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On Out Own Terms: Moyers on Dying
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Leo Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, first published in 1887, is considered one of the most masterful representations of death and dying ever written.

Safely cocooned in a world of privilege and fashion, Ivan Ilyich, a high court judge in Tsarist St. Petersburg, Russia, had never given death a thought. Then, one day, while showing an upholsterer how to hang curtains, Ivan Ilyich falls off a ladder. At first, he congratulates himself on having escaped with only a bruise to his side. But with time, the pain grows. Ivan Ilyich becomes exhausted, depressed, unable to summon enough energy to move off the sofa in his study. The doctors refuse to acknowledge that Ivan Ilyich is dying. His wife and daughter weary of his need for comfort and emotional support. Abandoned by all but his faithful servant, Gerasim, Ivan Ilyich is left to meet death alone:

    "Ivan Ilyich suffered most of all from the lie, the lie which, for some reason, everyone accepted: that he was not dying but was simply ill, and that if he stayed calm and underwent treatment he could expect good results. Yet he knew that regardless of what was done, all he could expect was more agonizing suffering and death. And he was tortured by this lie, tortured by the fact that they refused to acknowledge what he and everyone else knew, that they wanted to lie about his horrible condition and to force him to become a party to that lie. This lie, a lie perpetrated on the eve of his death, a lie that was bound to degrade the awesome, solemn act of his dying to the level of their social calls, their draperies, and the sturgeon they ate for dinner, was an excruciating torture for Ivan Ilyich. . . . He saw that the awesome, terrifying act of his dying had been degraded by those about him to the level of a chance unpleasantness, a bit of unseemly behavior (they reacted to him as they would to a man who emitted a foul odor on entering a drawing room); that it had been degraded by the very "propriety" to which he had devoted his entire life. He saw that no one pitied him because no one even cared to understand his situation. Gerasim was the only one who understood and pitied him. And for that reason Ivan Ilyich felt comfortable only with Gerasim. It was a comfort to him when Gerasim sat with him sometimes the whole night through, holding his legs, refusing to go to bed, saying: "Don't worry, Ivan Ilyich, I'll get a good sleep later on"; or when he suddenly addressed him in the familiar form and said: "It would be a different thing if you weren't sick, but as it is, why shouldn't I do a little extra work?" . . .Once, as Ivan Ilyich was sending him away, he came right out and said: "We all have to die someday, so why shouldn't I help you?" By this he meant that he did not find his work a burden because he was doing it for a dying man, and he hoped that someone would do the same for him when his time came."

For a list of other classic works of literature that deal with death and dying, check out the Recommended Reading List.

(From THE DEATH OF IVAN ILYICH by Leo Tolstoy, translated by Lynn Solotaroff, copyright (c) 1981 by Bantam, a division of Bantam Doubleday Dell Publishing Group, Inc. Used by permission of Bantam Books, a division of Random House, Inc. For online information about other Random House, Inc. books and authors, see the Internet Web Site at

Copyright 2000, Educational Broadcasting Corporation/Public Affairs Television, Inc.

On Our Own Terms - Moyers on DyingThirteen/WNET New YorkPBS Online