The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

by Lily Wren


The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy
Categories: Classic Literature, Russian Literature, 19th Century
Publication date: 1st published in Russian in 1886. This edition in May 2008 (Translated by Ian Dreiblatt).

This is my first venture into the land of Tolstoy. As with Camus, I was intimidated by the name ‘Tolstoy’ and, as with Camus, this should never have been so. The Death of Ivan Ilych is a rather poignant, striking novella written following a time where it is said Tolstoy went through a religious conversion. The book provokes thoughts around mortality and provides us with a harsh lesson in ‘live life well’.

Despite the book title, the story focusses upon the life which Ivan Ilych felt he had lived and the process of dying he goes through rather than of death itself. It is striking, emotive and frighteningly remorseful. It’s that 3am in the morning kind of stuff. If you’re the kind of person who lies in bed agonising over your mortality, that funny twitch in your arm, pain in your chest or asking yourself “why am I here?” then the themes running through this wonderful novella will certainly chime.

Ivan Ilych is a well-respected judge who receives an unspecified diagnosis and deduces that he is terminally ill. As his condition deteriorates, we witness Ivan Ilych struggling to come to terms with his condition and the fact that he is dying. He begins to look back on his life with some sadness and regret.

Lately in that loneliness in which he found himself….in these late days of horrific loneliness Ivan Ilych lived only by his memories of the past. One after another he imagined scenes from his life. He would always begin with the most recent and proceed to the earliest, to his childhood, and settle there.  p.92

Such memories proved painful to bear. On looking back through his life, Ivan Ilych realises that as life moved forward and he became removed from the innocence of childhood, the worries of his life, career and money took over to a degree where his life became superficial and shallow and without meaning.

…the further back he looked, the more life there had been in him; both the more sweetness to life, and the more of life itself….There had been one point of light far back at the start of everything, and ever since everything had gotten blacker and blacker, and moved quicker and quicker. p.93

The only moments of tenderness and understanding he finds are in Gerasim, the butler’s assistant, who is able to emphasise and understand his needs. Ivan Ilych views others around him as selfish, looking inwards to their own needs as he himself seems to do. Ivan Ilych starts to look on his wife, friends and colleagues with the same feelings of bitterness, regret and hate which he has for life and himself.

His marriage…so accidental, and such a disappointment, with his wife’s bad breath, and her sensuality, and their hypocrisy. His moribund professional life, the obsession with money…The further on in years the more deadening it became. In perfectly measured steps I went downhill imagining I was on my way up…. In public opinion I was on my way up, and the whole time my life was slipping away from under me….and now it’s all over, and it’s time to die. p.88

The inevitability of death pervades the book and feeds into this readers’ mortality. As Ivan Ilych struggles to come to terms with his life, dying and death the reader is also carried along and forced to ask questions of his/her own mortality and life. The fact that Ivan Ilych is dying is, for want of a better word, irrelevant. Death is inevitable – we are all dying, we will all face death and this is the only thing we can be sure about in life. The important lesson we should learn is how to spend our time wisely as we move towards this inevitability.

I’m so glad that this is my first experience of reading Tolstoy. It’s a quick, compelling read with so much feeling and emotion packed into the 104 pages of this edition. It is without doubt a masterclass in writing and a 5 star read.