The Death of Ivan Ilych


"Lev Tolstoy in Yasnaya Polyana", 19...Image via Wikipedia

In my journeys to and from work this week I’ve been plugged in listening to an audio version of the Tolstoy story The Death of Ivan Ilych.

I read this the old fashioned way many years ago, when I was just out of my teens. It was powerful to me then and in the years after as I moved around the world, from one address to another, through jobs and relationships, over the seas and back again, this book was one of about a hundred I kept close to me.

From time to time I would be moved to pluck it from the tightly packed shelves of my bookcase and return to the yellowing, brittle pages of a long ago paperback edition. More than anything else I returned to the last couple of pages when Ivan Illych was in the final throes of a protracted, painful illness.

His family is arrayed all around him waiting for his inevitable end. To them he is the picture of pathos, crying out in pain and seemingly delirious with it. His perspective is different. Throughout the story we have read as he journies himself through the different stages of his illness. At some point he recognises that he will die, and alternately denies and despairs at it. What is death, what does it mean? It looms dark, mysterious and terrifying.

Then in those last few pages he finds a measure of peace. While he writhes and cries out in seeming pain before the horrified eyes of his family he is actually slowly reconciling himself to the spiritual journey that culminates in his death, and possibly goes beyond it. “Forgive me” he mutters to his wife who, in his weakened state mishears him thinking he is saying “forgo”. It matters not.

He passes away and the scenes we read at the very beginning of the story now take place, but he is gone.

Though I cannot put my finger on it those last couple of pages seemed to contain a supernatural wisdom. Each time I read it I find myself pausing, moved in ways I cannot explain.

I go back to it again and again for that reason; and because the story is a masterpiece. I read it appreciating the art and genius of it. I study it trying to learn. Perhaps I can become a better writer by reading it closely I think, and I do, feeling myself fall into the story.

This is a story in full, with every character completely developed, with their flaws exposed in perfectly normal ways, and the story pervaded with a deep sense of humanity that seems very Tolstoy. They are normal, good people living through normal events revealed/exposed beneath the nib of Tolstoy’s pen. He knows these people thoroughly, to the bone, and that is where his wisdom and genius comes from: an eye for human nature, an innate understanding of what motivates and moves us more than any other author. And he expresses that simply and clearly, recording it as it is.

Listening to it this time rather than reading it I was reminded of that. It’s a story every literature lover should read at least once in their life.

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