Love and Death in Mitch Albom's Tuesdays with Morrie and Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych
One story is distinctively American in its optimism and characteristic of the 1990's in its tone; the other shows the unmistakable disposition of nineteenth century Russia. The more recent book follows the actual life of a sociology professor at Brandeis University while the other explores a product of Leo Tolstoy's imagination. Tuesdays with Morrie and "The Death of Ivan Ilych" portray two characters who sit on opposite ends of the literary spectrum but who share the dark bond of terminal illness and advance knowledge of their deaths. One views the knowledge as a blessing and as an opportunity to make his final good-byes, the other writhes in pain and begs for an end to his vicious sentence of suffering. In the face of identical fates these two men show stark contrasts, all for the simple reason that only one of them found a way to love.
Though illness stripped both Morrie Schwartz and Ivan Ilych of their hope for survival, their dissimilar lifestyles led each to a much different end. Morrie found himself in an overflow of compassion while surrounded by family, friends and colleagues. Ivan, on the other hand, found only the obligatory company of his wife and the painful awareness that no one really cared. Both characters ended their lives the way they lived them, as Ivan acknowledges: "In them he saw himself" (Ivn, 149). While Morrie poured himself into every moment of life and every relationship he pursued, Ivan skirted the dangers of emotion to live "easily, pleasantly, and decorously" (Ivn, 115). In the spirit of such an opposition, the two stories become somewhat like responses to each other. Morrie Schwatrz, proclaimed by his tombstone as "A Teacher to the Last" (Mor, 134), offers a textbook on the path to meaning that can be pointed directly at the rootlessness of Ivan Ilych.
Before we can understand the varying fates of these two men we must examine the prior years of life that scripted them. Morrie Schwartz lived for people and the opportunity to welcome them into his heart. He took the time to pursue a relationship with the student that would one day write his dying testimony, he took the time to cultivate a fruitful marriage and he took the time to give his fullest attention to everyone he encountered. Morrie cast off the deceptions of status and wealth, instead devoting himself to his family, his students, and the bouncing rhythms of the dance floor. Above all else, Morrie Schwartz clung to his guiding principle, "love each other or perish" (Mor, 91).
In the face of Morrie's overwhelming compassion and tenderness, Ivan Ilych presents an opposite lifestyle. After a pleasantly carefree childhood he turned towards ambition and pursued an ever-larger salary and an ever-increasing social rank. Ivan lived without values and without attachments, easily moving between cities and jobs. He cared little for the great...