Book Review – The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy

A changed life

He spent his young life vacillating between aristocratic responsibility and paying for sex, until, as an older man, Tolstoy found religion. (Found true religion more accurately. He was Russian Orthodox his entire life until renouncing it for his own version of faith in Jesus.) The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a novella easily read in an afternoon – was his first published effort after this change of heart. It tells the story of a man who, without effort, drive, or skills, rises to a mid-level court position, learning along the way to despise his once beloved wife, and to ignore his once adorable children. He spends his time announcing to his colleagues and neighbors that he is a man of culture and value. In modern parlance, he’s a Kardashian: pretense without substance. 

His gloriously ostentation home

Hanging drapes one day in his new and ostentatious home, Ilyich falls. An ache swells in his side, and he tastes metal in his mouth. He agrees to see a doctor, then doctors, and then specialists who fail to accurately diagnose his ailment. He knows, but will not admit, that he is spiraling downward, toward pain and death. Anger grows – death was never meant for him! – and he loathes his visitors. Doctors, friends, and family? They’re all liars who feign concern while plotting their escape to the card table. People avoid him, he thinks, because he reminds them of death, of wasting, of their own demise. His only comfort is his peasant servant, a theme seen through much of Tolstoy’s writing. 

Death approaches, and so does a knowing that he has lived his life like a vapor. It’s a false life, bowing to artifice and selfishness just like the people he despises. But Tolstoy is here to catch him. With an hour left, he is released from these gnawing truths, realizing that a good life is an authentic life. A peasant life. Dirt and blood, empathy, and compassion.

Tolstoy and Ilyich find faith

This revelation is mostly implied and saves Tolstoy from being another pamphleteer. Maybe this is Tolstoy’s genius: To let each reader discern their own meaning? Can we live authentically as wealthy people? What good is it to ‘inherit the earth’ if you are poor, weak, and ill? Thirteen years later, Tolstoy will publish Resurrection where the themes of Ilych are expanded. 

The Death of Ivan Ilyich rests comfortably on the same bookshelf with other great philosophical fiction And isn’t all Russian literature philosophical? As such, Ilyich and Tolstoy are in good company, and he sticks to the formula: present the problem, hint at solutions, but raise as many questions as you answer.

As Tolstoy’s first book after his foray into what I call experiential Christianity, Tolstoy’s protagonist came to see on his deathbed what Christians already know: the good life includes intentionality, engaging relationships, and knowing what is truly meaningful. Are leisure and fine things wrong? Is there an intrinsic reward in service and hard work? I’ll let you read the book and work these things out for yourself. 

Long and sometimes difficult. Hey! It’s Russian

Modern readers can struggle with the prose, and Tolstoy, like most Russian authors, takes his sweet time to develop the story. But, it is a wonderful and thought provoking read the be had over a couple evenings on the couch by the fire. Can be profitably read and re-read. 

 Four stars.


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Cheers, well, kind of…