Wednesday, 20 June 2018

The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Смерть Ивана Ильича) is a novella by Leo Tolstoy written in the late 1870s and first published in 1886. It is one of the most famous, if not the most famous of Tolstoy's shorter works.

It begins with the death of Ivan Ilyich, a member of the Supreme Court who lead a relatively unremarkable life and died at the age of 45. As Tolstoy writes,
The story of Ivan Ilyich's life was of the most simplest, most ordinary and therefore the most terrible.
His death is discussed and thought of in rather practical terms: funeral arrangements, and what it means for his colleagues: will they be promoted, for example. From the second chapter, however, Tolstoy goes back several decades and describes the life of Ivan. He was the middle child, attended the School of Law at the age of thirteen, becomes a magistrate, and then gets married and has children. His marriage to Praskovya is happy at first but following the birth of their children she becomes increasingly irritable and self-absorbed, and so he throws himself into his career yet is still passed over in chances for promotion. When his financial strains lead him to moving back to St. Petersburg for a higher wage, he has an accident - a fairly unremarkable one - he misses the step on a ladder and bangs his side on the window frame. He is fine, except he is not: this sparks his slow and painful death. As he comes to terms with the fact that he is dying, his family are in denial and treat him as though he is ill but will recover. He is tormented by this, knowing he will die whilst those around him pretend otherwise with the exception of Gerasim, his butler who is essentially a contrast to the artificial life around him. Finally he realises this falseness was ever thus, and in realising this he feels some peace and joy. after which he dies.

What's most striking about this novella is how mundane it is. Death in literature from the Ancients to the Victorians was always very remarkable: noble or tragic, often with romantic undertones, violent sometimes, revenge and retribution; so often there was a great and higher reason for dying. Not in The Death of Ivan Ilyich: he dies but those around him will move on, and he only died because he had a slight fall. In years to come he won't have been remembered: death in Tolstoy's story was everyday and ordinary. Yet to Ivan of course it was not ordinary, and Tolstoy depicts his mental struggle with incredible sensitivity - Tolstoy contrasts the mind and 'inner life' of Ivan with that which he projects and that which is perceived from the outside world, and it feels so very real. It's an outstanding work, and one of Tolstoy's absolute finest.

2 comments:

  1. hmmm being old, i shouldn't read this as it would lead to unproductive cogitation; but it does ring a bell; i might have read it sometime in the far distant past... excellent review, tx....

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