The Death of Ivan Ilych And Other Stories

ISBN: 0451528808
ISBN 13: 9780451528803
By: Leo Tolstoy Hugh McLean

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About this book

Hailed as one of the world's supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a worldly careerist, a high court judge who has never given the inevitability of his dying so much as a passing thought. But one day, death announces itself to him, and to his shocked surprise, he is brought face to face with his own mortality. How, Tolstoy asks, does an unreflective man confront his one and only moment of truth?This short novel was an artistic culmination of a profound spiritual crisis in Tolstoy's life, a nine-year period following the publication of Anna Karenina during which he wrote not a word of fiction.A thoroughly absorbing and, at times, terrifying glimpse into the abyss of death, it is also a strong testament to the possibility of finding spiritual salvation.

Reader's Thoughts

Daniel Pecheur

Wow is my first expression upon having finished my first Tolstoy- his novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which the Russian master wrote after a religious conversion. Tolstoy is a master of fine details and resplendent subtlety. The work is a meditation on the human condition as Tolstoy saw it, tinged by Christian asceticism, in the case of the title character and all those around him who have succumbed to the spiritual decay of living in monochromatic conformity with the values and the superficialities approved by the professional class society. Under the rubric of those values, which Tolstoy staunchly rejected and satirized, Ivan Ilyich lived a life that seemed exemplary, ostensibly complete and commendable. Ilyich spent his adult life walking in perfect lockstep with the customs of the social order, advancing through various official positions and marrying well and having a family in the fashion that everyone in his class would deem befitting and proper. On the surface, his life was good and he had fulfilled his duties with appropriate rigor. In the midst of his death, everyone who surrounded Ilyich in his life can only think about their own selfish needs and desires and find satisfaction in simply not being the one who died. Their attitudes typify the meaninglessness and emptiness of a lifestyle unfurnished by any spiritual growth and pivoted entirely around what is material and socially validated. The reader experiences Ivan Ilyich's slow death with him, and feels all the stinging nuances of his excruciation in his waning physique and his slow psychological recognition of the inevitable death that subjugates him. No other story has so forcefully communicated the impression of death or transported my imagination so vividly into the gripping terror of feeling death's clutches draining life. Very well wrought with sensational descriptions of feelings and suffering in an ingenious subtlety of story-telling. Ilyich is at last enlightened to the deepest truth of life in facing death, at first with the denial that his life has been wasted, until the sickening awareness of an all-pervading falsity that he sees in everything around him compells him to the redemption of his final acceptance. Light vanquishes the darkness with hope and Tolstoy ends this tale of death in its harrowing succession of phases (encompassed by a life that is void of spiritual sustenance) with the salvation of a final peace. Tolstoy is an artist as a storyteller and he meticulously guides his reader through the slow deterioration and anguish of Ivan Ilyich with such painstaking details and fervor that one is drawn skin-deep into the struggle of Ivan Ilyich, empathizing with it as a universal experience of the human consciousness carrying the unfathomable weight of death's conquest. A brilliant and powerful work.


There are about 10 works of literature that I think about almost on a daily basis. This novella is one of them. Tolstoy pens a story about the basics of life and does so with a satirical yet understated tone. We meet a man who is bogged down in the pettiness of day-to-day cares until the spectre of death hangs over him, causing him to question the meaning of life, the meaning of his life. In this novella, time and space constrict to leave the title character stripped of all the vanities that distract us from our relationship to life, to love and to the divine.


Pobre Ivan Ilich. Se le fué la vida en nada y se dió cuenta un momento antes de morir.Porque se entera de que todo ha sido una mentira, qué puede ser más terrible que eso? Es de una tristeza profunda y cansada, llena de desilusión y de tiempo perdido.Se enferma sin darse cuenta, pensando que estaba viviendo una vida ideal.Cada paso que damos nos acerca a un acierto, o a un error.Le cuesta aceptar que “no ha vivido su vida como debía”, porque es como decir que no tuvo ningún sentido, al encontrarse frente a la muerte. Todas las elecciones que ha hecho han sido mentira. Se dejó llevar por el caparazón de la existencia, sin escuchar a la esencia de su alma cuando le pedía algo que fuera distinto a lo que dictaban los demás . Solo pedía tranquilidad, y cayó en una trampa.Puedes engañarte toda la vida, pero eventualmente la verdad sale a relucir. Nunca podrás mentirle a tu alma.


Tolstoy's brief novella 'Death of Ivan Ilyich' is one of the most compact and brilliant meditations on the meaning of death in literature. Tolstoy's breathtaking naturalism is truly miraculous. Ivan Ilyich is respectful administrator who is dying a painful death from a malignant tumor. Much as Kafka would later do in 'The Metamorphosis,' the dying man's suffering is nothing more than an annoyance for his friends and family. He spirals into a decline of intense suffering as he must stare into the meaning of his life and his inevitable end.Master and Man is also a wonderful novella, filled with stark, realistic depictions of the Russian peasantry, as a greedy landowner drags his obedient servant on a journey into a night blizzard to claim more property. As the pair become increasingly lost, they too must grapple with the possibility of their mortality.Pasternak has provided competent, though clunky translations of Tolstoy's original Russian.


Each time I reread Tolstoy’s little novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych, I read it differently. As a college student I read it as a description of an experience for someone elderly, an experience distant, almost unreal, so far in the future as to be strange, almost surreal. Reading it again during my years as a practicing physician, I was impressed by Tolstoy’s perceptiveness of the stages of grieving, the writings of Elisabeth Kubler-Ross being then all the rage, and how my patients had similar experiences, also learning, I think, to be more honest and sensitive than the physicians in the story. Now, a retired physician in my seventh decade, I find that I view it differently, surprised that Ivan is only in his forties when he dies (I was astounded to note that he was so young!), not surprised by and even forgiving of the attitudes of his friends and family members, and most understanding of Ivan’s process of introspectively reviewing his life, evaluating it and responding in perhaps the only way he can to his approaching death and its meaning; I find it impossible not to personalize the story, wondering, even at a time when I am presumably in good health, about my own eventual death, what that experience will be like for me.


Seriously, I don't get the hype about Tolstoy. I read this book and hated pretty much every minute of it, even when I was trying my damnedest to like it. It was just so damn pedestrian. Some wealthy guy that realizes on his deathbed that his half-assed life pursuing money and position and being married to a woman he can barely stand was a waste. He idolizes the simple peasant who is the only person who is kind to him as he dies and realizes what a better life this poor noble man had than him with all of his money and position. Oh woe is fucking me! I've heard this story told before and I've heard it told much better than this. Literally ahlf the book was the guy dying. It was like watching the movie Titanic where you want to scream, just sink already!! I mean really, just die! I highly recommend avoiding this ridiculous book at all costs.


Not "perfect" but the ambition of this effort is admirable. Some things that hinder this novella are the preachy tone that begins to slip in in the last section, the needless repetition of certain scenes, and the slight treatment of Ilych's early years. The preachy tone doesn't batter the reader over the head but it does give only one "answer" to the Question of Life, and all but claims it to be the one and only answer. Going in, I knew some things about Tolstoy's later years, and his own philosophy of life, and so did have a premonition as to how Tolstoy would choose to answer this Question. There is also a tendency to repeat scenes which I didn't feel were necessary to repeat. Tolstoy had already gotten across the point that Ilych was experiencing great physical suffering and these sections went on too long. It would have given the story more authenticity, especially in light of the ending, if Tolstoy had focused as much time and as many scenes to mental suffering. Where the scenes above could have been trimmed at no cost to reader understanding, it would have been beneficial to the story if at the beginning Tolstoy would have lengthened the scenes involving Ilych's childhood and adolescent years. In his later years Ilych questions the way he lived his life in what he calls his "better" days, the majority of which he considers his younger years, and we as readers see very little of these periods of his life except in brief summary. Still, the ambition of this short novel, and what Tolstoy wanted to convey about his opinions concerning the major question of human existence, I think make this well worth the read.

Yasiru (reviews will soon be removed and linked to blog)

Though rather self-indulgent, with an idealising tone that creeps in as though seizing an advantage like some pious, moralising missionary, The Death of Ivan Ilych is never flimsy, if often unsteady.(I read the Maude translation, freely available online.)There's a deep earnestness about Tolstoy's words when his fiction is at its best which tends to excuse any other flaw if the resonance is right with the reader. But it's not all about the emotive connection, because Tolstoy imparts a genuine gravity to his concerns, here perhaps more than his other short works (apart from his non-fiction). As Orwell's essay, 'Lear, Tolstoy and the Fool' concerning Tolstoy's attitude towards Shakespeare would suggest, Tolstoy is after a unifying religious truth rather than humanist reconciliation. In light of this, and given the period of his life when this work was written, it's interesting to consider Tolstoy as a student of Schopenhauer. For Tolstoy to pursue his goal, the path he decides on is the renunciation of material advantage (in no small part because this accords with his Christian view of the world), but in this he is frustrated that a next step is not immediately forthcoming. Tolstoy is very far from a nihilist, and unlike say, Siddhartha Gautama (or the Buddha as he came to be known, one of those who renounced worldly pleasures whom Tolstoy admired, and whose teaching also bore some similarities to Schopenhauer's eventual ideas), he is a positivist and concerns himself with the path to happiness and salvation rather than being content to understand and thus vanquish suffering. This leaves Tolstoy to meditate on death as it tirelessly marches on to meet the worthy and sinful alike, with the present result. The solution offered here in narrative form (not quite the 'Through a glass, darkly' position) is the ethical, and eventually metaphysical distinction between life and moral life, with this latter less clearly defined than the good life of the ancients, but enough to transform the face of death into God's waiting embrace, unseen through the veil of excesses throughout mundane and likely unwholesome life.The novella is also about the selfishness which attends one's own pain, the causes of which are never fully known to others, and which might attract only a quiet, passing sympathy. To become aware of this, and to renounce this, is by the end for Tolstoy a crucial connection to life as a God-given opportunity- a connection which is sufficient as an everlasting renewal, a new lease.We see a more sophisticated treatment of all this entails here when set against some of Tolstoy's short stories like Master and Man.(The following paragraph's comparison with another great work of world literature is intended to elaborate on this point.)There is a contrast between the insensible fate which afflicts the protagonist Ivan Ilych here and the absurd one Gregor Samsa must contend with in Kafka's The Metamorphosis, in that death is in this preceded by fear and an intense search for meaning, while in Kafka's work it follows depression and apathy at the transformation, but crucially both are about how lives which become hideous in their mundane settings and aspirations come to burden those closest to them. A more potent difference is that for Tolstoy there is an alternative to this preamble to death to be found in certain others who are closer to the ideal of renunciation which the protagonist too, though long lacking, may have a final taste of, while for Kafka there are no neat and abiding moral distinctions, making for an oppression which would have in any case passed Ivan Ilych by unnoticed for he sees what he wishes to see- death for him is a personal ordeal to dwell upon. For me then, The Death of Ivan Ilych is a surpassing psychological case study (to some extent autobiographical and thus even more compelling), while The Metamorphosis arrests broader tendencies in the human condition.On that comparative note, Akira Kurosawa's cinematic masterpiece Ikiru, which is based on this novella, doesn't aim as high as Tolstoy towards heaven and absolution, but is more human and poignant for it.


This was my first experience with the Russian masters, and it will certainly not be the last. Although The Death of Ivan Ilych is short, it is immensely powerful, and I believe it will make almost any reader take a step back and analyze their own life's worth. I'm not sure I can recall the last time I've read a novel that's done so well at getting into someone's head and describe such complex emotions. Fear, joy, anxiety, and a brutal roller coaster of despair and hope are all displayed masterfully in Tolstoy's writing.Perhaps the most important thing Ivan Ilych does is point out the flaws of living a passive lifestyle dictated by the opinions and standards of others. Of course, Tolstoy intended this message for a rising 19th century Russian aristocratic class, but I'm sure readers will find that it's basic message still holds true today. Indeed, it urges readers to be active and to define their own lives, lest they realize on their deathbeds, much like Ivan Ilych, that their lives were wasted living out the dreams laid out by others.

Mike Puma

A mini-review not intended for the easily offended (i.e., there’s a dirty part) But first, Constance Garnett. Is it possible that this woman was the best and worst thing to happen to all Russian public domain titles? She seems to have translated everything Russian that was in print at the time of her demise. Given that her translations are, likely, the stuff much academic criticism is based on, one has to wonder what could have been. There is a vague sort of missed opportunity that hovers over this text—something that suggests these stories have survived her translation. Just a thought.Now, the filthy part:But first, suppose just for a second that you could do a reading from this novella to the audience of your choice. Further suppose, given your (my) peculiar sense of humor, said audience of choice was … oh, say a bar in San Francisco … or, say a smaller audience, say, oh, I don’t know, say Rick Santorum. Now what would you glean from the text to read in the Bay City bar or to Mr. Morality? Need some prodding? (not a pun) Well, for my money, hands down, it would have to be from the scene where Ivan finds a kind of comfort in the humble, peasant servant, Gerasim: Ivan Ilych made Gerasim sit and hold his legs, and began to talk to him. And, strange to say, he fancied he felt better while Gerasim had hold of his legs. From that time forward Ivan Ilych would sometimes call Gerasim, and get him to hold his legs on his shoulders, and he liked talking with him. At this point, you’d have to tell the bar full of gigglers that No, Ivan was not a bottom, and that they’d missed the point entirely. And one would have to hope that Santorum did not santorum his pants. You’d have to clear up quickly (not clean up quickly, no more bad Santorum jokes), whatever it meant to the good senator. Instead, the quote would serve best as a jumping off point for a discussion on how Ivan was f***ed (insert F-verb of your choice) by life.


A small masterpiece and quite realistic, I think. It charters the progress of Ivan Ilyich's life but especially focuses on the time from which he became ill throughout to his death which, needless to say, is a very painful one. A good look at this latter downfall of an otherwise successful man in command of his career and life, as this highlights some of the reality of his relationships with his wife and children, and with some spendthrift habits.Ivan Ilyich thinks that he may have done something wrong in his life to deserve this even though he usually can't see where, but au contraire, I think that it's more likely that there is no real "fairness" in life - although I do not believe solely in either fate or free-will but that life is a mixture of the two. Highly recommended and easy to read for Tolstoy. 4.5/5.


Normally a book that looks this closely at death would, I'm afraid, terrify me. I have enough anxiety already, I don't need to think about the "dragging pain" in Ivan Ilyich's side, which -- being a doctor's daughter -- I could diagnose fairly easily as some kind of cancer, quite probably cancer of the gallbladder. That "dragging pain" is the giveaway to me, because it was in all the descriptions of the sort of pain cancer of the gallbladder causes. I know all about that because of the anxious period before I was diagnosed with gallstones. Anyway, it occurs to me that because Tolstoy never uses a specific word, never tells you specifically what is wrong with Ivan -- in fact, Ivan himself never knows -- it can be whatever you fear. For me, cancer is the obvious one.And okay, yes, this book did terrify me a bit, but I think in the way that it would terrify anybody. Imagining lying at the point of death and questioning if your life was of any use, if you did anything that really made you happy, if you did anything that really made you satisfied...This is nothing like Tolstoy's other books. There's a narrow focus on a single character, and -- in this translation at least -- the words are simple and directly to the point. Tolstoy's gift for a slightly satirical tone is in evidence. Ivan is not a particularly good man, but he's very much an everyman -- you will see yourself in Ivan, unless you really do have an ego so big you can't even be brought to imagine facing your own death.

David Lentz

In the end as death approaches Ivan Ilyich gives himself credit for living a right life. That is, he considers that he has lived a life which fulfills the expectations that he has had for himself. He has after all become a successful and even influential magistrate in the judicial council. Essentially, he considers himself an ethical man. The question which which torments him, as he approaches the end of his life, is whether he led the right life. Did he lead a life that was the best possible one for him? It's one thing to become educated, marry, have children, work hard and die. It's quite another to choose a life which is fulfilling. "There is no explanation. Suffering, death ... for what?" he asks. He becomes consumed with the question as to what is the point of his life? And he has no satisfying answers to this question. His ultimate judgment is upon himself and yet the verdict lacks clarity. Ultimately, to his colleagues the greatest importance is who will take his place upon the judicial council after he is gone. The irony is rich in this story by Tolstoy who has a gift for defning the great questions of life (How Much Land Does a Man Need?) You can never do wrong by reading Tolstoy: this is a very fine and accessible piece of writing beautiflly and lyrically translated by Ann Pasternak Slater.

Ken Moten

"O death, where is thy sting?..." 1 Corinthians 15:55 (KJV)"And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him...He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings." This short story was my introduction to Leo Tolstoy and it was interesting. I was just getting introduced to Russian literature through Fyodor Dostoevsky and had read his novella Notes from Underground while also getting ready to read his novel Crime and Punishment. Right away I notice a difference in style. Where Dostoevsky is loud, extreme, and highly emotive, Tolstoy is spacious, stoic-like, subdued, and even his "loud" scenes had a more tranquil fury. Other than that though they were both given to the key literary archetypes that define Russian lit of that era.This story specifically though is one that is very much meant to make an impression on you, and it does that by using that favorite of stark topics: death. Tolstoy, in contemplating his own mortality, wrote this book about a bureaucrat that is forced to grapple to the bitter-end his mortality. Ivan Ilyich is not a saint but he is not a bad guy either; he is an average man who had an average (to better than average), well to do life, his self-absorbed wife not withstanding. He is then struck with the fact that he is not going to live to see 46 and we are greeted to see the way he spends the rest of his time denying, lamenting, accepting, and changing/redeeming his life right up to his final seconds (though we begin the story at his funeral). This story is interesting because it shows him suffering mentally and spiritually (as well as physically though it is not played up as much) despite not being at all a bad guy. He laments not doing or giving himself or the people around him much meaning or significance but he comes to a realization and a sort of conversion that enables to make his final moments peaceful and we are given the impression that he has redeemed himself. It is worth noting that this is the first story Tolstoy wrote after his religious conversion. I think back and remember that I read this story in the same year that I read Kafka's The Metamorphosis and I can't help but note the difference in the deaths of the main character in this story and that one. It may say a lot about the character or beliefs of Tolstoy and Kafka (one can only wonder what treatment the poor Grigor Samsa could have got if put in the more sympathetic Tolstoy's hands). ""It is finished!" said someone near him. He heard these words and repeated them in his soul."Death is finished," he said to himself. "It is no more!"He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died."


Uno de los relatos más conocidos de León Tolstoi es ’La muerte de Ivan Ilich’, una trama desarrollada entre las clases burguesas de una Rusia crepuscular, donde el protagonista, Ivan Ilich, es un hombre del que desde el inicio sabemos de su muerte. Ivan Ilich es un alto funcionario, regido por la rectitud y acostumbrado a la comodidad, rodeado de la más alta burguesía, cuya vida familiar transcurre bajo el tedio y el hastío. Sin embargo, un día se da cuenta de que sufre un dolor en el costado, al que no da importancia, pero que le provoca constantes molestias. Dolor que se vuelve persistente y que significará su fin.En esta breve novela, Tolstoi nos plantea múltiples preguntas: ¿Estamos preparados para la muerte? ¿En qué consiste verdaderamente vivir? ¿Vivimos como debemos? Tolstoi no ofrece respuestas a estas preguntas, quién puede, pero en cambio nos desvela el propósito del ser humano en una naturaleza por demás caótica y azarosa, y de su afán por trascender. Sin embargo, todo esto se vuelve intrascendente al encarar la muerte, a la que Ivan Ilich afronta con miedo, preguntándose si su paso por la vida será meramente anecdótico. Tolstoi retrata una burguesía carente de humanidad, presumida y decidida a alcanzar las metas más superficiales. Y esta frivolidad y mezquindad la encontramos en ’La muerte de Ivan Ilich’ sobre todo en sus diálogos.Certero en sus reflexiones, Tolstoi nos muestra a un Ivan Ilich que se pregunta si su vida ha merecido la pena, si la ha malgastado en aspiraciones absurdas. Ante su inminente final, Ivan Ilich intenta comprender el porqué de su muerte. Tolstoi aborda el tema de la muerte de manera directa y sin tapujos, en una historia que te enfrenta a tu realidad y te hace saber algo más de ti mismo.

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