Friday, July 30, 2021

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan IlychThe Death of Ivan Ilyich. Leo Tolstoy (translated by Peter Carson). W.W. Norton (2014) (first published 1886). 84 pages. Genre:  Classic

First Line: "During a break in the hearing of the Melvinsky case, the members of the court and the prosecutor met in Ivan Yegorovich Shebek's room in the big law courts building and began talking about the famous Krasovsky case."

Summary:  Ivan Ilyich was a good person living a decent life.  When he becomes ill after an accident and begins to see that he will not recover, he has a chance to examine his life and the choices he made. 

My thoughts:  This is a short, but powerful work.  I was struck by how real the situations drawn in the book were.  Tolstoy was able to get to the heart of the human condition.  If you switched out the clothing, and added cell phones, the story could have taken place today.  

Another thing that struck me was the way that Tolstoy told the story.  He never tells the reader what to think, instead he just gives the facts and lets the reader draw his or her own conclusions. As Tolstoy began describing Ivan Ilyich,  I realized that he was very ordinary.  He wasn't a bad man, but there was nothing exemplary or endearing about him.  He liked the feeling of power his job gave him, but knew he would never abuse it.  At one point he is decorating an apartment before his wife and kids move in and is delighted by the results.  The narrator says this, 

"In actual fact it was the same as the houses of all the people who are not so rich but want to be like the rich and so are only like one another: brocade, ebony, flowers, carpets, and bronzes, everything dark and shiny - everything that all people of a certain type do to be like all people of a certain type."

As Ivan Ilyich becomes more and more ill, he begins to reflect on his life and wonders whether he had not lived in the way he should have.  This part of the story made me think of A Christmas Carol.  However, Ivan Ilyich does not have a guide through these dark thoughts.  In that way this is a darker and heavier look at this type of meditation.  Also, Ivan Ilyich realizes that he is dying, he is not going to recover and he struggles with this.  Thankfully he does find some relief in the company of one of the servants.  The man is always cheerful and willing to do whatever is asked of him.  He never complains and Ivan Ilyich wants to spend time in his presence.  He also finds some solace in the tenderness shown to him by his son.

I enjoyed reading this and know that I will continue to think about Ivan Ilyich for some time.

This book satisfied the something Russian category of The Literary Life Reading Challenge.