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The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

with 5 comments

While I was completely bowled over by Anna Karenina when I read it a few years ago, I was pleased to be able to visit Tolstoy again without having to make such a long-term commitment to him. I will get to War and Peace eventually, but for now I crave nothing more than this short tale was able to provide.

Ivan Ilyich is an ordinary man with average ambitions and realistic  expectations who aspires only to live pleasurably and with propriety. As a respected judge, husband, and father, he does his duty and does it well. He bows graciously to the authority of his superiors and enjoys the position of power he maintains in respect to others. He is pleased with himself and with his achievements, until he falls ill as an older man.

Just as there is nothing remarkable about Ivan Ilyich’s life, there is nothing remarkable about his slow struggle toward death. His physical and spiritual decay is monstrous only because it is so banal. Ivan Ilyich considers himself perfectly satisfied in health, but in sickness he questions all the big life choices that have led to the present moment of his dying. He is angry and resentful that he must be a burden to his family, and that, like him, they are unable to fully understand what is happening to him. He sees nothing special in life, yet cannot surrender to leaving it. His last hours are spent producing a terrible scream, an insufferable howling “O” sound that haunts his family for an entirety of three days.

There is nothing interesting about this story, which is what makes it so stunning. An ordinary death is a predictable end to an ordinary life, and yet that ordinariness is itself what is so frightening. What the accused are to the judge, we all eventually become to death (ahem, are you totally bummed out yet?). This is an important reminder for all who can to live extraordinarily; for Ivan Ilyich’s battle is not only against death, but the ways in which it both cloaks and exposes mediocrity in life.

This is an unsettling and articulate investigation of mortality which I’m sure only becomes more disturbing and poignant with time. Recommended, then, with the caveat that this is Heavy Stuff.

Written by Emily Jane

January 26, 2012 at 10:22 pm

5 Responses

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  1. Lovely review, Emily Jane, but also worrying. Not just heavy, it sounds difficult too! I had this for Christmas, I hope it doesn’t prove too subtle for me 😦


    January 26, 2012 at 10:30 pm

    • Thank you Sarah 🙂 I wouldn’t worry about that…I actually found it quite “easy” in that regard. The messages are pretty clear, the writing is not too dense, and the introduction to the edition l had was helpful, too. I think you’ll get along with it very well!

      Emily Jane

      January 27, 2012 at 3:16 am

  2. I get this. I’ve always wondered if there is a story that carries ‘no story’ and tells the ordinary lives of ordinary people. Yet, there is more to this. Shows how not standing for anything could be a disappointment especially when death comes knocking and we take a last look through our life and find nothing spectacular in it.

    Nana Fredua-Agyeman

    January 27, 2012 at 4:06 pm

    • Indeed, Nana. I think you would like this book. Mrs. Dalloway, by Virginia Woolf, is similarly “uneventful” in that it’s about a single day in a woman’s life doing errands, preparing for a party, and yet it remains thought-provoking…I would recommend that one as well if you haven’t read it!

      Emily Jane

      January 28, 2012 at 5:42 pm

  3. This book really moved me, because the manner in which death came about was so simple. For me it just meant the littlest things are as important as those we deem “the big things”. I wrote my own review on it here.


    June 9, 2012 at 6:18 am

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