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


I liked and disliked this novella at the same time... on the one hand, the majority of characters are not painted favorably at ALL (I think Ivan is a total hypochondriac once he finds out he's dying), but on the other hand--they are SO human that their thoughts and actions hit pretty close to home. There is a constant struggle between the life everyone wants to live and the reality that we are never really content with ourselves and what we have. Although this was written like 125 years ago, we totally still struggle with this today. Most of us aren't like Ivan to the full extent, but I think we all can recognize parts of him within ourselves. And then, knowing is half the battle, right?


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.


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.


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.

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.

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."


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.


At my grandfather's wake, my father walked me to his casket and blanketed my grandfather's crossed hands with his own. He looked down to me with soaked eye-sockets and a serene grin and said, "They're so cold." During the remainder of the wake, I watched my grandmother, aunts and uncles greet guests and cordially accept condolences in a neatly organized line while the children played, diverting themselves from an interminable boredom from which they wouldn't dare ask to be relieved. At the funeral the next day, I cried only when my uncle did; after losing control of his incomprehensible composure. If War and Peace is too long, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is too short. Tolstoy's ability to compact Man's greatest insecurity, without losing its full potency, deifies him among literati. He substitutes grand styling for natural insights and masters reason and logic instead of exclusively binding himself to them. Rather than delving directly into Ivan Ilyich's soul and insisting on a proposition based on his findings, Tolstoy demerits Ivan's reasoning capacity in hopes, perhaps, of clearing the litter of distractions cluttering the essence of a person's bout with his final and omnipresent nemesis. Death, in essence, exists outside of Man's reasoning capacity. All experiences and knowledge stem from what exists whereas Death is to NOT exist. Can a person fathom his non-existence? Logically, it remains an impossibility as man would need to exist in order to do so. As a result, people like Ivan, ambitious aristocrats encased in their sense of youthful invincibility, ignore death and hide their rebuke for those dying and dead behind social responsibilities of cliche gestures and fraudulent sympathies. All the while they rejoice in the fact that they have eluded Death's icy grip thanks to those who have taken their place. I can relate. Can you? I participate in the modern western machine racing to destroy death, prolong life and distract people from its certainty. I don't want to be around it and I don't want it to interrupt my schedule or lifestyle. Yet when Ivan Ilyich, among the most devout in ignoring Death, falls ill, he eventually acknowledges his imminent demise. His first astounding transformation takes place in which he resembles Tolstoy's sentiments about Death. Like a curse afforded by genius, Death plagued Tolstoy's thoughts. But unlike Ivan, its imminence appeared to Tolstoy without the help of an illness. Death lingered everywhere and Tolstoy saw its inevitability in everything. And for the reader, a sort of nihilistic mentality erupts from his struggle. One cannot help but sympathize with it knowing that all Ivan's ambitions and aristocratic moves amount to nothing in the face of imminent Death. However, to distinguish Tolstoy's struggle with Death from this nihilistic biproduct, one must discern between mortality and death. Mortality describes the nature, limitations and essence of our existence. But mortality describes nothing about the essence of death except for the fact that it happens. Therefore, Tolstoy, plagued not necessarily by mortality but by Death, explores the essence of Death but does not promote methods, nihilistic or otherwise, of living with mortality. After hope lingers amidst doctor visits and treatment regiments, its absence defines Ivan's later despair at the presence of imminent death. Naturally, Ivan questions why he must suffer and die. When calming himself enough to listen either to his own thoughts or to God, he considers if his suffering and death results from having led a poor life. Since his young adult days, his life slipped into moral degeneracy as he filled it with aristocratic indulgences. But he rebukes this idea because he desires contentment in his innocence and unjust punishment - even if the above proposition is "incorrect".The unmentioned flaw in this stage rests in the premise that death is a result, a caused effect, and if one could simply manipulate prior circumstances the outcome would change. Of course, death is a fact; a certain and unavoidable end immune from choices and manipulated circumstances. Therefore, whether Ivan morally declined through life or not, he shared in the common progression of men toward death. Even though he naturally, but erroneously, accuses death of causing his moral anguish, Ivan can appease that anguish by rectifying his circumstances - but only for the sake of living a better life, not avoiding death.Ivan's final realization culminates in love. Ivan could not elude death but he could have eased, if not dissipated, his moral suffering had he lived for love of others rather than himself. The ego of a dying man may rage at death if the life belongs to him. If the life belongs to others, then his ego finds contentment. But Tolstoy begs more. When describing Ivan's passing, he argues for Death's absence! Only a light presents itself. Perhaps the essence of Death is no more than an idea; a word indicating the end of one thing when in reality a new beginning happens. The familiar personified literary phantom fades. Perhaps Death, as we fear it, does not physically exist at all. Our lives cease to continue but do we? And if we learn to live as something more than the finite physical life we lead can Death shake us? Can the end of our physical lives scare us?Ultimately, Tolstoy did not write a manual describing the best methods of living and dying. He craftily articulates his choice to struggle with a conundrum that most people ignore. Until they too, like Ivan Ilyich, my grandfather, me and you, must face it.


So this was a Tolstoy...... Hmph, the story doesn't say much except to reiterate how difficult and painful death can be, both physically and emotionally. The story is way too short to establish empathy for Ivan Ilyich! He was a judge. A game of bridge was his favorite amusement. All his life he conformed to proper decorum, becoming with age aloof and irascible. What was the point of life - both he and the readers may ask?! Talk about a depressing book!!!!The narration by Walter Zimmerman was certainly not bad, but it didn't add anything.


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.


you're all excited about someone new only to discover that the beatles are their all-time favorite band. and it all starts to unravel, eh? the beatles are the most popular pop/rock band of all time, wildly innovative, probably wrote more great songs than any other band... but your all-time favorite band? dull dull dull. i think i'd even take someone who champions rush or the eagl- (no, not the eagles. any other band but the eagles, steve miller, or aerosmith) over the beatles just because it's more interesting.which is why i'm hesitant to call out tolstoy as my favorite writer. same kinda shit, y'know? but he just might be. at the very least he's sitting at the (head of the?) table with genet borges orwell and the other usual suspects. yes. and i know it because when i popped into the book store and saw this gorgeous new hardback of tolstoy short stories by badass russian translators pevear & volokhonsky, well, it took all i had not to rub up against it in the store -- waited till i got in the car and dry-humped the shit outta this beautiful bitch. so listen: this is a must buy. great writer. great translators. great looking edition (masturbating & find my eye wandering from the freeze-framed of rosario dawson or marisa tomei to the tolstoy section of my bookshelf where, next to all my penguin softback tolstoy short story collections, my hardback P & V translated editions of war & peace, anna karenina, & ivan ilyich and other stories sit. of course, in order to prolong the experience i've gotta think back to when kowalski exposed himself in my car -- the visual equivalent of a cold shower). and a great selection of stories. A GREAT selection of stories. shitty when they release a newly translated collection of a great writer's stories and leave out the greatest hits. well, they're all here, kids: ivan ilyich (love me do) is just terrific if slightly overrated. the kreutzer sonata (happiness is a warm gun)? fucking great! master and man (blackbird)? i cry. the devil (i'm a loser)? amazing! hadji murat (a day in the life)? fucking genius! they're ALL great. trust me, booknerds.


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.

Babak Habibi

کلا همیشه از داستان‌های نویسنده‌های روس خوشم میومده مخصوصا تولستوی. چون خیلی با جزئیات همه چیز رو توصیف می‌کنن.این کتاب رو بخاطر فیلم ایرانی "پله آخر" دیدم که آخر فیلمش نوشته بود بعضی از صحنه‌ها اقتباسی از این کتاب بودهشخصیت ایوان ایلیچ آدم قوی هست که دنبال یه سری اهدافش میره و سعی میکنه منطقی با همه چی روبرو شه و خیلی چیزها رو بدستم میاره و درمقطعی از زندگی احسسا خوشبختی هم میکنه ولی بعدش خیلی اتفاقی دچار یه مریضی عجیبی میشه که اونو به مرگ میکشونه و ایوان ایلیچ هر روز درگیر مرگ میشهو بیشتر به چراهای زندگیش فکر میکنهدر کل کتاب خوبی بود راضی کننده بود هم داستان هم نحوه‌ی بیان داستان

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.

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