The Death of Ivan Ilych
By Leo Nikolayevich Tolstoy
Read How You Want, (2008)
EasyRead Large Print, in 16 point Verdana Font
Genre: Fiction, Classics
Reviewed by Israel Drazin - December 28, 2009
Both Leo Tolstoy and many literary experts consider this 1886 short story The Death of Ivan Ilych "one of Tolstoy's best stories."
It is impossible to fully evaluate the success of a person's life until the person is dead. Thus, The Death of Ivan Ilych is really an examination of an only outwardly successful life. This examination, performed by one of the world's greatest writer, sensitizes the reader to the values and vanities of their own life. Tolstoy tells his tale indirectly; we understand what happens to Ivan by seeing how people act toward him and by seeing how he acts, without Tolstoy needing to explain matters to us.
At the outset, we learn how Ivan's wife reacted to his death when we read that she asked one of Ivan's friends, before the funeral, how she could increase her pension. We understand about Ivan's friendships when we read how his friends preferred to play cards rather than attend his wake. Those who thought about his death at all were more concerned about what his death says about their own mortality than about Ivan.
Then Tolstoy tells us about Ivan's lie, his apparent joys, difficulties, behaviors, his advancements in his job and his final illness.
We learn how Ivan was affected by the deterioration of his marriage by reading what he did inside and outside his home. We read about all the troubles Ivan took to decorate his home when he became successful and acquired a higher salary. He was very proud. Yet: "In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves…. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional." Yet, he fell while working hard to decorate his home, and the fall may have caused the illness that began at that time.
At the end of his life, Ivan tried to "recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of these pleasant best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed." Life at the end seemed senseless, trivial, helpless, often nasty; life seemed to be filled with unintended accidents, like the accident of his marriage.
His final illness lasted several months, and the reader may want to compare the months of his dying to the years when he was well.
The book in short, is a comment on everyone, and it is a dramatic delightful fictional version of the pessimistic attitude of the biblical Ecclesiastes who proclaimed, "All is vanity."
Dr. Israel Drazin is the author of fifteen books, including a series of five volumes on the Aramaic translation of the Hebrew Bible, which he coauthors with Dr. Stanley M. Wagner, and a series of four books on the twelfth century philosopher Moses Maimonides, the latest being Maimonides: Reason Above All, published by Gefen Publishing House, www.israelbooks.com.