Review and Commentary on The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Image from Goodreads.

Author: Leo Tolstoy

Publisher: Bantam Classics

Tolstoy is one of those authors I have always been meaning to read but only make a half-hearted effort to get around to. For example, I have had a copy of “War and Peace” on my shelf for almost three years now. Every time I look at it, I am daunted by its size and scope. But someone recently introduced me to Tolstoy’s short stories and novellas, works that I had previously been unaware of. I think this is common among great authors. We get caught up with the “greatest works,” but then neglect, or forget about, the smaller ones. So in hopes of being reintroduced to Russian literature, and that I might be warmly introduced to Tolstoy, I began The Death of Ivan Ilyich. My hope now is that if you have not read any Russian literature or have also been daunted by some of Tolstoy’s better-known works, you too might brave this brief but fascinating novella.

Tolstoy’s writing was not what I expected. I knew that Russian literature, in general, was rather philosophical, but I appreciated how well the underlying argument was woven into the narrative without being obnoxious, making his story enjoyable and the subject approachable. This brief book won’t take you long to read, not to mention that the story pulls you along. Despite knowing the ending as you begin, you really do not know what will happen next, so you are held captive until the final, gripping moments.

As evidenced by the title, I cannot spoil the plot of the book: Ivan Ilyich dies. In fact, the story begins with him already dead before going back to the start of Ilyich’s life. As an omnipotent outsider looking in, the reader gets to observe and contemplate the emotions and motives of the characters (people) as they really are. Through them, Tolstoy allows the reader to contemplate themselves and the lives and motivations of those around them. This is displayed most prominently in the life of the main character, Ivan Ilyich, though the other characters should not be disregarded by the reader. But for Ivan Ilyich, he has it all. A decent position, a reasonable living, a wife, and children. Together, this family attains a comfortable social status, the possessions that make them appear important, and the power over other people’s lives as one can only imagine. Yet along this path to apparent success, Ivan is injured in an innocuous accident, and this plagues him for the rest of his life.

Over the course of the book, you watch in self-aware silence, a fascinated horror, as Ivan dives deeper into despair, inching closer towards death. He is dragged along and deceived by his wife and different doctors, all the while never getting the answers to the cause of his pain. He seeks out many to cure him, but he cannot tell who is telling the truth and who is lying. In fact, everyone around him, save one, does their best to avoid confronting not only the reality of Ivan’s impending death but their own mortality. He has no true friends and is alone. He can feel the pressure from others watching, waiting for him to die. For what is Ivan Ilyich? He is a position, an income maker, a possessor of power. And if that is all there is to life, everyone wants it when he is gone. For who contemplates their own death? As much as he tries to stave it off, Ivan knows his end is coming.

But how does one face death when his entire legacy is based on this material, mortal world? Tolstoy weaves in that ultimate question, “What is life, and life after death?” throughout his narrative, though it creeps up on you quietly until about halfway through the story. But then again, such is life. Towards the end, the suffering Ivan Ilyich struggles with his impending demise.

“Before there was light, now there is darkness. Before I was here, now I am going there. Where?”

“I’ll be gone. What will there be then? Nothing. So where will I be when I’m gone? Can this really be death? No! I don’t want this!”

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he unaccustomed to such an idea, he simply could not grasp it, could not grasp it at all. The syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic—“Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal”—had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but by no means to himself.

“It’s as though I had been going steadily downhill while I imagined I was going up. That’s exactly what happened. In public opinion I was moving uphill, but to the same extent life was slipping away from me. And now it’s gone and all I can do is die!”

He struggled as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of an executioner, knowing there is no escape. And he felt that with every minute, despite his efforts to resist, he was coming closer and closer to what terrified him.

Tolstoy is a master in depicting Ivan’s confusion and fear. And in doing so, he captures that same fear that grips the human heart. Has his whole being been vanity? After all, who wishes to face their own mortality? In the end, Ivan, like each of us, has to face one simple fact: There is nothing Ivan could have done to rescue him from his pain, nothing to save himself from death. But this is in conflict with the way he has ordered his life, in which he sought to do nothing but preserve himself in this world. Now all were waiting for him to die, and all he had built was for naught in comparison to the reality he now faced. What was left for him? What was coming after?

Light is sweet, and it is pleasant for the eyes to see the sun. So if a person lives many years, let him rejoice in them all; but let him remember that the days of darkness will be many. All that comes is vanity. Rejoice, O young man, in your youth, and let your heart cheer you in the days of your youth. Walk in the ways of your heart and the sight of your eyes. But know that for all these things God will bring you into judgment.

Ecclesiastes 11:7-9

As I mentioned before, Russian literature is highly philosophical. In fact, I doubt that I have scratched much beyond the surface of this story. And this is not to say that other literature is not philosophical, however, the philosophical and theological element is just a touch stronger here. This book is not overtly religious, yet the Gospel shines through. At the end of it all, Tolstoy is trying to make his reader consider how it is that we should live our lives. One might think this story would be embracing the “you only live once” lifestyle, and maybe if it had been written today, it might have. But that is not Tolstoy’s message; he presents us with a different question. We will die. So how shall you live? Shall we live them for pleasuring, fully embracing hedonism, drinking life to the full, ignoring that ever-creeping fear that follows us of our inevitable death? Or do we live for something grander? Perhaps a better way to say it is, Who has made our life worth living?

Ivan Ilyich grapples with this question until the very end. Sadly, he had nearly no peace in his life, for he sought security from that which fades, bringing only fear and uncertainty to life. Live Ivan, we too have to acknowledge our own mortality. In addition, there are no redeeming moments like most fiction. He offers and receives no forgiveness in this world. Ivan shrinks from the light until the end. There is no miraculous recovery, no reconciliation, no fantasy. Like Ivan, we all have to die. But thankfully for him, and us, Ivan Ilyich dies twice: once in the flesh and once to himself spiritually. Ivan does die, his earthly, sickly body finally at rest from its pain. Yet Ivan died just before then as well, a death to his old self, finding in those final precious moments the peace and joy he had craved for so long, that which every person also craves. And as he stretched out his hands, nailing to death his selfish desires and former idols, he opened himself to the loving, forgiving embrace of his true Savior, Healer, and Friend.

Like any good piece of literature, The Death of Ivan Ilyich makes you think. As I said, there is much more depth to this story than what I have broached here, and I hope you will read it and find that depth. What are the motives of the other players? How do they differ from one another? How are they each trapped in their own gilded cages? And who in the story are closest in their life now to Ivan at his end? These are other thoughts I had while reading, and perhaps you can find their conclusions while you read. This is also a timely piece of literature. I think it is no accident that this book has come up in my life over a dozen times recently. We have all had our “Ivan Ilyich” experience this past year, and we would all do well to confront our own mortality and the reality that we do not “only live once” but twice. I think you would do well to read this story. If you are looking for a stepping stone to a fascinating genre of literature, and perhaps you are wondering if Tolstoy is right for you, then pick up this little work that will entertain while causing you to ponder the greater questions in life.

Blessings to you and yours,

~Madelyn Rose Craig

So teach us to number our days that we may get a heart of wisdom.

Psalm 90:12

He searched for his accustomed fear of death and could not find it. Where was death? What death? There was no fear because there was no death. Instead of death there was light. “So that’s it!” he exclaimed. “What bliss!”

“Death is over,” he said to himself. “There is no more death.” 

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