Wired for Books: Community Reconsidered

On July 27, 1997 professors of literature at Ohio University, Marilyn Atlas and Edgar Whan, came to Studio B at the Ohio University Telecommunications Center to record a discussion about the Leo Tolstoy short stories, "Master and Man" and "The Death of Ivan Ilych". They were joined by guest scholar Peter Heidtmann of Ohio University. Here are the transcripts of the conversation.

Edgar Whan - Thank you, well Peter and Marilyn and I are going to discuss two stories today, and I want before we start just to run through, sketchily, the plots so that you, those of you who haven’t read the stories in the last few days will remember the name and what is going on. Well, after publishing Anna Karenina, Tolstoy spent about ten years writing about religion and political theory before he returned to fiction with the publication of "The Death of Ivan Ilych" in 1865. You notice that was the end of the Civil War in America which helps you place it. And the serfs were all freed in Russia in 1861. So, this kind of a formative period and this is important. Yes?

Peter Heidtmann - He published "Ivan Ilych" in 1886…

Marilyn Atlas - But the story itself takes place in 1865, so that might be what you’re…

Peter Heidtmann - Ten years after Anna.

Edgar Whan - 1886, you’re right. I’m glad that we have a professor with us today. You know, I’ve often thought how terrible it is to have a Ph.D. because that makes you be correct all the time and they don’t screen any more. But we’ll try to swing a little. The story opens at the funeral of a forty-five year-old functionary who has made his way through the Russian bureaucracy to a tenured judgeship as a man of his class was expected to do. After twenty years of an unexceptional marriage and largely unhappy, he bruised his ribs in a trifling accident which caused or else revealed a cancer in his side.

The rest of the story tells of his medical adventures, his increasing awareness of death and his disgust with the lying and pretense he discovers everywhere around him. He finds one person, his servant Gerasim, he can abide in his sick room because of his honest and good natured acceptance of life. Ivan dies wondering if he has wasted his life just following the patterns set by others.

"Master and Man," 1895, which is nine years after "Ivan." Is that O.K.? (laughter) Vasily Andrebrokenov, on a winter day prepares to go visit a parcel of woodland he hopes to buy and develop. His servant Nikita whom he systematically underpays brings out the sleigh pulled by Mikorti, the horse. Somehow the horse seems a character in this story after you read it. They set off through a ferocious snow storm and get lost and have to abandon travel and prepare to spend the night in the field the best they can. After suffering for awhile, Vasily with his two fur coats returns to the snow covered sleigh in which the poorly clad Nikita lies covered. Having had some new experience, places his own body on that of the peasant to keep him warm so that Nikita in the morning is the only one found alive. So, that kind of reminds you of Carver’s "Cathedral" only it’s better, we won’t talk about that. Do you want to start with something, Peter?

Peter Heidtmann - Well, let’s see. One of the things that I was struck with in one of your earlier sessions is when it came out that you found it difficult to talk about community in the abstract and that what you found it necessary to do was to talk communities, groups that we find ourselves sharing something in common with. This could be a small one like the family, the parents or spouses or children, or it could be a larger one, people we share our work place with, or more arbitrarily the people we find to be our neighbors in our neighborhoods or in our apartment buildings, wherever.

And in this story though, "The Death of Ivan Ilych," despite the fact that Tolstoy presents us with a social world that Ivan belongs to, both his family and his co-workers, I think that he’s ultimately concerned with a much larger community, the community in the larger sense, what we share in common with the rest of humanity, the rest of humankind.

Edgar Whan - I think so.

Peter Heidtmann - And that what we share in common with everyone else, he is concerned with in this story, is our mortality.

Edgar Whan - That’s right.

Peter Heidtmann - And not only the fact of the mortality but the fact that we know it in advance because we share mortality with other creatures but the knowledge of it in advance is something that only human beings share.

Edgar Whan - To define this even?

Peter Heidtmann - Yeah, so we’re going to die and we know it. So, I think what underlies this story then is how do we cope with this knowledge.

Marilyn Atlas - We play bridge seems to be Tolstoy’s (laughter) to this problem.

Edgar Whan - Watch football games?

Peter Heidtmann - Yeah, O.K.

Edgar Whan - Talk on radio programs?

Peter Heidtmann - Well, we’re trying to remind us of it here. So, do you want me to keep on going here?

Marilyn Atlas - Sure.

Peter Heidtmann - Well, I think he’s trying to deal with the question here by presenting Ivan Ilych as a typical man. Not someone who is in anyway extraordinary or unusual, and so for an American reader this may hard to see at first because the name seems so foreign, but Ivan is just the Russian equivalent for Juan in Spanish, J.U.A.N. or John, J.O.H.N. in English, so the hero of this story is just plain John, you know.

So, I think if we know that, then it brings him more immediately to us, to our own sense of things.

And I was struck in reading this at how, what Tolstoy tries to do to universalize the story to make Ivan an "Everyman." And I was reminded of the Medieval play "Everyman," in reading this, because what the messenger tells the audience right in the very first speech of that play is, "the story sayeth, man in the beginning look well and take good heed to the ending, be you never so gay."

And in this story if you remember, there is a place when Ivan graduates from law school and he decks himself out in a whole new wardrobe and in new fineries and is just about to enter the working world, the profession as a young man that he is ready to go, and on his watch chain he has this medallion that says, "respeca finum" which means "consider your end." And this is something like Everyman in the play he clearly doesn’t do.

Edgar Whan - That’s right because a timid life you can’t lead.

Marilyn Atlas - Well, part of it is that end is so very premature. I mean he really dies young. He’s 45 years old.

Edgar Whan - Forty-five is barely pubescent.

Marilyn Atlas - Well, even by the standards of the 1890’s he was still a young man and it was shocking. I mean he was feeling fine, he was working on his new home, his curtains. His life had been a little bit rocky professionally, but it seems to have all come together and then he finds himself very ill and he really has a lot of problems facing the reality of that. And of course he gets no help because the doctors, like the lawyers were very much into masks, like his marriage. I mean they are all impersonating what they are supposed to be.

Edgar Whan - They’re all professionals.

Marilyn Atlas - They are all professionals in the worst sense of the word.

Edgar Whan - Is there a good sense?

Marilyn Atlas - I guess I’m not quite as cynical as ..... not in that way. I think Tolstoy’s pointing the fact that he thinks there is a better professional, that when he has Ivan Ilych ask those questions, did I do it all wrong? There are more than one answer to that.

I mean one answer is of course you didn’t do it all wrong, you did what every other person of your class would have done, but the other answer to the question is yes. You didn’t really pay attention. You didn’t pay attention to who you married. You didn’t pay attention necessarily to why you married. You didn’t pay attention to anyone’s career but your own. You didn’t really connect with people and therefore people are not really connecting with you.

I think the fact that he lost three children previous to his own death and that you simply get lines and no emotional response to that at all shows that he has been intimately involved in death in terms of his family, his house, his community. But he has not seen it. Because he has not looked. He is not Gerasim. He is definitely a very different type.

Peter Heidtmann - Nobody, as we’re shown in the opening, very first part of this story, we’re told that the news is broken to the group of lawyers that Ivan has died, and all they think about is...

Edgar Whan - Who’s going to get his parking place?

Peter Heidtmann - Yeah, right, who is going to get the position? How are things going to "shake down" and "thank God its not me."

Edgar Whan - I’m not sure I get quite the "everyman" feeling from this that you do. What he says, he summarizes his own life once which I think is very good.

"His marriage a mere accident, then the disenchantment that followed, his wife’s bad breath and his sensuality and hypocrisy and then that deadly official life and those preoccupations about money, a year of it then ten and twenty, always the same thing. And the longer it lasted the more deadly it became. It is as if I have been going down hill while I imagined that I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion but to the same extent, life was ebbing away from me. And now, all is down... there is only one death."

And what I see, I see this is a... Tolstoy’s attack upon the establishment, and I keep coming to my mind is that wonderful thing from Thoreau, "what most people thinks me good, I in my heart believe to be bad. What demon possessed me that I behaved so well?"

What got into me? I just did. And I come home, and like our people today they get home to some arugulous salad with a little goat cheese and play their recorder and that’s who we are you know. I just think as you look back, which "Everyman" does, I read someone said, and I agree with him, that nobody ever dies without feeling that he hasn’t accomplished it. Martin Luther didn’t, William James said, "at the last we’re all so disappointed." Nobody ever does what he thinks he was going to do. So, I think that in that sense he’s an "Everyman."

Peter Heidtmann - Yeah, although in the story, I agree with that, but in this story we’re shown that Ivan Ilych isn’t exceptional in the way he gets on in the world.

Edgar Whan - Oh no, he would be a district manager of a factory or an assistant dean or a full professor.

Peter Heidtmann - Or a corporate person.

Edgar Whan - Someone who has done his duty and got somewhere and he has something and in the eyes of world he is a success. It’s what you want your boy to be. But he finds out that isn’t success, all that big house in the suburbs, the car, doesn’t work. You’re in debt when you’re two years old, but he tells it to you a little differently.

Peter Heidtmann - Yeah. And Tolstoy likes to, he likes to generalize, and he has this sentence that begins the second part, "Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore, most terrible."

Marilyn Atlas - Um hum, right.

Edgar Whan - All "men live lives of quiet desperation" has the same sense.

Peter Heidtmann - So, I think he’s trying to show through Ivan, the growing, in his illness, which Ivan comes to realize, the terror, or the horror that lies beneath the surface of ordinary life.

Edgar Whan - Right. Which you can’t face, nobody can face it. That’s why they go to play bridge, you go to football games, you do anything and always to keep your mind off the prize.

Marilyn Atlas - But there is a critical tone here, that people can do better than this, I think that the narrator is implying. That this man is really a failure.

Edgar Whan - I think you’re right, Marilyn. I think he believes its possible. I think that’s true. And he himself tried it, that’s the funny part. He thought he could live the life of the Sermon on the Mount and it just didn’t work.

Peter Heidtmann - Live the life of what?

Edgar Whan - Live the life of the Sermon on the Mount, as he had studied. And he had the question, why didn’t you do this, he made his own shoes, he made his own clothes, he lived with peasants, and it just didn’t work.

Peter Heidtmann - He botched the job, he couldn’t make his own clothes.

Edgar Whan - He made bad shoes too..

Peter Heidtmann - Yeah, that’s right.

Edgar Whan - But you’re right, Marilyn. I do think that he’s, obviously every time you can criticize you have to believe there is something against, that he doesn’t meet up to, as a standard, somewhere that he doesn’t meet. Which probably could be a human and be a professor. Although I’m not clear about it. (laughter)

Marilyn Atlas - Ignoring that last comment, since I am still in the middle of my career, (laughter) and would like to maintain the illusion that it is meaningful.

Edgar Whan - Don’t find it too late, find it now.

Marilyn Atlas - I do, I do. I do think about the end. I think one of the problems here is that Ivan Ilych’s life would work for him if he didn’t get sick and if that sickness didn’t make him feel so absolutely isolated. I think he was quite, in many ways, a self-satisfied man.

Edgar Whan - Of course.

Marilyn Atlas - Not a generous man, I mean he was a man who tried to figure out how to be independent so he could have as many pleasures per day as possible.

Edgar Whan - And he followed the pattern. What was the pattern of the good life? He followed it, and he suddenly found out that it wasn’t. Which we all find out.

Marilyn Atlas - He was lonely, and then I think that loneliness actually didn’t return him to community but it returned him to himself in a way that he had before neither community nor self. He had the illusion of community and the illusion of self.

Edgar Whan - It was a community he had this was a bad one.

Marilyn Atlas - Right.

Peter Heidtmann - It was an ordinary one.

Edgar Whan - Which is a bad one.

Marilyn Atlas - Right, nobody was loyal to him because nobody knew who he was. And he didn’t know himself. There was nobody to be loyal to, really.

Peter Heidtmann - Well, they have a kind of agreement, an unspoken code of conduct for instance at the funeral at the beginning in the first section when Schwartz comes out and winks at them ....

Edgar Whan - And we’ll still have our bridge.

Peter Heidtmann - Yeah, cut out of here and have some bridge. Well, this is the kind of community that you had. And Tolstoy is satirizing this.

Edgar Whan - And as you said it grosses the community, which is a community you can’t live in.

Peter Heidtmann - Well, they live in it.

Edgar Whan - Yeah, but not really.

Peter Heidtmann - He comes right out and says it, the narrator at one point. He says, "in all this the thing was to exclude everything fresh and vital, which disturbs the regular course of official business and to admit only official relations with people and then only on official grounds."

Edgar Whan - He said I did what they told me but it didn’t work. Everybody is lying.

Marilyn Atlas - But nobody absolutely told him get rid of everything fresh. No one ever told him that everything green must be put aside. He just integrated that.

Edgar Whan - When you know it, its different when you know it. There is a big difference, "I know this is true," but when you’re lying in that bed its a little different. You know you’re going to die, you buy insurance policies but when they’re trying to stuff ‘em into that black sack, what a figure that was. Remember that?

Peter Heidtmann - Certainly.

Edgar Whan - Then it becomes a little different I guess is what I’m saying. And I don’t know whether he thinks there is a community possible, like your saying, does he think there is a community? Of is the whole human race a con game? Which is a good Russian thing to think.

Peter Heidtmann - Well, the story suggests that its not only Ivan and his co-workers but his wife, everyone, the doctors, they are all in league to hide the truth.

Edgar Whan - That’s right, we’re all lying to him.

Marilyn Atlas - They’re in league to hide the truth and to hide anything that is green and vital. And all the relationships are patterned after something which allows a certain number of years of ease if you’re lucky, but won’t give you the real thing. And they are into pleasure, they’re into a surface kind of pleasure. But I think the tone of the narrative is that we need new patterns, we need new paradigms, we need new ways to think.

Edgar Whan - Oh yes.

Peter Heidtmann - And how about in the story then, there is one other person who thinks differently. What do you think of Gerasim?

Marilyn Atlas - He thinks differently only to a certain extent. Tolstoy doesn’t really develop him. He simplifies him in a certain way.

Edgar Whan - Except he admires him.

MA He admires him and he allows him a certain ease with the physical processes of life and death. He honors him, but he doesn’t give him that spiritual depth that you get reading the angst of the story. Gerasim isn’t a thinker and the narrator of the story implies that thinking people are "possible people" too and Gerasim doesn’t have that quality.

Edgar Whan - It’s a noble savage thing. Here’s this guy coming up, pure and clean, and death doesn’t bother him because he knows death. He lives on a farm and he sees this happen and he’s not living this artificial, peripheral life that, intellectually, always talking about death and the wills and talking back and forth and then you go home. During the Depression, it was interesting that the favorite kind of music were musicals. Everybody’s dancing, you can’t look because we’re all trying to avoid the question. That’s what he’s saying. And you don’t avoid it.

Marilyn Atlas - You can’t finally.

Peter Heidtmann - Finally. But Gerasim, he presents him as one who accepts the human condition without thinking about it. The rhythms of life and death, he just accepts them all. Of course, I can take care of you, you’re sick. This is something that needs to be done and we’ll all come to it at some point.

Edgar Whan - You’re dying, I’m not going to lie to you.

Peter Heidtmann - He doesn’t lie, that’s right. But I think the question that he doesn’t think is a good one because Tolstoy is a thinking man.

Marilyn Atlas - Right

Edgar Whan - But in a way when he does all this peasant stuff, he doesn’t want to be.

Peter Heidtmann - Once you learn how to think, how do you stop?

Edgar Whan - You can’t. That’s why people do dope, too, I suppose, to stop thinking.

Marilyn Atlas - I like that whole "noble savage" thing that you said, Edgar. That what he does in presenting Gerasim is he honors him, but limits him in a way that really is actually, pretty insulting.

Edgar Whan - Rousseau is one of the most powerful influences on him, they say. There’s this sense of at that moment, this guy knows for all our talk, he knows all there is to know about dying. He knows just as much as I do.

Peter Heidtmann - Who does?

Edgar Whan - Gerasim, Ivan says this. And I think somehow the guy gives him a, he shows what a human being can be, but it’s that curse of knowing, in the garden you know, I want to know the truth and so you eat the apple and that’s what it is. But I don’t want to be, nobody wants to be like a chipmunk, just driving along and falling over, you know.

And that’s what makes our humanity. We know we’re going to die and that makes it very difficult.

Peter Heidtmann - He is like Nikita in the other story.

Edgar Whan - That’s right.

Marilyn Atlas - They’re similar.

Peter Heidtmann - They’re both a peasant in background and they’re both accepting and satisfied with their lot no matter how hard it is.

Marilyn Atlas - Except Nikita is an older version and he’s also blown it. He also has a marriage that’s not quite functional. Gerasim is younger; he’s much more innocent. He’s really good in a simpler sort of way than Nikita.

Edgar Whan - I think that looking at them that way as he does is becoming an insult. I’m uncomfortable saying that. He says in one place that peasants don’t mind dying because life is so uncomfortable to them.

They wanted to sit around and eat goat cheese and arugula salad. They don’t mind like I do, they don’t mind, it’s nothing, it’s some old cabbage soup.

Marilyn Atlas - I think that Tolstoy, to some extent, is parodying that. I think he’s laughing at that. Do you think not?

Peter Heidtmann - Laughing at what?

Marilyn Atlas - That idea that a peasant’s life to a peasant is worth less than a gentleperson’s life to a gentleperson.

Edgar Whan - I think you’re right in the sense that he has a person say it and doesn’t mean it. It was a bad point. But it is kind of a long feeling of people and that during the war many would say the Japanese would commit suicide because their life wasn’t as full and rich as ours. And this went right through your head. It was wrong.

It’s one of the terrible things about people. We think we understand simple folk when we don’t.

Marilyn Atlas - Probably the whole notion of simple people. I don’t know that much about Tolstoy’s background, but I think what’s happening, you mentioned Rousseau, in terms of the noble savage, is a kind of creating the other into a kind of "not you" which is also "not them." I don’t think he really captures peasant people particularly well here.

I think what he does capture is high culture and how dysfunctional it is. When we get one of those early scenes when we have Ivan’s widow worried about money, making Peter the lawyer sit down and talk about the possibility of getting more funds out of the government. I mean there’s this "poof" on the chair and there’s this shawl that’s getting caught and they can’t quite get up and help Ivan’s wife and her shawl keeps getting stuck and she ends up bursting into tears.

Edgar Whan - To Gerasim, it’s clearer to him, he can do it, his shawl doesn’t get caught.

Marilyn Atlas - He doesn’t have a shawl to get caught. The whole idea of culture adding all these things don’t help us get to the real thing. They stop us even when we try.

Edgar Whan - I think that is a good point. For all our talking, we end up dancing around, but we die just like he does, except we don’t accept it, I think.

Peter Heidtmann - Life is filled up with commodities.

Marilyn Atlas - He’s killed by the curtains. He’s killed by the ladder. He’s killed by human-made stuff. And the beautiful clock is timed, it’s ticking. It may be an antique and it may be lovely, but it gives us that downward spiral of the whole story. It’s given to us early.

Peter Heidtmann - He does fall.

Marilyn Atlas - Yes, he does fall, absolutely. He’s a second son. Is that important?

Peter Heidtmann - He’s the "phoenix of the family."

Marilyn Atlas - The "phoenix of the family." That’s right.

Edgar Whan - He’s the good boy.

Marilyn Atlas - He’s the good boy, that’s right. He’s the combination child. Is that pretty ironic?

Peter Heidtmann - Well, I think that Tolstoy is saying, isn’t he, that what do good boys do? They do what is expected of good boys and this is what Ivan does all his life. He does what he thinks is expected of him by people outside himself.

Edgar Whan - They told him what the good life is and he’s doing it…

Peter Heidtmann - I think that Tolstoy is making that point on purpose. He’s not a failure like the third son, nor is he as cold and distant as the first son.

Edgar Whan - He’s the middle.

Marilyn Atlas - I think Tolstoy is also making fun at what makes us totally happy, what makes us totally satisfied. When his life looks like it’s not going to come together professionally and then because his friend gets a good position and he’s able to maneuver himself back to an old place and a good position, he feels completely happy. This is right before the fall which leads to the fall. And you seen, we know enough about his life. We know he’s not completely happy. He’s got a totally dysfunctional marriage. He’s got a wife he can’t stand most of the time. He’s trying to figure out a way to make work either satisfying or to be able to exit the house often enough to get pleasure.

And yet when he gets this job and the hope of not having, at least, financial problems for a while.

Edgar Whan - Can you imagine talking to him about justice? Here he is, a judge.

Marilyn Atlas - Right, which is, of course, one of the great ironies of the story.

Edgar Whan - He has no sense of what his job means, in a good sense, of what you could do.

Marilyn Atlas - And he deals with fairness and yet he eavesdrops. He tries to listen in on other people’s private conversations. They’re about him, but he’s still eavesdropping. This again it’s kind of a parody on what the law and what judges ultimately turn to when they don’t get the information they need.

Peter Heidtmann - I think we need to talk about the problem of the ending of this story.

Edgar Whan - Go ahead, talk about it and then we’ll tell you what you said was wrong (laughter).

Peter Heidtmann - Okay, I hope you will. First of all, I wonder what you both think is really the meaning of the black sack, here it is on page 154. He’s aware that he’s struggling in this black sack.

Edgar Whan - Why don’t you read it.

Peter Heidtmann - "For three whole days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible, resistless force. He struggled as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself. And every moment he felt that despite all his efforts he was drawing nearer and nearer to what terrified him. He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into that black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it."

And this is the sentence that I particularly question:

"He was hindered from getting into it by his conviction that his life had been a good one."

Marilyn Atlas - He didn’t want to lose it. He wanted to stay.

Edgar Whan - He thinks, "I lived a good life, why am I being punished, forced into this black hole?" That’s what I see it saying. "I’ve been a good boy."

Peter Heidtmann - Yes, that’s true, but the black sack, it seems to me, cannot be seen just as death because you can’t prevent yourself from falling into it.

Edgar Whan - He’s being pushed into it.

Peter Heidtmann - But he feels that he is being hindered by his conviction that his life had been a good one. Once he comes to the conclusion that he was wrong about this, that his life was false and a bad one, then he falls through and sees the light.

Edgar Whan - It’s his vanity and his "humanness" that "I’m okay, I’m all right, it’s me." It’s the individuality that you have to give up. I am like Gerasim, I have to die.

Peter Heidtmann - You mean you can’t die unless you do that? (laughter)

Marilyn Atlas - That’s good for some of us! He might learn the wrong things from this.

Edgar Whan - I don’t know, he couldn’t. I think he’s saying you first have to go back before you die, you have to accept it. You have to see it and believe it. "I’m a good guy, my friends will come, everything will be all right."

Marilyn Atlas - This is a very romantic ending. Maybe you can’t die until you’ve made some kind of peace. And he couldn’t make peace with his life because he wanted to hold on to illusions that he himself didn’t believe in. He didn’t really think he had a good life. He was protesting too much. But I’ve got something else to say in terms of the black sack which is Talmudic.

Peter Heidtmann - Which is what?

Marilyn Atlas - It’s a Talmudic story, it’s a Jewish parable, kind of, written by the sages. It’s kind of interesting and this black sack business reminds me a little bit of it and the whole ending reminds me of it.

Edgar Whan - Tell us the story.

Marilyn Atlas - Okay, here’s the story. There’s two twins and they are just about to be born and they have very different notions of whether they want to be born or not because neither of them know, just like here, Ivan Ilych doesn’t know and we don’t know as readers, what’s on the other side. We don’t know what death is. And children who are unborn, of course, don’t know what life outside of the womb is.

So one of the twins is a resister and he goes, "No way, I’m not getting out of here." And of course you see this blackness, you think of the womb as dark. Not as negative as this particular black sack, but still dark and one of the twins says, "No way, I’m not doing this. Whatever this exit is, I don’t want to go because I don’t to do the equivalent of dying."

And the other twin says, "No, no, I believe there’s something good out there. It’s really okay. I think that whatever we’re leaving, we’re going to get to another place that’s also good, i.e. "the joy of the story."

And of course that’s part of our problem with death is that we don’t know what it is and some of us are very resistant and some of us who are believers or hopeful or have some kind of different instinctive inclination think that it’s okay.

Edgar Whan - I haven’t met one of those yet.

Marilyn Atlas - Well, that’s probably true, most people are very resistant to change. Most of us are the twin that resists because what we know, even if it’s not so functional for us, it’s better than what we don’t know.

Edgar Whan - Except for the suicides, maybe.

Marilyn Atlas - But the twin, to live, has to be born or it will die. It can’t live in the womb forever. But I think in terms of the ending of "Ivan Ilych" that what we get is Tolstoy’s romanticizing of death that if you come to some kind of knowledge, it’s going to be inevitable anyway, but if you come to some kind of knowledge, you can stop the suffering and get to it. You can stop the resistance. And I think he really idealizes that in the same way that that parable idealizes it. Just do it.

Edgar Whan - Well it is true that people who study death find that once you accept it, I’m not going to go through all those stages business, but once you come to the place that you accept it, people go very quickly. I think that what he’s saying is that somehow you feel "I’m a person and I have done that." But that’s no true, I think.

Peter Heidtmann - What I feel is that this is not very credible to me, coming from Ivan. I see this as something coming from Tolstoy, from the outside, imposing on him.

Marilyn Atlas - I agree with you. This is too philosophical.

Edgar Whan - That’s what I felt about the "Cathedral" thing, too. I felt that this is a kind of a deus ex machina, doing this to close out the story.

Peter Heidtmann - This is something that’s very vital to Tolstoy.

Edgar Whan - It’s not just light at the end.

Peter Heidtmann - This isn’t the thing that would really… Did you mention this while we were on the air or just before about the Job-like questions that he asks?

Marilyn Atlas - I mentioned it before. One of the things that Peter was saying that he saw Ivan Ilych as an Everyman character and I said he’s also a Job. He’s suffering a great deal. You have to remember he’s a pretty young man. He’s not ready to die. He just gets hurt and everything starts spiraling downward.

Edgar Whan - Job thought this too. He thought he was good.

Marilyn Atlas - And he doesn’t know why. He hasn’t done anything so wrong. He is just a normal person in his culture.

Edgar Whan - That’s true, in that sense.

Peter Heidtmann - He asks those questions. It’s out of proportion to whatever we see as the defects of his life. So, it’s terrible, the last three days is nothing but pain from which he’s screaming.

Marilyn Atlas - It’s interesting. It’s an "O" that he’s screaming. It’s a circle.

Peter Heidtmann - So I would say that what most would disturb Ivan, looking at it from his own point of view, is what he has to say when he’s thinking about what he learned about the syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter’s Logic about "Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal," and he says, okay, men in the abstract. That’s okay for Caius, but what about me? "little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys" And then he goes through various things specific to his individual unique life.

Edgar Whan - That has to go.

Peter Heidtmann - And this is what, I would assume, would be hardest to give up. Not this thing about "Did I live a good life?"

Edgar Whan - No he’s saying when he gives this up, he was hindered from it by his conviction that his life had been a good one. That’s a kind of a pride in there and I think that pride has to go. And he had to let that go and he’s a good man. This can’t be happening to me, I’m a nice guy. This is a very real reaction of everybody. "I’m a nice guy, why me?" And when he admits that, I don’t think that causes him to die, I think it just came with it. He says it doesn’t make him die.

Marilyn Atlas - If you look at the next page of the same chapter. The idea that he has to give up the notion that he’s led a good life implies that he needs to change. And he does change because he speaks to his wife as opposed to throwing her out which he does consistently throughout his illness. He say, "`Yes, I am making them wretched,’ he thought." He’s thinking this.

Edgar Whan - You’re right, you’re right. That is a change, no question about it.

Marilyn Atlas - "He wished to say this, but had not the strength to utter it. Besides why speak, I must act, he thought." And this also is a change for him, he’s doing good.

Peter Heidtmann - There’s no question. I’m not questioning this.

Marilyn Atlas - But it’s all about that if it was a good life then he wouldn’t have to change it and he’s changing it here. And maybe therefore Tolstoy allows for this torture to be over.

Peter Heidtmann - He feels sorry for them which is something he’s never felt before.

Edgar Whan - He hates her with a passion, remember.

Marilyn Atlas - I have a question for you both. "With a look at his wife, he indicated his son and said: "Take him away...sorry for him...sorry for you too...." He tried to add, ‘Forgive me,’ but said ‘Forego.’" Tolstoy is a writer. This isn’t only a mistake in terms of pronunciation. What does "forgo" mean here?

Peter Heidtmann - Well, I don’t know (laughter). I’m not saying this because I thought of it, but I wonder what it is in Russian, because the translator here is trying to give us, and who knows?

Edgar Whan - I think he was doing so badly, that he couldn’t talk properly.

Marilyn Atlas - I think that’s true, absolutely. But I wonder also if the translator isn’t trying to give us some kind of meaning through his speech, it would be "forgi…" as opposed to "forgive." But he’s saying "forego." Why the "o" sound?

Edgar Whan - That’s closer to the meaning, you’re right. That’s true.

Marilyn Atlas - What does "forego" mean in the context of this story? Forego what?

Peter Heidtmann - I don’t know. He "waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand." We’re not meant to.

Marilyn Atlas - But Tolstoy is trying to tell us that there is such a thing as a better life. If this man does have a certain amount of wisdom because he is dying and he says "forego," does he mean that even though his new solution is action, a certain kind of activity, a certain kind of forgiveness, that before you act you have to think about the implications of it? Is that what "forego" means? Something before the "go?"

Peter Heidtmann - I wouldn’t say that. I think that one of the things that’s good about this paragraph that you’re on here is that he doesn’t consider or it’s a spontaneous feeling that he has that comes out, of feeling sorry, this pity for them that he has. This is fresh and vital, something that hasn’t been true of his reactions to people before.

Edgar Whan - He’s saying "I can’t say it, but somebody can say it for me. It’s being said."

Marilyn Atlas - I wonder how those two go together, the idea that he’s being spontaneous and the idea that he’s mispronouncing the word and saying "forego." I wish I had the Russian translation. I wish I had the Russian word. I guess I don’t. If anybody knows, please call in, write in. Let us know.

Peter Heidtmann - And how about "There was no fear because there was no death… What joy!"

Marilyn Atlas - Well he’s like the twin, he’s being born into the new world. It’s a religious ending. That there is no death. That death is something that we fantasize because we’re scared, but he’s being born into a new place.

Peter Heidtmann - This is clearly a rebirth thing at the end. But once again I find it hard to accept, artistically, coming from Ivan. It seems to me to be something Tolstoy wants to believe so much that he…

Edgar Whan - Well I think that Ivan was living on his reputation, what the world told him he was and he thought he was good and when he found out he wasn’t, he then came to face his humanity and said, "here, so I am" and he could see these things…and that’s my feeling of it that he’s been living a life in a mirror. "Everybody tells me I’m good, I must be. After all these things are proper, I’m moving up the line" and that doesn’t work and when he acknowledged that he’s not a self-made man that exists on his own and he can understand this. He can understand death the way Gerasim understands from the beginning.

Peter Heidtmann - So you don’t have any trouble with this ending?

Edgar Whan - I have a little trouble with this bit about seeing the light troubles me a little bit, yes. But I just don’t know it seems…

Peter Heidtmann - "In place of death there was light."

Edgar Whan - Well, death is light. People now say they see light at the end of the tunnel, this sort of thing.

Marilyn Atlas - It’s just a religious ending. I mean there has been hints of religion throughout. He’s been taking the sacrament. He took it bitterly. His wife told him to and it didn’t mean anything to him.

Edgar Whan - It was just a form.

Marilyn Atlas - Right, it was a form. But all of a sudden the phoenix that’s been so ironic all along, he becomes and that’s the religious ending. It’s a romantic story. Tolstoy is ultimately a romantic writer and there is light. Even though everything is wrong, here, all of a sudden, there’s light. And that’s the Tolstoy that I know.

Peter Heidtmann - That’s what I’m getting at. I can believe it’s Tolstoy, I have trouble believing it from Ivan.

Marilyn Atlas - Yes, that he’s had this miraculous change. It’s quite a change.

Edgar Whan - But he points out how the doctors and the lawyers both lie the same way. They both have this pattern they go through. And it’s a kind of a game. It’s a game we don’t want to talk about. I worked in a hospice for six years and nobody ever, never once, talked to me about dying. Nobody does that. You just don’t do it. It’s there, sitting there. You talk around it, but nobody says it.

Peter Heidtmann - Shall we go on to the other story, while we still have some time?

Edgar Whan - Sure, why not. That Caius thing was really very good, wasn’t it?

Marilyn Atlas - I guess I’m into numerology. It’s call gematria in Judaism, but it’s interesting that this particular story of Ivan Ilych is divided into twelve sections, so we’ve got the cycle of years.

Edgar Whan - That’s right, the other one was ten.

Marilyn Atlas - It’s ten, right, which is more the cycle of hands. I think that Tolstoy may reject the meaning of that kind of symbolism, but he still uses it. He plays with numbers, he gives us numbers.

Edgar Whan - Even better, he does it without knowing it. Numbers are so true, he follows them without knowing it, I’d like to believe.

Marilyn Atlas - I think he’s more conscience an artist than that. I think he writes and rewrites.

Peter Heidtmann - What did you say twelve meant?

Marilyn Atlas - Twelve is like the twelve months of the year. It’s more the cycle of the year.

Peter Heidtmann - Oh, I see.

Marilyn Atlas - We’ve got a pattern here of rebirth, as opposed to nine which would be a birthing kind of image. It’s more a year cycle. It’s more anmade time.

Edgar Whan - The revolutions of the moon, that’s what it is.

Marilyn Atlas - I don’t know. What do I know? (laughter)

Edgar Whan - I feel somehow guilty. This story… maybe you can fit it in, a true story about a Roman girl, her father had been convicted of some crime so the emperor said all of your family has to be killed. This is the first story I ever heard in my life.

Peter Heidtmann - Where did you get this from?

Edgar Whan - I forget where it was, but it was some story about the Roman early days. And she’s walking down the street. All of her family are about to be executed and they were shouting at her. She raised her hands and said, "I won’t do it anymore. I won’t do it anymore."

I don’t think I’ve ever heard anything so terrifying in my life. And this is the kind of thing we have here. "I’ve haven’t done anything bad. I’m coming to judgement and I haven’t done anything bad."

Marilyn Atlas - It is pretty terrifying. It comes out so peacefully, I think that’s what bothers you. The story is such an unpeaceful story and it’s such a peaceful kind of ending.

Peter Heidtmann - The ending seems to me to be something that Tolstoy wants to believe so much…

Edgar Whan - Or else that his audience required that, too.

Peter Heidtmann - That he attributes it to Ivan.

Marilyn Atlas - One of the things he’s doing, too, before we leave this story is that he’s playing with the notion of theater and opera which his wife is interested in, which his daughters are interested in and what he, when he was a healthy man, was also interested in. The looking for the opera glasses, the fight over the opera glasses. All those kind of images.

And Sarah Bernhardt is the actress they discuss, pretty ironically. You know the whole idea of theater and of tears, the false tears versus the real tears. There are real patterns here, in terms of phony rebirths, complete happiness which isn’t happiness at all versus the ending.

I agree with you, I guess, that this is Tolstoy wishing, but Ivan Ilych accomplishing, according to the writing of the story, not necessarily the development of the character. We don’t believe it, but Tolstoy wants us to.

Edgar Whan - I get the feeling that he’s trying to get off stage, this is what I see. This is what he always expected. He doesn’t know, so he makes this out. I don’t quite believe it as you don’t is what I think I’m saying.

Peter Heidtmann - And he does the same thing at the end of the other story, "Master and Man." What I found interesting about the ending of "Master and Man" is, as opposed to "Ivan Ilych" because, in a way, this is not as wrenching a story as "Ivan Ilych."

Marilyn Atlas - It’s not as slow a death.

Peter Heidtmann - And we don’t have the sense of an Everyman going through his life.

Edgar Whan - Nature kills him. He isn’t just swallowed in society.

Marilyn Atlas - And it’s more numbing. It’s so filled with pain and anguish. It’s not a three-day scream. It’s not all this time to contemplate.

Edgar Whan - He really does give you, he does a job on that snowstorm doesn’t he?

Marilyn Atlas - And also the others are much more contemplative wandering, a mental wandering that takes place. And here we have a physical wandering. I mean they’re lost in a snow storm.

Peter Heidtmann - This is much more of a fable as I see it, because as the good man and the bad man traveling together and they go out into this…

Edgar Whan - One has been systematically abusing this guy and stealing from him and have contempt for him.

Marilyn Atlas - But doesn’t recognize this. He’s rationalized it all.

Edgar Whan - That’s right, he says, "I’m kind to you."

Marilyn Atlas - He’s another good man.

Edgar Whan - That’s always the way it is. "I’m not hurting those people. Everybody’s happy down south here. They enjoy that."

Peter Heidtmann - Yeah, right. The whole atmosphere of the story seemed to be very cinematic. I could imagine Ingmar Bergman turning this into a black and white film.

Edgar Whan - What about that little boy who keeps citing from that reader? That was very interesting. "A penny saved is a penny earned" or something like that.

Peter Heidtmann - The contrast between all the noise at the beginning of the story because the feast has been going on. And finally all the guests leave and when all the clatter of getting the horses ready and then they get out into the wilderness and the storm and they have this interlude in the town where they go inside.

Edgar Whan - You’re right, that is a Bergman movie.

Peter Heidtmann - And then they get back out in it and it’s even worse. I read somewhere that the word for snowdrift that they sink into in Russian is "sugrob" and "grob" means coffin.

Edgar Whan - EW White coffin.

Peter Heidtmann - So I think that Tolstoy is trying to write this in a way that is, well you know after he went through this religious struggle after finishing Anna Karenina he came to the view that art should be available to the masses. He was opposed to aristocratic art, he art of his own class. He was an aristocrat. And this is a story that well-illustrates this notion because he’s hitting… We can’t have any doubt in this story that he sees Nikita as a good man and Vasili as a bad man.

Marilyn Atlas - The horse is a good stallion. (laughter)

Edgar Whan - But the point where this happens is hard for me to find that he didn’t say, "I suddenly understand this."

Peter Heidtmann - Who, Vasili?

Edgar Whan - Yes, there’s no particular point he says that, but something happens to him when he shakes that coat off and sees him there, he falls down, just naturally. He didn’t see any blinding light or that sort of thing because I looked for it and I couldn’t really find it.

Marilyn Atlas - It’s hard in a way. Marilyn and I were talking about this before we got on the air here, before you came. I mean what is his motivation here for lying down on top of Nikita?

Edgar Whan - That’s the beauty wasn’t it? Here is a man that freezes to death and he’s sitting there with his two overcoats and he just does it. I don’t think he says it, but I don’t think he says it, but he just has to do it.

Peter Heidtmann - It’s not conscience.

Edgar Whan - No that’s the beautiful part of it.

Peter Heidtmann - Now that were talking it reminds me of what we were saying a minute ago about Ivan when he spontaneously feels pity for his wife and son.

Marilyn Atlas - But finally, it takes these men such a long time. I mean this man’s been freezing for a long time and he has two coats. I mean obviously Tolstoy is letting us know, it’s not like this man has one warm fur coat and he couldn’t share. This man has two coats and he keeps them both.

Edgar Whan - This is good because he’s a good guy and this guy’s a peasant. Peasants don’t mind being cold.

Marilyn Atlas - But they do freeze to death.

Edgar Whan - But it doesn’t bother them very much.

Peter Heidtmann - It doesn’t bother them very much because they don’t have much to live for anyway.

Edgar Whan - That’s right. They don’t have any fur coats and a nice wife.

Peter Heidtmann - Remember earlier in the story after he looks at his watch and he finds out it’s only ten after twelve. And he say’s "My God, I’ve got the whole rest of the night to go yet." So that’s when he gets on the horse again. He takes off and leaves Nikita there and it doesn’t bother him that Nikita may freeze to death while he’s gone.

But here when he comes back and Nikita tells him, "I feel this is my death…"

Edgar Whan - "Well, never mind,…I know about myself what I know." He says on (page) 288. "I’ve learned something." There’s no particular point which I think he learned it. Now maybe if I read it more carefully, I could see it. I looked for it.

Peter Heidtmann - "There, and you say you are dying! Lie still and get warm, that’s our way..."

Edgar Whan - I think he meant "our" you know, Mother Russia.

Marilyn Atlas - This whole story is about the losing of the way. They can’t find their direction. They keep going in circles.

Peter Heidtmann - They get off the right road.

Marilyn Atlas - They even let the horse have control because they thought maybe the horse will show them the right way.

Edgar Whan - He did pretty much.

Marilyn Atlas - And all of a sudden when he says "That’s our way" I think that Tolstoy… There’s a double-edge here. I think there’s irony, too. I think if he thought it through and he said, "This man’s going to live if I do this and I’m going to die," he would have found a way to be on the bottom. I think it wasn’t just the goodness. I think it was an innocence. And I’m not even putting him down for that one particular thing. Actually, if a life is to be saved, one saves one’s own.

Edgar Whan - But think how suddenly the truth that he found is the same truth that you have to take care of other people. He didn’t say it. He would have been shocked if he had said it, I agree. But somehow, he just did it. And what good people do is what they do spontaneously, not what they think about.

Marilyn Atlas - But he’s not been a good person, not in our estimation.

Edgar Whan - He can’t be.

Marilyn Atlas - That’s true. He does good whether he’s a good person or not, he does good, but he doesn’t save his own life. So he does good but he also does stupidly.

Edgar Whan - He risked that guy’s life to get to that darned forest. Took him out there, didn’t pay any attention to him and he was just caught up with making money. But something happens at the end, clearly.

Peter Heidtmann - Yes, he’s overcome with something he doesn’t understand himself, experiencing a strange wave of tenderness.

Edgar Whan - "It’s our way."

Marilyn Atlas - Yes, and this kills him. I mean what’s the implication here? That the master dies by being kind to a man?

Edgar Whan - I think you may say it was the first time he lived. It was the first time he really lived.

Marilyn Atlas - Because he felt tenderness towards someone.

Edgar Whan - I think maybe the first time he became a man or a human being was at that end. It’s that community of suffering that they really had together because that’s when it happened.

Marilyn Atlas - But they didn’t have a community of suffering.

Edgar Whan - Well, they both suffered.

Marilyn Atlas - That’s different than a community of suffering.

Edgar Whan- When he says "I see you’re sorry," and when he looked at him he saw this guy was freezing as he was freezing.

Marilyn Atlas - At that point.

Edgar Whan - Up until then I would say it was just "get the horse working."

Peter Heidtmann - To get to the death scene again, like Ivan in the other story, Vasili says here that he hears a voice and he says, " ‘I’m coming! Coming!’ he responded gladly, and his whole being was filled with joyful emotion. He felt himself free and that nothing could hold him back any longer." Now this is very much like what happens to Ivan in the other story.

But, look, we have this little epilogue in which we’re told about Nikita’s death. He doesn’t die when they’re found in the morning and although he has some toes amputated, I won’t talk about the significance of it being three toes (laughter).

Marilyn Atlas - all right, I’ll let it go this time. I liked your earlier comment that there were seven left. That’s the important part.

Edgar Whan - I think so.

Peter Heidtmann - He was still able to work and went on living for another twenty years. We’re told earlier in the story that he’s around fifty years old. So, he’s around seventy.

Marilyn Atlas - Which is considered a full life.

Peter Heidtmann - Yes.

"Before he died he asked his wife’s forgiveness and forgave her for the cooper. He also took leave of his son and grandchildren, and… that he was now really passing from this life of which he was weary into that other life which every year and every hour grew clearer and more desirable to him."

Now we don’t tell about any joy.

Edgar Whan - This is the way peasants die. I really think that is what he is saying. To die naturally,

Marilyn Atlas - But he does really like Ivan Ilych, in terms of accepting the new world that he’s being born into.

Peter Heidtmann - But it’s not this ecstatic kind of thing that we get with Ivan and with Vasili here.

"Whether he is better or worse off there where he awoke after his death, whether he was disappointed or found there what he expected, we shall all soon learn."

Well, Tolstoy implies with Vasili and with Ivan in the other story that it’s going to be beautiful. There’s no doubt.

Edgar Whan - He said the character thinks it’s going to be beautiful. So that’s where it’s different. This other one doesn’t think that.

MA And here we have the authorial intrusion.

Edgar Whan - And this ending, "All around the snow still eddied. The same whirlwinds of snow circled about, covering the dead Vasili Andreevich's fur coat, the shivering Mukhorty, the sledge, now scarcely to be seen, and Nikita lying at the bottom of it, kept warm beneath his dead master."

This thing, the dead master, the one who saved him is..

Marilyn Atlas - Okay, the only way a master can save you is by being dead, I think is one of the implications here.

Edgar Whan - Well, the kind of a little Christian talk there about the dying master who saves you.

Peter Heidtmann - Yes, there is this thing in the story about who is the master because later on there is a capital "M" Master.

Edgar Whan - Capital "M" that’s right. I would accept that from most people, but from Tolstoy I was a little hesitant because he was so anti-church. He was very deeply religious, but he wanted to get back to the simple religion. So, I just don’t know, but that big "M" was interesting. I noticed that, too.

Peter Heidtmann - Well, isn’t there in this story this Christian layer of understanding because like this little child. Well, I don’t think he was so little. I think he was even married.

Edgar Whan - He kept saying these little things, "a penny saved is a penny earned."

Peter Heidtmann - These childhood textbook things. And he’s the child who led them out, you know, so they could find the place where they need to go to make the turning. And isn’t Vasili obsessed with money and acquisition?

Edgar Whan - Of course.

Peter Heidtmann - Isn’t he like the rich man in the Bible? "It’s easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than a rich man to get to heaven."

Edgar Whan - That’s true.

Peter Heidtmann - And Nikita is the poor man, "Blessed are the meek." So, it’s very fable-like.

Edgar Whan - The whole thing is… "The rich shall stand at… The last shall be first." And all this kind of thing I think is true.

Marilyn Atlas - I could see looking at this as a Christian parable, this story, much more, "Ivan Ilych" attempts at realism, attempts at understanding a marriage, a life.

Edgar Whan - That master lying above him was really a clue. I don’t know what it is in Russian, but in English, it seems so.

Peter Heidtmann - I would have to be the same, the equivalent because the title is "Master and Man" and later on the word master is used.

Edgar Whan - I think the important thing is that you have to remember the title. You forget a title at your own danger because often it tells you what really is going on… Well, he suddenly found out who he is. He says to Nikita, "I know who I am now."

Marilyn Atlas - Well one of the things I want to add just at the ending for the questions that we hope will be coming in is one of the ways I saw this was an attempt of Tolstoy to get to some kind of freedom, some kind of better place, out of some kind of an Egypt, at least for the master and he does succeed. I mean the master does a kind thing. He happens to die doing it and he never gets to the promised land.

But Nikita, also, one of the things we could do is take a look at what Nikita learns from this. And I’m not sure he really does learn anything. Does he?

Edgar Whan - He didn’t learn anything he didn’t know before. He was certainly forgiving of his master.

Marilyn Atlas - Yes, that’s true.

You can continue the Leo Tolsoy discussion in the Community Reconsidered discussion forum.

Community Reconsidered home page

Wired for Books home page

This Ohio University Telecommunications Center project
was funded, in part, by a grant from the Ohio Humanities Council
and the National Endowment for the Humanities

Ohio University Telecommunications Center     Ohio Humanities Council / National Endowment for the Humanities

Wired for Books is also made possible, in part, by the following underwriters:

Vintage Books,
America's leading publisher of quality paperback books and the main
supplier of free reading group guides to bookstores and libraries.
For free Vintage Guides, go to www.randomhouse.com/vintage/read/

Athens Book Center,
serving all of southeastern Ohio with book ordering and free shipping in southeastern Ohio
at 1-800-592-4865 (Ohio) or 1-614-592-4865
and on the World Wide Web at

Vintage Books Reading Group Center

Athens Book Center

And special thanks to Athens County Library Services and the
State Library of Ohio for providing books to our Ohio readers and scholars.

Poetry Online
Enjoy a mix of old and new, either to read or listen to

Discussion forums

Wired for Books is produced by the
Ohio University Telecommunications Center

Ohio University Telecommunications Center

For RealAudio or  RealVideo, you'll need the RealPlayer.
You can download a free player at Real Networks.

get the free realplayer

Wired for Books: A Yahoo! Daily Pick

PBS Online Station Link
for exemplary Web content

Winner of the 1999 Streamers WebSage Award
for the best educational use of streaming media

1999 Streamers WebSage Winner

Read about Wired for Books  in the
Chronicle of Higher Education

Copyright 1997 Ohio University