, our mortality becomes momentarily vivid and present. While we celebrate another year of our existence, the anxiety that a birthday means one year less left to live exists—we are always a little closer to death than we were the year before.


I was left wondering how the announcement of Ivan’s death at the beginning affected my reading of the novel. For one, I was less shocked when he had the fall that lead to his fatal illness. At the same time, it made the suddenness of the fall all the more unfair, since I knew Ivan would come to die rather than return to his successful career. It ruined the suspense a bit, since I could have viewed Ivan’s illness with hope for his recovery rather than with resignation.


In a sense, we must grapple with mortality for all of our literary characters. J.K. Rowling’s character deaths in the Harry Potter series seem cruel and unfair—we wish our favorites would live forever. Yet all of our characters will eventually die, even if their authors end the story before these characters reach the end of their days. The fact that Harry Potter is alive in Rowling’s epilogue does not mean that he will live forever. Though he is a wizard, he is not immortal—you need unicorn blood for that.


As a young college student just starting on my life’s journey, it’s hard to imagine that it could all be gone tomorrow, that what happens to Ivan Ilych could happen to me, especially because like Ivan, I most likely won’t have access to a narrator’s foreshadowing. Yet unlike Tolstoy’s pathetic protagonist, who lived by the strict codes and expectations set out for him in 19th century Russian society, I am lucky to live here and now, in today’s America and as a Brown student.


I was always encouraged by loved ones and teachers to do what I really love, letting that guide how I make a place for myself in the world. Because I have the power and responsibility to make my own decisions, I feel that my happiness is in my own hands. In contrast, whenever Ivan Ilych finds himself unhappy, he blames others for his unhappiness and abuses his subordinates at work, never taking responsibility for his own satisfaction.  If we, the readers, find his life and its end tragic, we can blame the oppressive structure of Russian society, and so the cycle of self-pity, blame, and lack of personal responsibility continues.


But as Americans, we are not Ivan Ilych, victims of strict Russian social institutions. We are taught that upward mobility is possible, and that we can create success for ourselves, our own way. In our little world here at Brown, we are responsible for and capable of finding our own happiness.

Even though thinking about death, especially my own death, makes me profoundly uncomfortable, it does put things into perspective. While we are born to die and we move closer to death with every passing day, we are also born to live. Though we cannot control how we enter and leave the world, I believe that we are responsible for how we choose to live in it. I also believe that pursuing my ambitions and desires should not come at the expense of making the most of every moment, finding satisfaction in the journeys to my destinations, and living the best life I can, right now, on my birthday, and every day after that I have.