Stanford University philosophy professors Debra Satz and Rob Reich were going over the points made by Tolstoy in his story last week to 14 of their students.
The students were attentive and offered opinions in a lively discussion. Some had underlined passages in the text of Tolstoy's story.
But these 14 students weren't enrolled at Stanford.
Instead, they were women living at Hope House, a recovery home for women located off Marsh Road near U.S. Highway 101.
All of the women, mostly in their 20s, have had drug or alcohol addictions. Many had been in the criminal-justice system.
Many of them are mothers with young children. One held a baby barely a few months old, Classmates took turns holding the baby while she prepared a feeding.
For them, Hope House was exactly named.
It was started in 1990 and Satz and Reich started teaching weekly classes there in 2001.
It's far from the Stanford Quad, but the life lessons and questions raised by Tolstoy may resonate even more strongly among women who have seen a harder side of life than most people, especially as they struggle to get their own lives straight.
The fictional Ivan Illych makes bad choices, including marrying a woman for whom he doesn't have much passion because it was expected of him.
As a judge, he does everything precisely correct — but without empathy for those appearing before him.
When he is dying a painful, lingering death, he at last comes to question his life and finally gains peace at the end by understanding his mistakes.
Illych "died while living and lived while dying," Satz explained.
It's one of Tolstoy's most enduring stories and it touches people who read it and try to understand it.
"We all make bad choices," Pam, a Hope House resident, said. "We can get caught up in the glamour of street life, the excitement and the money."
"We relate it to our own life," Valerie said. "I never thought about things like this before, while doing drugs."
"You lose everything," Carol said. "I lost an apartment and a husband. I came here by myself. I lost everything."
"Where's the love?" Carol asks, simply, at one point in the discussion.
"There was no love in his life," Satz replies.
The character Ivan Illych went through a painful transformation in his life at the point of death. What that was about, in Tolstoy's mind, is still debated, since Tolstoy went through a religious transformation late in his life, Satz said.
Reich said college students are often startled by the Tolstoy story, because everything in Ivan Illych's life sounds good to them — the right wife, a life of prestige, the big house continually being improved. Stanford students are often taken aback by the great drama at the end of "The Death of Ivan Illych," he said.
The women of Hope House weren't startled at all. They seemed innately to understand the story.
These were women who had given up on themselves. They want to return to a life free from addiction, to understand what they've been through and to feel whole again.
This isn't part of the professors' normal routine of teaching gifted Stanford students. It's something Satz and Reich have chosen to do as part of Stanford's program of Ethics in Society to teach humanities to others.
There were no easy answers in Tolstoy's story. There's a vital link between Tolstoy's story and ourselves that spans 125 years and vastly different cultures.
That's what makes great literature.
This story contains 639 words.
Stories older than 90 days are available only to subscribing members. Please help sustain quality local journalism by becoming a subscribing member today.
If you are already a subscriber, please log in so you can continue to enjoy unlimited access to stories and archives. Subscriptions start at $5 per month and may be cancelled at any time.