The Death of Ivan Ilych – alternately called a short story or a novella – is probably the most famous shorter work of Count Leo Tolstoy. Since it was published in 1886, in Volume 12 of Tolstoy's collected works (edited by his wife, Countess Sofia Tolstoy), it's been hailed as a masterpiece by critics and readers. Ivan Ilych also acquired a reputation as one of the modern treatments of death – one that has changed the way that subject is treated.
Writing about death was nothing new, to be sure. In the 19th century, death had been a favorite subject of the Romantics and many writers who came after them. They just couldn't stop talking about it, and created dying romantic heroes of all kinds: star-crossed lovers with tragic deaths, lonely tortured artists who came to painfully beautiful ends, and valiant men in battle who sacrificed themselves. (Our popular culture still owes a lot to the Romantics.)
What was new and remarkable in Tolstoy's work was how unremarkable its main character – and his death – was. The Death of Ivan Ilych is the story of a painfully ordinary government official who comes down with an untreatable illness and dies at home slowly, painfully, and full of loneliness. He's middle aged, has an unhappy family life, and a petty personality. Rather than turning to religion, art, or the love of his life to cope with death, he turns to doctors. About as far from a dying romantic hero as you can get. Much more like, well, us normal people.
Tolstoy himself, on the other hand, was very far from being an average Joe by the time he wrote Ivan Ilych. Tolstoy was born in 1828 to one of the most prominent Russian families (yes, he was a real count). Before he turned 50 he had produced both War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), which are traditionally considered to be among the greatest novels ever (Time magazine ranks them at number 3 and number 1, respectively). It's no surprise, then, that he also enjoyed the reputation of being one of the greatest writers in the world at the time.
In spite of all his fame and accomplishment, not long after writing Anna Karenina Tolstoy had a midlife crisis and decided that he couldn't go on living unless he found the meaning of life. The crisis only ended after an extremely powerful conversion experience (to a more radical variety of Christianity), which in Tolstoy's eyes changed everything. He announced his personal transformation to the world in his 1881 book entitled A Confession. He stopped thinking of himself primarily as an artist and began writing on religion and politics, advocating things like non-violence, simple and communal living, and anarchism. Followers began showing up at his estate (Yasnaya Polyana) like pilgrims to hear his pronouncements on life and see his experiments in practicing his ideal with his peasants.
The Death of Ivan Ilych was the first significant work of literature Tolstoy produced after his conversion. It's a forceful confrontation with the problem of death, and through death, the meaning of life. It's also a sharp satire of the "false" modern middle-class lifestyle (embodied in the character of Ivan Ilych). Tolstoy saw this lifestyle and attitude taking shape in his day, and thought that those who embraced it were incapable of facing death because they did not understand life.
Some readers admire the novella for its powerful moral message. Others say it shows the beginning of Tolstoy's loss of his art, and that once he became interested in teaching moral lessons, his writing lost its complexity and became one-dimensional. What do you think? Get back to us after you've read The Death of Ivan Ilych.
Tolstoy's message in The Death of Ivan Ilych isn't exactly subtle: no matter how easy it might be to forget (in the midst of SATs, sports, school, dates, TV shows, and video games), we're all going to die at some point.
Even if we don't have a freak drapery accident and wind up with a drawn-out illness like Ivan Ilych, we're still faced with death. Death is just easier to forget about when everything seems pleasant. That's why Ivan doesn't think about it. But it doesn't matter: death sneaks up on him when he least expects it.
And when Ivan becomes ill, he finds that he isn't able to enjoy many, or any, of the things he once did. Ivan finds that the friends he'd made aren't real friends, that his family doesn't really love him, and that he's totally alone. He finds that barely anything he's done in his life means anything to him.
The Death of Ivan Ilych brings to our attention the unpleasant fact that we all have to die, and that we might have to suffer a whole lot first. Our medicines might be better than those of Ivan's doctors, but we haven't gotten any closer to escaping mortality, and many people still die only after a long and painful period of disease. Perhaps Ivan Ilych, which is famous for its psychological depth, will help you understand what many people go through when they're dying.
Perhaps Ivan Ilych will also get you thinking about what mortality means for you. Like Ivan, you might start wondering how you should live your life, and how you can find meaning in it.