The Death of Ivan Ilych is a novel that was originally published in Russian in 1886 by Count Leo Tolstoy. The author Leo Tolstoy was born on September 8th, 1828 in Tula Province Russia and died on November 10th 1910 due to old age. The author was born in the high societies of Russia hence the title “count.” His parents were Count Nikolay Tolstoy and Princess Volkonskaya. His parents died at an early age and were taken in by their aunt. Tolstoy, though born to a wealthy and respectable family, was always humble and preferred spending his time with the farm hands. He was also credited with educating the farm hands (Gustafson 2014). Even in his later life, Tolstoy preferred to live a simple life as he did not wear flashy clothes but wore simpleton clothing. Some of his other brilliant works are War and Peace (1869), Anna Karenina (1877) and The Kreutzer Sonata (1889). The character in The Death of Ivan Ilych is Ivan Ilych Golovin, Peter Ivanovich, Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina, Schwartz, Lisa, Vladamir Ivanich and Gerasim.
“Ivan Ilych’s life had been the simplest and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” This is quotation comes from the second chapter of the book. Ivan’s life is simple yet shocking. He is a conformist and his life takes up simplicity in all the wrong ways. His social value, behaviours, and desires are all determined by the opinions and expectations bestowed upon him by his superiors. He chooses all his friends by reviewing their social standing in the community and not due to friendship. Also, he decides to marry a woman whom he does not even love because society dictates it is the appropriate thing to do.
Ivan’s life is terrible because of it devoid of freedom. In the end, when he is lying in his death bed he realises that he is surrounded by artificiality. His wife, daughter, and close friends choose to believe that he is only sick and is only dying. The only people who are concerned about his health are his son Vasya and his nurse Gerasim. His life is not guided by moral life in his reasoning, and rather he is tied to what people in society will perceive of his decisions. “In his work, itself, especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case” (Tolstoy, 1886 p.14). This excerpt from the book explains how Ivan a judge dealt with all his legal cases. His ability to offer a potentially cold approach to all cases that were emotional and personal was a move to reduce their complexity. Ivan deals with all his problems by pushing them aside and erecting impenetrable barriers between himself and anything that doesn’t agree with his ideologies. He manages to shut his wife and children out of his life and chooses to alienate and isolate himself.
Externally Ivan’s life is not terrible, but when we dig deeper, we find out that it is indeed terrible. His life is filled with uniform conformity. Even when he was in school, young Ivan is seen playing by the rules of society. “it is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. Moreover, that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent, life was ebbing away from me. Moreover, now it is all done, and there is only death” (Tolstoy, 1886 p.51). These are the words of Ivan on his death bed. They are words of regret. For the first time, Ivan begins to listen to his inner voice. He realises that a social standing in society does not translate to his life fulfilment.
The author through his book is trying to critique the aspect of social standing. The author seeks to open the eyes of the reader to the fact that social status does not translate to fulfilment n one’s life. He brings this point to life using Ivan who is a high standing judge in the society. Ivan chooses to conform to all the needs of the community but in the end, realises that he made the wrong decision. He regrets being a conformist. However, Ivan due to his arrogance decides to stick to the notion that he lived a true life.
At the funeral of Ivan, Peter Ivanovich a close friend to Ivan encounters Gerasim. He tells Gerasim that the death and funeral of Ivan are both an emotional and sad affair. However, Gerasim in a stern voice tells Peter that death is just a part of life. This commentary astonishes Peter (Maguire 2017). To Gerasim death is not a big issue because he believes that everyone on earth will die in the end.
Maguire, M. (2017). Leo Tolstoy: The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, translated by Nicholas Pasternak Slater; The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Confession, translated by Peter Carson; The Kreutzer Sonata and Other Stories, translated by Roger Cockrell; Hadji Murat, translated by Kyril Zinovieff and Jenny Hughes.
Gustafson, R. F. (2014). Leo Tolstoy: Resident and Stranger. Princeton University Press.
Tolstoy, L. (1886). Retrieved 6 July 2017, from http://opie.wvnet.edu/~jelkins/lawyerslit/stories/death-of-ivan-ilych.pdf