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)
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 success,
and ends 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."
. 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 as "a commonplace man," Ilych "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. [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.
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.
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 fall out 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 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 and Stroughton, 1903) notes that "The Death of
Ivan Ilych" is "the most powerful of all his [Tolstoy's] works."
Supplemental Reading: Paul Gewitz, 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 work with or write about dying: [Aging,
Death and Bereavement]. The narrative can also be found as
assigned reading in literature, philosophy, religious studies, and medical
"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]
Confusion, Self-Deception, and Non-Existence]
For further reading, see: Daniel Goleman, Vital
Lies, Simple Truths: The Psychology of Self-Deception (New York:
Simon and 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.)
There is a story by Katherine Anne Porter, "The
Jilting of Granny Weathall," which you might want to read in conjunction
with Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych."
Essays and Tolstoy Resources
The Death of Ivan Ilych
Stories and Living a
reference to reading "The Death of Ivan Ilych,"
by Robert Coles, author of
The Call of Stories: Teaching and the Moral Imagination (Boston:
Tolstoy Studies Journal
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