I have heard the song “Return to Innocence” by Enigma many times, and it expresses a soothing ideology. But just what does this mean and is it possible? In Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, Ivan Ilych changes from selfish to unselfish, but in order for this change to occur, he had to return to innocence by learning compassion from his son, Vasya. The shift in Ivan’s attitude toward his relationship with Vasya is parallel to the change in his attitude toward death. Tolstoy implies that the adult’s sophisticated language and methodology within conventional systems separate people from each other and the truth of their existence, but a child is capable of revealing the truth through actions rather than words and conventional methodology. In the novella Vasya never speaks a word but his expressions are understood by Ivan and the reader. Tolstoy uses words to show the reader that in life some of the most important lessons are not communicated through words but rather understood by perceiving others, and before Ivan Illych dies, he finally learns compassion by observing Vasya.
Even though Vasya is thirteen-years-old, he is still seen as a little child and is referred to as a little schoolboy. Vasya is seen three times throughout the novella: at Ivan’s funeral, once early on during Ivan’s illness, and right before Ivan dies. Vasya’s first appearance is at his father’s funeral:
From under the stairs appeared the figure of Ivan Ilych’s schoolboy son, whio was
extremely like his father. He seemed a little Ivan Ilych, such as Peter remembered when
they studied law together. His tear-stained eyes had in them the look that is seen in the
eyes of boys of thirteen who are not pure-minded. When he saw Peter Ivanovich he
scowled morosely and shamefacedly. (235)
One notices how Vasya never speaks and Peter Ivanovich interprets him by observing his emotions. Peter Ivanovich perceives Vasya as one who is not “pure-minded” which is the opposite of what Ivan learns in the end. It turns out that Ivan Ilych was much like Peter Ivanovich, and that the adults are the ones that are not “pure-minded.” Also, it is important to point out that Vasya “seemed a little Ivan Ilych” and that Ivan appeared to be very much like his son when he was a little boy. However, Ivan Ilych has changed drastically since he was a boy, and this is why he is unable to show any compassion in his adult life.
Ivan thought that he had lived “well and pleasantly”, but his imagination shows him that the good life is found in childhood:
And in imagination he began to recall the best moment of his pleasant life. But strange to
say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then
seemed – none of them except the first recollections of childhood. There, in childhood
there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live if it could
return. But the child who had experienced that happiness existed no longer, it was like a
reminiscence of somebody else. (272)
Ivan is surprised by his revelation and wishes to return to innocence, but since he is quite different now, he thinks he is too far away to return. However, even though Ivan has changed, he is still capable of returning to innocence because Ivan was once a child. Blaise Pascal thought that even though people change, people do not lose who they once were. Pascal says, “It does no good to say, ‘He is grown, he is changed’ he is also the same” (27). Ivan’s adult education had changed his perspective on compassion, but the child that he once was is still inside him, even though he is distant from that child.
This idea is seen another way in a poem by the English poet Phillip Larken, called “Sad Steps” because the speaker is reminded of what it had once felt like to be young:
Far reaching singleness of that wide stare
Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can’t come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere. (2328)
The last line is the most significant because it suggests that for some adults the child is undiminished and can still be re-captured or found somewhere else. Ivan Ilych finds what he had lost in himself by observing his son.
Although Ivan realizes that the best times in is life had been in childhood, his childhood memories are too painful to think of because the memories remind him of what he had lost. Therefore, he is still unable to grasp the same feelings that he once had in childhood. The reader is told “again his thoughts dwelt on his childhood, and again it was painful”, but “the further back he looked the more life there had been. There had been more of what was good in life itself . . . there is one bright spot there at the back, at the beginning of life, and afterwards all becomes blacker and blacker” (275). In the last chapter Ivan Ilych observes his son’s compassion toward him, and Ivan finally “fell through the hole and there at the bottom was light” (278). Ivan Ilych realizes that the “light” is found in childhood, and the light uncovers the truth, and the truth is that Ivan’s perspective of the good life had been blinded by his adult training.
Half-way through the novella Vasya makes his second appearance without saying a word:
The schoolboy crept in unnoticed, in a new uniform, poor little fellow, and wearing loves.
Terribly dark shadows showed under his eyes, the meaning of which Ivan Ilych knew well.
His son had always seemed pathetic to him, and now it was dreadful to see the boy’s
frightened look of pity. It seemed to Ivan Ilych that Vasya was the only one besides
Gerasim who understood and pitied him. (270)
Vasya may seem “dreadful” and “pathetic” to Ivan because he may remind Ivan of what he used to be like and how he had lost the capability to feel compassion for others. The reader is told that Ivan understood the meaning of Vasya’s “terribly dark shadows” that “showed under his eyes”, and Ivan knew that Vasya “understood and pitied him.” Even though both Ivan and Vasya understood each other, Ivan still thinks that his son is “dreadful” and “pathetic” because Ivan has been taught in his adult education that compassion is only for weak people.
The effect of Ivan’s adult education is explained:
He wished most of all (though he would have been ashamed to confess it) for someone to
pity him as a sick child is pitied . . . . Ivan Ilych wanted to weep, wanted to be petted and
cried over, and then his colleague Shebek would come, and instead of weeping and being
petted, Ivan Ilych would assume a serious, severe and profound air, and by force of habit
would express his opinion on a decision of the Court of Cassation and would stubbornly
insist on that view. (265)
Ivan Ilych secretly wants others to pity him, but he is still unable to feel any pity for anyone besides himself. Ivan Ilych longs for those childhood feelings but knows that he must act like the proper adult figure that he is within his society. The reader is told that it is “by a force of habit” wich makes Ivan suppress his emotions.
Ivan’s adult training is a family tradition, for his father had the same type of attitude, status and position that Ivan had. The reader is told “through his father’s influence, he had been attached to the Governor as an official for special service” (237). The customs of Ivan’s position within a conventional system fooled his conscious into thinking it was right to be selfish. The reader is told that:
at school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made
fell disgusted with himself when he did them, but when later on he saw that such actions
were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he
was able to exactly regard them as right but to forget about them entirely or not be
troubled at remembering them. (236)
Tolstoy implies that a child’s instinct knows what is right and wrong, but this right view is twisted around by the adult education. Therefore, Ivan once felt compassion when he was young, but that feeling is distant from him and not remembered.
Also, Ivan’s perspective of the truth had been distorted by the adult’s sophisticated language, which Ivan realized after observing the doctor: “instead of the real question of life and death which now alone confronted him, the question arose of the kidney and appendix which were not behaving as they out to” (268). Ivan had once used the same kind of dialogue as the doctor did when he was performing the duty of his role to society. The doctor cannot give Ivan any remedy or answers to relieve Ivan’s mental suffering, which is what causes the real pain. The answer to Ivan’s problem is not given to him through words, but his given to him by his son’s actions.
Right before Ivan dies, Vasya makes his last appearance without saying a word:
Just then his schoolboy son had crept softly in and gone up to the bedside. The dying man
was still screaming desperately and waving his arms. His hand fell on the boy’s head, and
the boy aught it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry. At that moment Ivan Ilych fell
through and caught sight of the light, and it ws revealed to him that though his life had
not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is
the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand.
He opened his eyes, looked at his son, and felt sorry for him. (279)
Here is the shift that I stated in my opening paragraph: once Ivan is able to feel compassion for his son, he is able to die without fear. Ivan was listening for an answer to his question, but the answer was not spoken to him but was rather shown to him by his son’s actions. Ivan may have not been able to grasp this truth if he had not once been like Vasya when he was a young boy. He had to traverse back through the black hole in order to see the bottom where there had once been light – back to his childhood. Ivan’s attitude shifts from thinking that his son is “pathetic” and “dreadful” to “feeling sorry for him”, and after this change, he is then able to feel compassion for his wife. Before he had said that, “he hates her with his whole soul” (268), and now he wants to free her from her suffering. Once Ivan has returned to innocence, he is unable to communicate to people through words, and he thinks: “Why speak? I must act, he thought” (279). Ivan tries to speak, but he says “forgo” instead of “forgive.” Therefore, Ivan returns to innocence by showing compassion through his actions.
To conclude, I think Tolstoy would have valued the scripture, “Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 18:14). It was Ivan’s son who gave him peace and not the priest who blessed him. Is Tolstoy saying that children are the only ones who really understand compassion? Are not many children selfish until they are taught otherwise? Look what happened in William Golding’s Lord of the Flies, when children resort to barbarism without adult supervision. Like after reading about Merlin instructing a young King Arthur, I thought that most children had to be taught by adults what is right. Is this story a rare case where the child teaches the adult one of the most profound meanings of life, instead of the adult teaches the child? Before I would say yes; although, like Ivan Ilych, I may have been blinded by my adult education, and I should re-evaluate my life.
The Holy Bible: Containing The Old and New Testaments. New York: American Bible Society.
Larken, Philip. “Sad Steps.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature: Sixth Edition. Vol. 2.
Gen. Ed. M.H. Abrams. New York: Norton and Company. 1993.
Pascal, Blaise. Selections from the Thoughts. Gen. Ed. Samuel H. Beer. Trans. Arthur H. Beattie
Harlan Davidson. Illinois: Wheeling. 1965.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Raid and Other Stories. Trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude. Oxford: Oxford UP.