Leo Tolstoy: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

See image credit below.

See image credit below.

Leo Tolstoy, the great Russian writer and philosopher, is known for his epic, huge-canvas novels, War and Peace(1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). But I am also a fan of his much shorter work, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella that has deeply moved me every time I have read it.

The work is titled The Death of Ivan Ilyich because it is precisely not about Ivan’s living but about his passing from life (limited as his was) to death. The reader knows from the start – from the very title – that Ivan Ilyich will die. Indeed, the opening scene includes the announcement of his death to his former colleagues and is followed immediately by the scene of his funeral. Freed from that suspense, the reader can focus, as Tolstoy does, on Ivan Ilyich’s experience of dying.

After the funeral scene, Tolstoy backs up 30 years and briefly tells the story of Ivan Ilyich’s life as a lawyer in the Russian Court of Justice. He went to law school as expected, married as expected, had children as expected, and moved up through the career ranks as expected. Ivan Ilyich at all times did what was expected of a man from his background. As Tolstoy writes, “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

One day when hanging curtains in his new home, he falls and injures his side. Over time, the injury does not subside but instead becomes worse, until the pain is unbearable. Finally, Ivan Ilyich has no choice but to leave his job as a magistrate and take to his sick bed.

By far my favorite scene is the one in which Ivan Ilyich’s servant, Gerasim, comes in to Ivan’s sickroom and holds his master’s legs up for him. It is the only position in which Ivan does not feel pain. Ivan’s wife and children can hardly be bothered to visit Ivan at his deathbed. They are always in a hurry, ready to move back into their “real” lives as soon as possible. God help them if they had smart phones! But Gerasim stays with Ivan, sits with him, listens to him, but most importantly reaches out to him with the healing power of human touch. It is supremely intimate: one person being fully present with another human being, one person bearing witness to another’s life . . . and death.

I described Leo Tolstoy at the beginning of this post as a writer and philosopher. I suppose that many people think of him only as a writer and that those who know of his philosophy may dismiss it. It did have some rather outlandish components. Tolstoy declared his celibacy even though he was still married, much to his wife’s surprise and profound disappointment. He gave away virtually all of his inherited fortune so that he could live a life of poverty. And he renounced the copyrights to his earlier works, assigning them instead to his increasingly estranged wife. In addition, the constant presence of spiritual disciples in the Tolstoy household deeply angered Tolstoy’s wife. One source says that the Tolstoys’ later life as a couple was “one of the unhappiest in literary history,” because “Tolstoy’s relationship with his wife deteriorated as his beliefs became increasingly radical.”

Despite the unorthodox nature of Tolstoy’s philosophy, it proved influential, especially to 20th-century leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. I especially admire his deep, abiding emphasis on love. Eschewing the trappings of conventional religion, Tolstoy developed his own version of Christianity. He very much subscribed to Jesus’s primary teaching, which held that the old commandments had now been replaced with one overarching commandment: “Love one another.” In fact, so deeply did Tolstoy embrace Christ’s teachings (especially those in the Sermon on the Mount) that he has been described as a Christian anarchist and pacifist.

It is important to note that The Death of Ivan Ilyich was written after Tolstoy’s deep and profound spiritual conversion. Indeed, Gerasim represents the highest calling: he loves Ivan. He reaches out to another human being with love, compassion, caring.

You can read the full novella online – or buy a hard copy for your collection. You can gain insights into Tolstoy’s last days by watching the film The Last Station, based on the novel by Jay Parini.

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Listen:Listen as I read Chapter VII from The Death of Ivan Ilyich. This is the scene in which Gerasim takes care of Ivan Ilyich tenderly and holds his master’s legs. You can follow along with the text here.


Image Credit: Leo Tolstoy in May, 1908, three years before his death in 1910 (photographed at Yasnaya Polyana by Sergey Prokudin-Gorsky). This is the first color photo portrait taken in Russia. This image is in the public domain in Russia. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Leo_Tolstoy#/media/File:L.N.Tolstoy_Prokudin-Gorsky.jpg.