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 have seldom read literature where authors can get into a person's head quite the way Leo Tolstoy does. I read, "The Death of Ivan Illych" with the ever present sense of dread. Even so, I could not put it down. I am amazed at the kind of detail Tolstoy delivered - even with such a short story.I typically like longer novels but, "The Death of Ivan Illych" took only what was necessary to tell the story.The great, Western American writer, Wallace Stegner, on discussing the craft of writing fiction stated that there are times when a writer may not have sufficient experience surrounding a topic. His advice was that such times call for improvisation.Having read Elisabeth Kübler-Ross' "On Death and Dying,' I was impressed at how closely Tolstoy came to describing what Kübler-Ross discerned from her scientific research.In the second half of the book, I couldn't help but think about my father who died nearly four years ago after his own three year long battle with Stomach Cancer. Ivan Illych conjured up difficult memories for me and, despite the pain, it was a touching reminder which caused me to contemplate the very real possibility that my Dad went through a similar experience as he dealt with his own mortality.It is my understanding that Leo Tolstoy's own end of life story eerily reminisced what he wrote about 23 years before he actually died. I believe Ivan Illych turned out to be a gift - not only to the world - but to Tolstoy himself in that it afforded him an opportunity to explore the phenomena of Human Beings dealing with death. This lends support to my claim that what distinguishes great writers is their ability to tap into Humanity's collective consciousness.In that way, Oscar Wilde had it right in his anti mimesis argument; Life really does imitate art. Moreover, the hallmark of great literature is that it offers something more than high-level entertainment. It dares to explore phenomena that are universal in nature, contextually accurate and even far ahead of the research only because the writers dare to imagine.While it is a given that certain rules regarding mechanics, syntax, timing, voice and other issues of the craft associated with writing are essential, baseline requirements for effective communication, it is the art of applying scrutiny and inventiveness that impels gifted writers to do what they do best; they dare to imagine. Injecting such nuance makes them capable of transcending both time and space. Such words, like launched arrows develop a trajectory independent of the archer - In Tolstoy's case, posterity has borne out the accuracy of his aim regarding the Human condition.

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."

Farnoosh Brock

“People have frequently complained about the manner in which death interrupts life.” ~TolstoyI read The Death of Ivan Illyich not only because it is the work of brilliant Leo Tolstoy, a genius whose every prose cuts through my heart, but also because Dr. Wayne Dyer once said that reading this book at 19 completely changed his thinking. As if that were not enough, I fondly remember how my mom read this book as part of an English class assignment in college; she went to college at the same time as me (I was so proud of her, by the way), and Tolstoy even had my mom talking about this book to her family!This is a short novel that first of all gives you just enough taste of Tolstoy to make you hungry for his real masterpieces like Anna Karenina, one of my favorite books and War & Peace, on my reading list, and second of all, it talks openly about a subject socially avoided at all costs, the faith of all of us mortal beings one day, death.The Introduction by Ronald Blythe is a must-read. It is sad to learn about the inner turmoil and conflict that Tolstoy himself had around death, and the precious time of his life he wasted obsessively worried about something that we humans can neither fathom nor explain. Tolstoy himself was the opposite of his main character, Ivan Illyich, in that the latter never wasted any time thinking about an inconvenience such as death until it were upon him, and yet both men were terrified of it to no end.Ivan Illyich is anything but likable – it’s not his terrible flaws as much as his lack of all good and decent human traits. In a way, he is disturbingly neutral, neither negative nor positive and therefore, not terribly likable. But you don’t exactly read Tolstoy for his warm and fuzzy characters. You read him for the way he describes the depth and breadth of human experience, and it may be the same reason you might want to avoid Tolstoy altogether because he pulls you in deep and hard and makes you think about his message long after you have closed the last page of the book!So whatever happens to Ivan Illyich that makes this 128-page book such a timeless classic?The story is compelling in its own right, whether you want to focus on the life lesson or just read a good book. I warn you, it is particularly hard to put it down after the quiet and proper life of Ivan Illyich gets interrupted with an imperceptible pain on his side that first nags at him and then grows so large that it is all he can think about. As the pain grows, Ivan Illyich grows impatient with himself and becomes disconnected from society. His whole life turns into a series of battles: Him versus the pain, him versus the doctors, him versus the wife and the colleagues, and him versus It – It being this impending death that no one talks about but everyone fully expects of him.The ultimate highlight of the book is when Ivan Illyich hears an audible voice of his soul talking back to him in response to his incessant questioning of why this is happening to him. He questions why he has to die and the voice says what do you want and he answers that he wants to live and the voice asks, live how? And that’s when it happens.The thought occurs to him that perhaps he had not lived his life as he should have.“But if only I could understand the reason for this agony. Yet even that is impossible. It would make sense if one could say I had not lived as I should have. But such an admission is impossible, he uttered inwardly, remembering how his life had conformed to all the laws, rules and proprieties.”The thought was so disturbing, so crazy, so heavy that at first, he denied it altogether but soon, he gave in and that’s when the real agony set in.“But if that is the case, and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters – what then?”And that, my dear constant reader, is the question we will all have to answer at the end of our own precious life – yes, yours and mine too will come to an end someday and there is no coming back to this point in time to relive, re-do and have a second chance.Tolstoy may have written “The Death of Ivan Illyich” to help us better cope with our own eventual death, but for me, this book was a wake-up call to embrace life even more fiercely than before, and to live for what really and truly matters and that we define in our own ways.I loved this book, partly for loving Tolstoy and his writing style and voice, and partly for making me think of the unthinkable: death, and the sadness of life perishing into nothingness when we have come to the very end....


You are transported to the world of Ivan and walk with him to his last moments at deaths door. A story of the terror of death and Ivan's fear of dying, his concern and sorrow for his families witnessing of his howling and decline. Suffering realizes joy of youth and memories of the best of days, while he is in this process of death the solitude brings him to doors of gone memories of happiness. How our daily trappings take us away from finer and truer happier moments of life, a time lost so valuable, we are a generational lost by media consumption, mobiles, internet and tv fine examples of vehicles of joyous hours but are also guilty of stealing our treasured hours that could be spent in much so joyous moments, i myself am guilty of these behaviours but i find the much joy in the solitude and private thought of words and reading. A short story but the magnitude of the message conveyed great to me I am now thinking of my past and age of innocence, ignorance is bliss words uttered by oh so many. This is the first reading of any of Tolstoy's works for me and I wait in anticipation to descent upon the treasure trove of his works of literature, Bon voyage alas I must hasten to read more and more. "From the very beginning of his illness, from the time when Ivan Ilyvich first went to the doctor, his life had divided into two opposite states of mind, which alternated each other: now there was despair and the expectation of the incomprehensible and terrible death, now there was hope and the interest-filled process of observing the functioning of his body. Now there hung before his eyes a kidney or an intestine that shirked it's duty for a time; now there was only incomprehensible, terrible death, from which there was no escape." "In the recent time of that solitude in which he found himself, lying face to the back f the sofa, that solitude in the midst of the populous town and his numerous acquaintances and family- a solitude than which there could be none more total anywhere; not at the bottom of the sea, not under the earth-in the recent time of that dreadful solitude, Ivan Ilyvich had lived only on imaginings of the past. One after another, pictures of the past appeared to him. They always began with the nearest time and went back to the most remote, to childhood, and there they stayed.""And again right there, along with this course of recollection, another course of recollection was going o his soul-of how his illness had grown and worsened. The further back he went, the more life there was. There was a goodness in life, and more of life itself. The two merged together."As my torment kept on getting worse and worse, so the whole of life got worse and worse," he thought. There was one bright spot back there, at the beginning of life, and then it became darker and darker, ever quicker and quicker. "In inverse proportion to the square of the distance from death," thought Ivan Ilyvich. And this image of a stone plunging down with increasing speed sank into his soul. Life, a series of ever-increasing sufferings, races faster and faster towards it's end, the most dreadful suffering."


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.

Gordon Jonas

Tolstoy kept it very fucking real. I find that "the Russians" material is generally surprisingly relevant for this day and age, even as early as Turgenev, and this is no exception. The first story in this collection, Family Happiness, is a bit slow and maybe the least accessible of the bunch. Still, the topic of filial life is examined in an interesting, if slightly depressing way. Everything after is gold. The kreutzner sonata is dark and examines aspects of the female condition and the male psyche in remarkably prescient fashion. The titular (what a great word) story is fantastic in its own right, though you can get the gist of it just from the litany of commentary on it. The last story, HadjiMurad, was the most interesting to me. It is a narrative, based on true events and real folk hero Hadji Murad, depicting the conflict between the Russians and the people of Chechnya. Tolstoy makes excellent use of omniscient narration and shows surprising empathy for the Avars and respect for the diligence and loyalty of their culture. There is also no shortage of political commentary; Tolstoy does not hesitate to rip into the lofty lifestyles of Russian gentry. After this introduction to his work, I'm (almost) ready for War & Peace.

أحمد أبازيد Ahmad Abazed

موت ايفان ايليتش , إحدى قصص تولستوي الخالدة . أنا معجب بقصص تولستوي و أثّرت بي كثيراً و أنا صغير السنّ , أكثر من رواياته دون أن ننفي ملحميّة رواياته و كونها أضحت جزءاً من الذاكرة البشرية , موت ايفان ايليتش تقع بين القصة و الرواية , و يصف فيها موت ايفان ايليتش ابن الطبقة الوسطى , ايفان الذي يدرك قبل موته بساعات فقط أنّه بسبب خضوعه لدوره المسبق في مسرحية المجتمع و توزيعه الطبقي و الوظيفي كان قد أمضى حياته كما لا يجب أن تكون , خاليةً من العواطف و الحميمية و الأخطاء حتى , ربما سلّم نفسه للموت مرتاحاً حين أدرك أنّ حياته لم تكن غير موت طويل و أنيق .


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.


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.


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.


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.

Elijah Kinch Spector

(I actually read this in Great Short Works.)"What is this? Can it be that it is Death?" And the inner voice answered: "Yes, it is Death.""Why these sufferings?" And the voice answered, "For no reason--they are just so."p. 296 in Great Short Works I fucking love Tolstoy so much. He's not just ahead of his time, he's usually ahead of his reader, too.If I wanted to be kind, to myself, I'd say that The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about a boring man looking back on his life and wondering if he's wasted it. This would be kind because, even though I (and probably most modern people) can identify with some of what makes Ivan's life so meaningless, I can always say, "Well, I'm not that guy, and I have time to make more of myself." But only engaging with the "looking back on one's life" theme recontextualizes the story as one about life, which means I'm making one of Ivan's largest mistakes: ignoring death.Sure, looking back is important here, but the story is really about facing the inevitability and uncertainty of death. Straight on. About how we try to distract ourselves, how we get so good at thinking "at least that dead person isn't me" that we forget that someday it will be. It is about being stuck with this thing that we have to stare at.And Tolstoy's so good that he presents you with something uncomfortable, and every time you begin to train your mind to get around it without confronting it, he has Ivan try the same workaround. This snaps you back into staring straight on at the abyss in front of you. That's what I mean by saying he's ahead of his reader.He also continues to be preternaturally good at getting into complex ideas about people. Tolstoy examines human relationships, positions of power, avoidance, and how people go about just coasting along, and almost all of it is applicable to how we live our lives now. (The one exception may be his handling of doctors, but that's a profession that has changed immensely since the 1880s.) Most people will find some of themselves in Ivan and, though he isn't a bad person, will be kind of disappointed by that.


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.

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