The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy

Song of the Day: ‘The Dawn and Embrace’ by When The Clouds


After a period of not writing and undergoing an existential despair, Leo Tolstoy wrote his most famous and possibly his best short story –The Death of Ivan Ilyich – indeed, one of the best short works by anyone. There is certainly no denying the excellence of the story. And actually, as the first work of fiction from him in some time, it was greeted with worldwide enthusiasm; a testament to its greatness that it did not disappoint. 

 It is almost immediately clear that conversion had a profound effect on Tolstoy’s fiction – this being the first work he wrote since that event – but his genius is still very intact. The most obvious change in his writing style is the greatly increased didaction. His major works had over-riding themes, but suddenly he was not only trying to convey but also make us act on them.

The title obviously gives away the plot-line of the book – but is that all it’s about? Of course not.

The story is, in one sense, a portrait of a type: the hard-working, upwardly mobile, bourgeois worker whose rise is admirable, but who is perhaps ambitious to a fault and becomes so obsessed with advancement, success and impressing others that he neglects all else to the detriment of himself and those dependent on him. Such people are rarely happy despite all the ostensible success; ambition keeps them in a constant frenzy; and they are constantly worried about falling behind, becoming irritable and impatient. Family life, if they have one, is superficial and often miserable. Eventually they find, as Ivan does, that none of the gains bring peace of mind. Ivan is thus a warning; we must see the folly of his hopeless path, lest we die before amends can be made. The essential moral is thus so familiar as to be sentimentally cliché – we must realise that the everyday aspects of life that few think of take up most of our time, and neglecting them for supposedly higher worldly things is hardly worth the sacrifice.

On the other hand, it is an examination of death and dying, of retrospection of one’s life, of social relationships, and of the strengths and weaknesses of a human being. It actually makes one think of their jaded self which has long given up on God, purpose of life, fears, and death. He delivers this with a deadpan sense of humour so subtle it almost goes unnoticed, which goes to show how well he understands the human mind, its internal monologues, the rationalisations, and the nuances we insert into day-to-day conversations.

This is definitely a book I recommend wholeheartedly. It stands as a reminder of the heights genius can scale in artistic creation.

Till next post!

PS: I had posted a version of this originally here on 17 June 2011.


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