The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy (1886) (Bantam Classic, Translated by Lynn Solotaroff)


Puritan Board Freshman
This is perhaps Tolstoy’s shortest novel, only 82 pages. I suspect it’s one of Tolstoy’s shortest works. It reads more like a long short story.

  • The story focuses on the rather miserable and excruciating death of Ivan Ilyich, a judge and government official - a member of the Court of Justice in Russia.
  • Ivan's family despises him and would resent him more as his illness progressed. He doesn’t get along with his wife, Praskovya; over time, they grew apart and arguments over minor and trifling things increased, caused in part by Praskovya’s “petulant and irascible” nature. His children didn’t seem to care much for him. At the funeral, his wife is already inquiring as to how to obtain government benefits as a result of Ivan’s death.
  • His life overall seemed to not have much of a purpose: he enjoys his work, but he appears to have selfish motives at times and seems to focus on impressing others.
  • Tolstoy describes Ivan as having a desire for power, including having the power leniency over criminal defendants brought before his court.
  • Ivan is described as decorating his house so that he can “look rich” and at one point, Ivan goes to great lengths to acquire a new job primarily for the purpose of obtaining a higher salary, and then uproots his family to another city to take that job.
  • Tolstoy explains that the “pleasures he derived from his work were those of pride; the pleasures he derived from society were those of vanity; but it was genuine pleasure that he derived from playing whist.”
  • When Ivan’s sickness comes upon him, he initially dismisses it but the sickness escalates rapidly, causing an awful taste and sever pain in Ivan’s left side. At times, Ivan would try to trick himself into thinking that he was feeling better and the pain was subsiding, but the pain would always return with a vengeance.
  • When speaking of death and as Ivan’s relationship with his family deteriorates, Tolstoy at one point exclaims, “It seemed inconceivable to him [Ivan] that all men invariably had been condemned to suffer this awful horror.”
  • The medical profession does not come out of this novel looking good. Time and again, various doctors examine Ivan but they can never give Ivan a definitive diagnosis or direction for eradicating the illness. Specialists from out of town are brought in but with the same disappointing result. Ivan gets suggestions and conjecture but no concrete answers.
  • Ivan at one point expresses disgust at the supposed lie that he’s being told by his family and the doctors: that he was not dying but simply ill.
  • A pivotal event occurs towards the end of the novel when his family enters Ivan’s room purportedly to console him, but they end up discussing the opera they were scheduled to see that evening. Ivan is further plunged into despair.
  • The lack of Christianity and Biblical faith is quite apparent. Ivan clearly does not have a focus on God or eternity. I suppose one can say that this is Ivan’s ultimate downfall.
  • There are a couple of brief, vague references to God in the novel, but not much in the way of deep theological discussion. At one point, when in severe pain, Ivan cries out to God, “Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me to this? Why dost Thou torture me so? For what?” Ivan speculates momentarily that if he lived a life in which “I did everything I was supposed to do”, then perhaps he wouldn’t be suffering. But he then quickly dismisses the thought.
  • In the end, Ivan dies – at the age of 45 – after three days of constant searing pain and incessant screaming.
  • It’s difficult to determine the point Tolstoy is trying to get across. Perhaps it’s the imperative that we take death, and as a result, our lives, more seriously. Perhaps to think about death while we are alive – in a sense, to prepare for it. it’s also hard to tell if Tolstoy was implying that if we live a righteous and Godly life, we are less likely to face the kind of suffering that Ivan experienced.
  • Reading this novel from a Christian perspective was revealing. Without Christ, we indeed have no hope. Death is a result of the Fall and through Christ we overcome death and look forward to the resurrection. I don’t see how anyone can comprehend or deal with death if those things are lacking. Tolstoy, whether intentionally or unintentionally, poignantly reveals this profound truth.
Well, Tolstoy wrote some short stories. I seem to remember one where a man had the opportunity to claim some land. He had a certain amount of time to run his boundary markers out and be back or he got nothing. I won't spoil the ending.