8 min read ⌚
Some stories are unbearable because they sound too artificial. Others are unbearable because they sound too authentic – and because they face us with some painful truths, we’d rather keep under the rag at all times.
None is better in doing the latter than Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.”
Who Should Read “The Death of Ivan Ilych”? And Why?
There are many books which can help you live a better life, but there are very few which can change your outlook on life altogether, transforming the very core of your beliefs.
Read it sooner rather than later.
Because you don’t want to find out in the end that you’ve lived all your life falsely.
Leo Tolstoy Biography
Leo Tolstoy – or count Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy in full – was a Russian novelist, essayist, and short story writer, almost unanimously acclaimed as one of the greatest writers in the history of world literature.
He was born into an aristocratic family in 1828 and lived to be 82 years old. By the end of his life, his fame was such that many people in Russia and in the world saw in him both a prophet and a sage.
In fact, his later ideas about nonviolent resistance, developed after an existential crisis under the influence of Henry David Thoreau, would have a profound effect on Martin Luther King Jr. and Mohandas Gandhi.
Before he turned all-didactic, Tolstoy wrote two of the greatest realist novels ever written, “War and Peace” and “Anna Karenina,” ranked #3 and #1 in Time’s respected 2007 poll of 125 contemporary authors’ outtake on the best books ever written.
He also wrote many novellas, short stories, plays, and philosophical essays.
St. Petersburg, Russia, the end of the 19th century.
Three friends – yeah, let’s call them that for now – sit in a law court and have the usual chitchat colleagues may have at the beginning of the workday.
Usual soon turns to somewhat awkward when they learn from the newspapers that a fourth colleague of theirs, Ivan Ilych, has died, or, as the British would say, is bereft of life, has ceased to be, is no more!
And when we say “awkward” we mean “now-that-he’s-dead-maybe-I-can-get-his-job” awkward.
So, not exactly great friends these colleagues of Ivan, wouldn’t you say that?
To make matters worse, one of these three, Peter Ivanovich, seems to have been Ivan’s best friend: he knows him from college and has been around him ever since.
He’s close enough to him that… well, he has to go to his funeral!
But, wait a minute!
If a person who comes to your funeral out of a sense of obligation is your best friend, what does that say about you?
Well, to quote Leo Tolstoy, that you have lived the “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” life imaginable.
Case in point: when Peter arrives at the funeral service, there’s basically not one person who cares one bit about the fact that a fellow human being has left the world!
And that’s especially true concerning Ivan’s wife, Praskovya Fëdorovna Golovin. She does cry a lot at first but make no mistake: just a second after that, she takes Peter aside and asks him quite directly if he knows some way for her to milk more money out of her husband’s death.
Peter doesn’t – not because he’s unknowledgeable, but because Praskovya has already researched the matter quite thoroughly.
In other words, in Praskovya’s case, option B was actually option A all along – too bad that Ivan had to live so long!
And when we say long, we mean forty-five years long! It may seem just a few, but, boy, they can seem like an eternity if you want your husband’s money!
So, what did Ivan do to deserve this?
Spoiler alert: nothing.
And that may be the problem!
It wasn’t always like that.
When young, Ivan was quite the fellow: smart, witty, good-humored. In other words, one of those destined to climb the social reader at a faster pace than most.
And he does.
While doing that, he meets Praskovya Fedorovna and, after a while, he marries her; though it’s not because he loves her or anything; but, because, well, people marry at a certain age, and a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do.
And things are going just fine at first, but they take a turn for the worse during Praskovya’s first pregnancy.
She becomes a little too moody for Ivan’s taste, so he starts focusing on those things which make him happy: work and playing bridge with his friends.
And yes – these are the same people who weren’t that impressed with the fact that they were obliged to go to Ivan’s funeral!
Anyway, after a while, Praskovya gives birth to Lisa, and after that to Vasya.
And this checks another box in Ivan’s list!
So, as unfulfilling as it is, life is not too shabby either.
And it seemingly gets even better when at around the age of 40, Ivan finds a new job with a better salary and a new apartment to prove it to the folks who know him!
What’s the point of earning more money than your peers if they don’t know that, right?
With a new apartment on the table, Ivan’s suddenly all about a new passion: interior decorating!
Unfortunately, however, that passion will prove too much for him.
Once, while working on the window drapes, he falls from the ladder he’s standing upon. It’s nothing much at first, but after a while, Ivan starts feeling a persistent pain and a bad taste in his mouth.
You know the ending, so you already know where this is going, right?
As time passes and Ivan’s pain slowly exacerbates, his “life’s-pleasant” mood deteriorates as well.
He doesn’t hear just a second opinion, but also a third and a fourth and a forty-seventh!
Unfortunately, not one of the doctors would tell him if his condition is serious and if there’s something he can do to fix it.
One thing’s for sure, though: the pain won’t go away, and pills help not one bit.
And then, one day, Ivan Ilych realizes that he’s going to die.
And, of course, it’s a very painful feeling!
the example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kiesewetter’s logic (“Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal”) had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all.
This realization, coupled with the continual pain Ivan’s feeling, takes away all the pleasure from Ivan’s life, and he likes neither bridge nor works anymore.
Eventually, he’s incapable of even going to bridge or work – and is pinned down to his bed.
Even reading these parts is an agonizing experience – trust us!
What makes it worse is the fact that neither Praskovya nor Lysa understand what’s going through Ivan’s mind or even acknowledge the fact that he’s about to die.
The only exception, the light at the end of the tunnel (before the actual light at the end of the tunnel) is Gerasim, the young butler of the Golovin’s family.
Well, first of all, because unlike the rest of his family, he’s not “false”: he doesn’t beat around the bush hiding the obvious facts behind a veil of clichés and picked-up emotions (“Everything will be fine, Ivan… the disease will pass…”)
And, secondly, because he genuinely cares – even though that part is not in his job’s description.
So, Ivan tries to spend as much of his time as he can with Gerasim – something which gives him the opportunity to see, for once, the things as they are.
And they are not shiny!
One night, tormented by pain, Ivan looks back upon his life and realizes that he hadn’t lived that much differently from the “false” people who he currently hates:
Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?
A frightening word.
According to whom, Ivan?
Who’s to say how you should live your life?
The Death of Ivan Ilych Epilogue
The realization anguishes Ivan right until the last day of his life when he is finally able to make the distinction between what it means to live a false life (like him and the rest of his family) and an authentic life (like Gerasim).
Put simply, in a false life, there’s a lot of “I”-s and “getting what I want”-s; in an authentic life, there’s nothing but compassion and sympathy.
For once, that’s exactly what Ivan feels.
His son Vasya kisses his hand, and he feels as if a stone has been lifted from his chest. Suddenly in the presence of a bright light, Ivan looks around him and starts thinking about how much of a burden he has been to his family.
His death will be both his and their salvation.
With joy, he dies.
And, just like John Donne once sang, moments before him, death dies as well:
He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. “Where is it? What death?” There was no fear because there was no death.
In place of death there was light.
So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!
To him all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change. For those present his agony continued for another two hours. Something rattled in his throat, his emaciated body twitched, then the gasping and rattle became less and less frequent.
It is finished!” said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.
Death is finished,” he said to himself. “It is no more!
He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died.
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“The Death of Ivan Ilych PDF Quotes”
The example of a syllogism that he had studied in Kiesewetter's logic: Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal, had throughout his whole life seemed to him right only in relation to Caius, but not to him at all. Click To Tweet
Our Critical Review
You’ll need no more than two hours to read this novella – and just as many to reconsider your time here on earth.
That’s the power of “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” possibly the best example of what the word “novella” means.
Also: if you have the time, please watch Kurosawa’s “Ikiru” – a film based on the book, one of the best examples of what films should be all about!
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