The Living Lie, But Dead Men Tell the Truth: The Screwtape Letters and Ivan Ilych

In Leo Tolstoy’s brilliant novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886), there is a curious pun in the English translation I use (Aylmer Maude):

“The dead man lay, as dead men always lie” (96).

As the title suggests, The Death of Ivan Ilych is about the final months of a prosperous 19th c. Russian judge, dying relatively young of an illness that began with a minor injury. I read it as part of the Memento Mori tradition, so that Ivan’s death is “a reproach and a warning to the living” (97). “Memento mori” means “remember that you will die,” and is a rich tradition of art, literature, dance, and hymn-writing meant to encourage people to live well with a sense of our own mortality. In his 1882 Confession, Tolstoy pressed himself with this question:

“Is there any meaning in my life that wouldn’t be destroyed by the death that inevitably awaits me?” (140)

Surrounded by Job’s Comforters and doctors who refuse to tell him of his real condition–and certain that he does not deserve his suffering–Ivan Ilych is very slow to consider his life on the road to his death. His suffering is actually of three kinds: the intense pain of his disease, the pitiful sorrow he feels that no one understands his suffering, and his mental anguish in the philosophical question of why he is dying–which is really a mask for his own fear of death. For most of the novel, Ivan vacillates between these three tortures.

Eventually, though, his mortality breaks through to him. As he nears his end, he can see that although he has lived the normal Russian clerk’s life to which he was ardently committed, he has not lived well. There was sinfulness, but

“It was all done with clean hands, in clean linen, with French phrases, and above all among people of the best society and consequently with the approval of people of rank” (104).

As a judge, Ivan Ilych held the fate of the accused in his hands. Now, as Death accuses him, Ivan fights the idea that his life may not have been lived well. As pain is God’s megaphone to rouse a deaf world (C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, 65), so Ivan’s suffering finally open’s up another possibility to him:

“It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. 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” (148).

This is the turn in the story, the beginning of Ivan Ilych’s awakening from a great slumber. As is typical of Tolstoy’s stories, the ending of Ivan Ilych is rich in imagery and meaning.

A scholar I have done research with, Dr. Pamela Bastante, who studies the Ars moriendi tradition (The Art of Dying Well), and as a memo of mortality, The Death of Ivan Ilych is a call to die well–and, more deeply I think, to live well. While this grappling with mortality and meaning seems obvious to me, Nicholas Lezard notes that the point is often missed:

“Ilyich is assumed by most commentators to be the kind of man who deserves to see his life as an increasingly ghastly blunder, but there is scant evidence in the text for this: you might not have wanted to come up against him in court, you feel, but he is no more than averagely inconsiderate or fake. His delusions are no different from yours, mine…” (Nicholas Lezard, reviewing for the Guardian a new edition of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and The Devil).

It is hard to miss, I think, the implications that Ivan Ilych’s death is a clarion call to all who witness it. The hypocrisy of his friends is hardly subtle in the text. After getting word of his passing, the friends turn to their own ambitions and the dread of having to fulfill their expectations for the funeral:

Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych’s death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, “it is he who is dead and not I.” Each one thought or felt, “Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!” But the more intimate of Ivan Ilych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfil the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow (94-95).

And if the self-delusion of the friends was not enough, the smugness of this silent communiqué should do it:

“Ivan Ilych has made a mess of things—not like you and me.” (95)

The closest of Ivan’s friends feels some horror and an “unpleasant consciousness” (99) of his own mortality, and some fear. There is also a hopeful realism in Ilych’s peasant butler, his brother-in-law, and his son. Everyone else in the text, however, remains in willful self-delusion about Ivan’s condition. As his doctors become a little grave, Ivan breaks the news to his wife. As if not hearing, she answers:

“Well, I am very glad,” she said. “Mind now to take your medicine regularly” (120).

Her complete dismissal of the matter persists up until he slips into a three-day period of screaming and torture. Her self-delusion encourages Ivan’s own desire to ignore his mortal life:

“Well,” he thought, “perhaps it isn’t so bad after all.” He began taking his medicine and following the doctor’s directions (120).

Ivan Ilych’s defences against self-knowledge are very thick. He calls them “screens” and likens them to fort walls. His doctors never tell him the full truth of his illness, his wife only criticizes him for wastefulness and irregularity as he becomes more ill, and he has the daily distractions of work, ambition, and propriety that keep him from suspecting the truth about himself. And yet, all this deception becomes one of Ilych’s greatest sufferings:

Apart from this lying, or because of it, what most tormented Ivan Ilych was that no one pitied him as he wished to be pitied (135).

When in desperation Ivan Ilych finally accuses God in an angry prayer, he receives an answer in the form of a question.

“What is it you want?” was the first clear conception capable of expression in words, that he heard….

“What do I want? To live and not to suffer,” he answered….

“To live? How?” asked his inner voice (143).

This question turns out to be fatal. As he reviews his life, his entire adult life seems insipid to him. He begins to suspect that he had misunderstood everything about his life:

“It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined 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 it is all done and there is only death” (144-45).

The great descent of life, the slow slide into darkness and oblivious, surrounded by friends and doctors who support him in his self-delusion of a good life and lie to him about his impending mortality. This is the plot-line of The Death of Ivan Ilych. Does this life-line seem familiar?

Let us look at C.S. Lewis’ famous The Screwtape Letters, a book of advice from a senior demon to his protégé. The masterful Screwtape chides his nephew Wormwood for falling for the flash and bang of demonic service during times of war. Yes, the suffering is delicious and the pain immeasurable. But the demon’s task is a simple one: cause the spiritual life of their patient to decay. With that mission in mind, a war might even produce the wrong results, from the perspective of a guardian demon:

Consider too what undesirable deaths occur in wartime. Men are killed in places where they knew they might be killed and to which they go, if they are at all of the Enemy’s party [i.e., followers of God], prepared. How much better for us if all humans died in costly nursing homes amid doctors who lie, nurses who lie, friends who lie, as we have trained them, promising life to the dying, encouraging the belief that sickness excuses every indulgence, and even, if our workers know their job, withholding all suggestion of a priest lest it should betray to the sick man his true condition! And how disastrous for us is the continual remembrance of death which war enforces. One of our best weapons, contented worldliness, is rendered useless. In wartime not even a human can believe that he is going to live forever (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, letter V).

Doctors who lie, friends who lie, dying in comfort believing there is the hope of life and separated from the danger of a sense of their true mortal conditions. There it is.

Ivan Ilych’s condition is not great evil-doing, but “contented worldliness.” Ivan has lived in wealth, fulfilling his ambitions, playing whist with adoring friends of the same class and intelligence, fulfiling the role of a clerk with precision, even if his roles of father, husband, neighbour, and justice-keeper are somewhat ignored. Even in his dying days, he cannot realize death in his own frame. And when he begins to suspect that the death rattle is near, he cannot accept that his life has been meaningless. Not just meaningless, but a slow descent in inverse proportion to his imagined rise to social acceptance.

This is, of course, precisely what Screwtape would want. Here is another moment from the Letters:

You will say that these are very small sins; and doubtless, like all young tempters, you are anxious to be able to report spectacular wickedness. But do remember, the only thing that matters is the extent to which you separate the man from the Enemy [God]. It does not matter how small the sins are provided that their cumulative effect is to edge the man away from the Light and out into the Nothing. Murder is no better than cards if cards can do the trick. Indeed the safest road to Hell is the gradual one–the gentle slope, soft underfoot, without sudden turnings, without milestones, without signposts (C.S. Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, letter XII).

I began this piece with the statement from the text that “dead men always lie” (96). I think this is exactly the reverse of the truth of the story. The living lie, but dead men tell the truth.

Considering The Death of Ivan Ilych from a Screwtapian lens, this lying the first reality. We wrap ourselves up in self-delusion and surround ourselves with people who avoid the truth–friends who are “steady, consistent scoffers and worldlings who without any spectacular crimes are progressing quietly and comfortably towards” their own destruction (Lewis, The Screwtape Letters, letter XI). And, in doing so, we confirm the second Screwtapian principle: the safest road to Hell is the gradual one.

It is like Screwtape wrote the script to Ivan Ilych’s life. Considering how Ivan Ilych finally dies, however, we see the fatal flaw in Screwtape’s plan. While the living lie, death always tells the truth. That is the reality of the danse macabre: death is the great awakener as it is the great equalizer.

My major study with Pamela Bastante on the Mexican religious movement, Santa Muerta, is available on Project Muse “Nuestra Señora de las Sombras: The Enigmatic Identity of Santa Muerte,” Journal of the Southwest 55, no. 4 (2013): 435–471. Santa Meurte is a pretty remarkable movement. See also Tulika Bahadur’s great blog post on the Danse Macabre, and linger on her beautiful art blog.

About Brenton Dickieson

“A Pilgrim in Narnia” is a blog project in reading and talking about the work of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and the worlds they touched. As a "Faith, Fantasy, and Fiction" blog, we cover topics like children’s literature, apologetics and philosophy, myths and mythology, fantasy, theology, cultural critique, art and writing. This blog includes my thoughts as I read through Lewis and Tolkien and reflect on my own life and culture. In this sense, I am a Pilgrim in Narnia--or Middle Earth, or Fairyland. I am often peeking inside of wardrobes, looking for magic bricks in urban alleys, or rooting through yard sale boxes for old rings. If something here captures your imagination, leave a comment, “like” a post, share with your friends, or sign up to receive Narnian Pilgrim posts in your email box. Brenton Dickieson is a father, husband, friend, university lecturer, and freelance writer from Prince Edward Island, Canada. You can follow him on Twitter, @BrentonDana.
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18 Responses to The Living Lie, But Dead Men Tell the Truth: The Screwtape Letters and Ivan Ilych

  1. Tolstoy was a dominant figure in my life during my teens. I began to read Tolkien at that time as well but his influence grew in a different way (wow! I am going to have to think that through…). Tolstoy demanded my attention. I read War and Peace twice. I was overwhelmed by it.
    I can’t quite remember when I read The Death of Ivan Ilych. Christian faith had turned up consciously onto the scene so I must have been 19 or a little older. I had a young person’s contempt for the bourgeois and so I disliked Ilych and his entire circle. But I was overwhelmed (again) by the transformation that takes place at his death, that moment when his tempter loses him into the embrace of Love.
    What a wonderful comparison and contrast with The Screwtape Letters. I am entirely persuaded. By the way, have you ever read a short story that Tolstoy wrote on the tempting of a poor peasant? The junior devil steals the poor man’s lunch but it only results in a shrug of the shoulders and a blessing for the “thief”. The senior devil tells his junior to watch how it should be done. The next day the poor man’s lunch is again stolen but this time replaced by a bag of gold. At first the peasant regards this as a blessing but slowly slides towards a growing sense of entitlement. His soul is eventually firmly in the grip of the devil.
    Did Lewis know this story? Did it influence his creation of junior and senior devils?
    As you can see, Brenton, I have the leisure to sit and write. I am even starting to write my Lord of the Rings blog again. It feels good. Will it last beyond the virus crisis? I am delighted to have learnt that people still read what I have already written and my view figures have remained pretty consistent.
    God keep and bless you and your family.

    Liked by 1 person

    • This is such a nice note, Stephen! I am very glad that you are back at writing and blogging. I will take a look. Post-virus….? Do any of us know? I know it must be hard to be a pastor with sheep trapped in their paddocks. I hope you can still do good in this time.
      Your Tolstoy encounter is very cool. I’m glad I could win you on this piece. I really think it is the case that Lewis is channelling Tolstoy here.
      I am so pleased to hear about that Tolstoy story. Do you remember the name? Is it “The Devil?” I thought that was political.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Of course it isn’t just the sheep who are in the paddock it is the pastor too. Except I am in a different one and I have to trust that God is looking after everyone else without me.
        Of course I like thousands of people am learning to use contemporary means of communication that I did not know existed until a couple of weeks ago. I am grateful for my daughter who has been home with us for teaching me.
        I wish I could remember the title of the Tolstoy story. He wrote it in a very simple folksy way, not at all like the magisterial voice of his great works. It had such an effect on me that I have always known it, more or less by heart, and I still know it now after more than 40 years. Except, like a folk tale, I have made it my own now and I tell it in my way.
        May be someone else will know the original title.
        God bless and keep you and your family, Brenton.


  2. mlktrout says:

    Hi Brenton,

    I was interested in your Santa Muerta study on Project Muse, but the link took me to PEI University, of which I’m not a member. Is there another way to read this?

    BTW I read “The Death of Ivan Ilych” in 2013 and it has stuck with me to this day. I remember thinking you can’t really die well if you don’t live well, and he didn’t live well. That made the story doubly tragic.

    Mel Hughes


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