The Death Of Ivan Ilyich

Ivan Ilyich

It is difficult to do justice to this masterpiece. It is a book of profound spiritual teaching about mortality and values. Poor Ivan has an existential crisis which would do justice to Jean Paul Sartre! He asks of his life, “What is it all about? It can’t be that life is so senseless and loathsome.” His crisis is triggered by illness, which – along with loss or other traumatic experiences – is an all too common factor in forcing us to question our lives. As we get older and, if we have the courage, we start to review our lives honestly without flinching from the ‘mistakes’ we have inevitably made. It takes a long time for Ivan to face himself in this story but eventually he says: “What if in reality my whole life has been wrong?” Once he asks this question he struggles to suppress it but it gradually becomes more insistent in his thoughts until he has to accept it. He wonders if all his career moves, ambition and marriage have been a sham and perhaps qualities such as compassion and kindness ‘might have been the real thing.’ He reviews his early life and recognises that childhood had something which he lost as he grew older – innocence and honesty perhaps!? His peasant servant, Gerassim, epitomises simple, honest kindness. There are many moving passages where he simply helps poor Ivan in his distress. The ending is far from depressing too; I won’t spoil it if you haven’t read it but just to say it is a perfect resolution to all that has gone before.
I can’t imagine many young readers understanding the deeper aspects of this story as when you are in your twenties your energies go into strengthening your ego and pursuing material and emotional security at the expense of more universal, lasting contentment. It was living his life in the light of everyone else’s opinion which created the sham of Ivan’s life.
This is a novella that bears repeated readings. If you haven’t read this masterpiece you simply MUST! Surely it counts as one of world literature’s timeless jewels.

7 thoughts on “The Death Of Ivan Ilyich

  1. This is probably my favorite novel. It was the only one that actually made me cry, and by cry I mean bawl my eyes out. I find existentialism leaves me cold, but this existential crisis made sense, it felt real. Ivan’s life was all too typical, which made the impact of his despair so powerful. He’s not an intellectual, not a philosopher who fixates on things like existential crises, not a deep thinker at all. He’s really an average guy. But his average-ness makes this the story of everyone.

    The resolution, jaw dropping and profound. Only Tolstoy could get away with this. He doesn’t beat you over the head with it or over-explain. Though I’m not religious, I still found this ending fully believable—even typical—and just…perfectly done. That leaving behind of everything…I’m sort of at a loss for words. It instilled in me the strangest mixture of sadness, futility, and hope. And all these things at once.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. Not at all! I was so excited to see this post. Tolstoy’s my favorite writer, and this was my favorite. Better than Anna Karenina, even War and Peace, for me at least. This one struck home for me probably because the themes are more interesting to me. It’s also very different in scope from the others, there’s a narrowing in…it’s more psychological.

        Funny, I read it in my 20s, but I have an old soul. 🙂


  2. Have just finished The Cossacks – another narrative with much to think about. There are places where Olenin experiences a mystical unity with nature. The whole story is a seamless narrative of convincing characters and events. (A ‘perfect’ story?) Brilliant!


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