The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a powerful and intense story that Tolstoy wrote when he was in his late fifties, almost a decade after his masterpiece, Anna Karenina. It is the story of a man whose main aim in life was to be comfortable, to enjoy life, and to be approved by society – and how this man had to come to terms with his own humanity.
Ivan Ilyich married well because that was agreeable to him and looked upon as correct thing to do by those persons of higher standing. At first everything about his marriage fitted well with his ideas of a light-hearted and agreeable life – up until his wife’s pregnancy when a new element arose to disturb his peace. His wife became exacting and jealous and they fought over everything.
Ivan Ilyich decided that he needed to free himself from the unpleasant aspects of domestic life therefore he spent less time at home and poured himself into his office as a public prosecutor.

‘His official pleasures lay in the gratification of his pride; his social pleasures lay in the gratification of his vanity.’

As time went on, Ivan Ilyich rose in the world, the family moved in the best circles and everything carried on nicely. Even his marriage proved agreeable at times, but as he began to experience symptoms of the disease that was to take his life, he became irritable and broke out in gusts of temper.
Eventually he went to see a doctor, who directed him to take some medicine but gave him no specific diagnosis.
One day, about two months later, his brother-in-law paid a visit from out of town and one shocked look from him confirmed what Ivan Ilyich suspected. Something was seriously wrong but no-one would actually admit it.

The rest of the story so poignantly details Ilyich’s coming to terms with the truth of his condition, his loss of dignity as he is forced to accept the help of others, and most of all, the agony of knowing that everyone is acting falsely by not acknowledging that this disease is going to take his life.

‘This falsity around him and with him did more than anything to poison Ivan Ilyich’s last days.’

For such a short book, this story packs a powerful punch. It lays bares the inner workings of a man whose life was shallow and self-promoting, his struggles between hope and despair, his anger as he thought of ‘all the correctness of his life,’ until finally he comes to the point where he asks himself,  ‘Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?’
I cried through the last chapter of this story.

Linking to Back to the Classics & The Broken Spine Challenge for A Classic in Translation 


13 thoughts on “The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886)

  1. I am slowly working my way through the great Russian novelists. I am currently reading Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. Your description makes this sound so good. Hopefully I will get to it soon. .

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  2. It sounds like such a poignant tale, and knowing Tolstoy's brilliant writing, he really does justice to poor Ivan's plight. I've just read W&P and Anna K so far, but your review makes it sound just as powerful for being much shorter.

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  3. Hi Marianne, I only started reading Tolstoy in recent times. I thought he’d be a bit too heavy & morose but I found he’s probably one of easier Russian authors to read.

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  4. Paula, I’d only read AK before this one & I loved his writing. I don’t think he lost any of his power by writing a much smaller book. It really demonstrates his ability.

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  5. Pingback: The Classics Club: A New List | journey & destination

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