Sunday, December 4, 2011

Redemption: The Thane of Cawdor, Ivan Ilyich and the Rest of Us

This fall I've been teaching Shakespeare's The Tragedy of Macbeth to high school juniors. And this week I finished reading Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In both stories, writers describe men at the end of their earthly lives, men guilty of serious sins and yet who find redemption at the very end of their days.

The possibility of redemption: I can think of no more compelling message this Advent season, a season in which we Christians await the birth of our Redeemer.
We never meet the Thane of Cawdor in Macbeth. Others speak of him as "that most disloyal traitor," who, in a war on Scottish soil against Norway, betrays his country. King Duncan of Scotland immediately orders his execution and sets the play's plot into motion by giving his title to Macbeth.

Duncan's son, Malcolm recounts the descriptions of  the witnesses to the Thane of Cawdor's execution:

I have spoke 
With one that saw him die: who did report
That very frankly he confess'd his treasons,
Implored your highness' pardon and set forth
A deep repentance: nothing in his life
Became him like the leaving it;
he died
As one that had been studied in his death
To throw away the dearest thing he owed,
As 'twere a careless trifle."

A colleague of mine, who also teaches Macbeth, said she thinks the Thane of Cawdor's expressions of regret and desire to repent are insincere and opportunistic.  I never have read his character in this way. In fact, the witches' commentary that "fair is foul and foul is fair" to me mean that those who appear fair, such as Macbeth, can sometimes be foul and those we consider foul, or unworthy, like the Thane of Cawdor are, in the end, redeemed or "fair."

We are much more, in the end, than merely the sum of our actions. The desires of our heart are what connect us to the Infinite.

We learn much more about the character of Ivan Ilyich than about the Thane of Cawdor. Tolstoy wrote this story shortly after his own religious conversion. He describes a man who lives his life following the bourgeois conventions in late 19th century St. Petersburg. Ivan Ilyich is a social climber. He marries his wife not because he loves her but because the people he wants to impress approve of the match. He is surprised to discover that running a home and raising children is not always convenient; he sees his married life as an impediment to his pursuit of career and pleasure.

Much of the story describes the suffering Ivan Ilyich endures from an illness no physician can cure. His self-involved wife and children view his illness as an impediment to their own desires. Until the very end, he clings to the belief  that he has led a good life. The stubborn belief intensifies his agony. "This justification of his life held him fast, kept him from moving forward, and caused him more agony than anything else."

As death draws closer, Ivan Ilyich is given an ephiphany: "At that very moment Ivan Ilyich fell through and saw a light, and it was revealed to him that his life had not been what it should have but that he could still rectify the situation."

As Christmas draws closer, I am reminding myself that Christ is not an abstraction. He is the Word made flesh. He came to us and he comes to us now because we all need redeeming.

No comments:

Post a Comment