Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) begins at the funeral of its title character, a 45 year-old Russian judge whose death is announced on the first page.
But Chapter Two’s opening words reveal a more alarming reality: “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and commonplace—and most horrifying.” The omniscient narrator takes the reader back to Ivan’s happy childhood, predictable youth, and ambitious adulthood. Praskovya Fedorovna falls in love with him, so he marries her. In less than a year, his discontentment leads him to escape into work and his favorite pastime, playing cards. In time, he buys a house, and Praskovya bears five children, three of whom die. He shrewdly climbs the Russian social ladder and receives an impressive income. The couple moves to a new city, buys a bigger house, and avoids genuine intimacy. They continue their comfortable, contented lives for almost two decades.
Then one day, Ivan Ilyich’s life unexpectedly changes. While hanging curtains in his house, he falls off a ladder, receiving a minor bruise. Only in retrospect does this mundane moment loom as his most perilous. An excruciating physical decline begins, and Russia’s most accomplished doctors can only offer morphine to ease his pain.
Tolstoy’s psychological insight and vivid descriptions encourage the reader’s empathy. We feel Ivan’s helpless despair, the misery of his wife, and the apathy of his adult daughter. But we also see the compassion of a peasant boy and the sorrow of Ivan’s 13 year-old son, whose final gesture may trigger the most important moment of Ivan’s life.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich transports the reader to 19th century Russia, a world that may seem remote to twenty first-century Americans. Certainly Tolstoy grounds his novella in a particular social, political, and religious context. But the universal questions transcend time and place: What provides true happiness? What does it mean to live a good life? Does God exist? If so, why would He allow suffering? What is one’s responsibility to other human beings?
Perhaps most of all, Ivan’s “commonplace” and “horrifying” life challenges us to consider our mortality, for whether by disease, disaster, or an accidental fall, we all—like him—will die. Tolstoy doesn’t prescribe an answer for Ivan, or for us. But he does offer a work of art that he intended as “a means of communion among people.” In this way, his novella can illuminate even the darkest human truths.
“The awesome, terrifying act of his dying had been degraded by those about him to the level of a chance unpleasantness, a bit of unseemly behavior . . . it had been degraded by that very 'propriety' to which he had been devoted his entire life.”
-from The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Americans might take for granted their democratic rights and freedom of the press, but until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s reforms in the mid-1980s, Russians knew neither. The authoritarian tsarist empire was replaced by an even more repressive Soviet regime, which not only eliminated political and social freedoms but banned religion as well. In such a country, the writer understandably was celebrated by the people and feared by the government as the voice of truth and the conscience of a nation. With few other outlets for open public debate, Russians have always viewed the writer as their national storyteller, social commentator, philosopher, psychologist, spiritual leader, and freedom-fighter on behalf of the people.
One of the recurrent symbols in Russian literature and culture is the image of the writer as a Christ-like martyr on behalf of the people. The persistence of this symbol arises from the fact that under both the tsars and the Soviets, major writers paid with their freedom or their lives for what they wrote. In the nineteenth century, Alexander Pushkin, the celebrated poet and father of modern Russian literature, was exiled by Tsar Nicholas I to the Russian south. Fyodor Dostoevsky was condemned to death and almost executed before the sentence was commuted to four years of exile with hard labor in a Siberian prison camp. These experiences directly influenced his harrowing masterpieces Notes from the Underground (1860) and Crime and Punishment (1866). For his radical religious beliefs, Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox Church by Tsar Nicholas II. In the twentieth century, the Jewish writer Isaac Babel (1894-1940) was executed by the Soviet government. The poet Osip Mandelshtam (1891-1938), arrested twice, died in a prison transit camp in Siberia. Alexander Solzhenitsyn spent eight years as a political prisoner in a Soviet labor camp, which he describes in his monumental work of documentation, The Gulag Archipelago (1973-78), and his short novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich (1962).
The classic Russian writers remain influential in Russia today. Thousands of monuments, educational institutions, streets, and cities carry their names. An average Russian can recite from memory passages by favorite poets, and Russians frequently speak of their literary characters as if they were alive. In a sense, they are. As Russians go through a challenging transition from socialism to capitalism, they still look to their literary classics for inspiration and answers to that perennial Russian question: Kak zhit’? How to live?
Russian middle names are called ‘patronymics,’ and they are formed from the father’s first name. It is customary in professional contexts to call a person by his or her first name and patronymic, but rarely by the last name. In more intimate surroundings—at home for instance—it is customary to use a person’s first name only, or the diminutive form.
Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy
(lyeff nee-kuh-LIE-uh-veech tahl-STOY)
Ivan Ilych Golovin
(ee-VAHN ee-LEECH guh-lah-VEEN)
the novella’s protagonist
Ivan Ilyich’s wife
Ivan Ilyich’s son
Ivan Ilyich’s daughter
a peasant boy who works for Ivan Ilyich