The Death of Ivan Ilyich ~ A Capsule Book Review by Allen Kopp
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written by Russian master Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) in 1886, is a character study and a somber contemplation of death. Ivan Ilyich is a magistrate with a wife and two children, a grown daughter of marriageable age and a schoolboy son. He is ambitious and rises through the ranks of his profession. He and his wife enjoy their place in society afforded by his success.
The thing about Ivan is that, as a magistrate deciding cases in court, he isn’t always as human as he might be. He is incapable of deep feeling or self-contemplation. He has no inner life. To him, duty is more important than feeling, compassion and sympathy. Would you want to be tried by this bastard in court?
In young middle-age, Ivan is seeing to all the details of furnishing and decorating a new home when he falls off a ladder and sustains a blow to his side. He thinks little of it at the time, but this is the beginning of an illness that results in his death. Whether the blow he receives to the side has anything to do with his illness is never established.
Ivan becomes ill and believes at first he will recover. As time progresses, however, he becomes sicker and sicker, until he realizes at last that he is coasting toward a premature death. Doctors, even “celebrated” ones, are ineffectual at finding what’s wrong with him or in finding ways to make him better. All they can do is make him believe he will recover, but after a while he sees this as a lie.
In the state of illness he’s in, Ivan takes a look back on his life. Is he being punished with a horrible illness that will claim his life because he’s been bad? Wait a minute, though; he has done all the things he was supposed to do, so what might he have done differently that would have spared him his undeserved fate?
Instead of accepting what is happening to him and seeking peace within himself, Ivan rails against it. Why has God forsaken him? His mental anguish becomes as great as his physical anguish. He doesn’t get the sympathy he thinks he deserves from his wife, family and friends. They only want to be rid of him so they can get on with his lives. Only his ten-year-old son and a kindly servant named Gerasim seem truly sad to see him in the state he’s in. After a terrible illness, death claims Ivan Ilyich at the age of forty-five. There is no beauty, dignity, or redemption in his death.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is death from the point of view of the dying man. He isn’t able to find relief, comfort or sympathy in his illness as he sinks toward his inevitable fate. He is unable to look back on his life and say it’s been a life of success and fulfilment, even though it’s being cut short. It’s a simple story, universal because death touches everybody. Although set in nineteenth century Russia, it might be any place at any time.
Copyright © 2018 by Allen Kopp