Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilych, by Leo Tolstoy

ivan_ilych“Can it be that I have not lived as one ought?” suddenly came into his head. “But how not so, when I’ve done everything as it should be done?”

All humans who were, who are, and who will be have existed, exist, and will exist, respectively, as unique entities, each discrete and different from every other. In our vast variety, it is peculiar to think that all of us, collectively, could find anything of commonality. Indeed, our discrepancies are often cited as the sources of our social and cultural distinctions, our conflicts, and even our wars. Nonetheless, as human beings we do truly share something, or perhaps a few things, that constitutes the essence of our existence. Possibly the most important of these constituent parts, or, as some may perceive, an equivalent of this essence, is human life itself, its progressions and turbulences, its peaks and nadirs.

It is this very concept, life in its truest form, that Leo Tolstoy, in his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilych, seeks to explore. Tolstoy’s work is a summation of the life of a judge in mid-19th century Russia, focusing in particular on his final days of life. As an audience, we are first introduced to Ivan Ilych through the perspective of his colleagues, who, in regards to their fellow official’s death, are most interest in the fate of his position and estate. With this introduction, the remainder of the novella chronicles the passage of years in Ivan Ilych’s life. He appears to live comfortably, dedicated to his career, and exists happily, despite the mounting pangs of a loveless marriage. Ilych, with wife and children, lives awhile in the exile of a peasant village with his wife’s family, but soon he is returned to a more honorable post in his old line of work, affording him the opportunity to begin a good life anew. Yet in the excitement of a new home all his own, Ilych’s life begins to run downhill after he contracts an internal injury whilst decorating the new residence he so cherishes. Ever quickening, his dying days pose for him an existential crisis, causing him to question the value of his life and how his once ubiquitous comfortableness has been lost.

In regards to its plot and subject matter, there is nothing extravagant or instantly engrossing about The Death of Ivan Ilych. To the contrary, the work is defined by and truly is bold for its simplicity. Indeed, Ivan Ilych himself is a simple man, a highly physical being who seeks only to live and to live well. Perhaps this is why his death, as opposed to that of a more prominent figure, is so significantly tragic. Ivan Ilych is an everyman, and thus his sufferings, those of a man who sought only to do what is good and right, become frighteningly familiar and immediately applicable to our own lives. Even with its brevity, The Death of Ivan Ilych has much insight to offer on this human experience we all share.

-Sebastian R., 11th grade

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