Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Hayley Vevey, Staff Writer

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is one of Leo Tolstoy’s shorter novels, which eloquently shares the story of a man’s experience with an agonizing and slow death. This piece is a brilliant performance of the confrontation with death that awaits us all, and the manner in which Tolstoy composed it is so perfectly structured that the audience cannot help but feel a catharsis. The merciless wrath that death plagues upon its prey is wonderfully sculpted by Tolstoy’s hands into this literature compression. The afterlife is speculated greatly, and with an understanding that there is no certainty with what comes after death, the story eloquently shares with its readers how fearful it is to realize that death is growing closer to you with every moment, with no door to escape. Although as horrid as it sounds, death unites us all. In this book, death teaches us that even the most despicable or superficial people can become vulnerable with a knowing that their fate has fallen upon them in an instant, without knowing that it was creeping up upon them long before they recognized it. 

This piece introduces us to the life of a middle-aged man named Ivan Ilyich, a man born with success practically waiting for him, he is destined to hold the title of Judge. Hardworking, financially comfortable compared to most, living in a lavishly decorated house, and married to the most beautiful woman, he finds himself having everything a man could want and need. Believing that his life has been spent well up until before tragedy strikes, Ivan Ilyich is content. Even with minor issues, such as the conflict that he and his wife experience, this man is able to balance his life between home and work. How enviable Ilyich must appear to his audience, however, his dramatic change in character as he becomes understanding of his nearing death is what really engages the audience. 

Tolstoy’s philosophical book triumphs as one of the best pieces written about dying, and if you find yourself interested in how death is reflected, it is a brilliant read. The despair Ivan expresses is completely engrossing as learning of how lonely it is to die can be hidden with the distractions of living. Frustrated with being caught between the desire to live and unavoidable death, he spends the last of his time thinking about how unsatisfying his life was and why he must endure such misery, leading him down a philosophical landslide.  

“What does it all mean? Why has it happened? It’s inconceivable, inconceivable that life was so senseless and disgusting. And if it really was so disgusting and senseless, why should I have to die, and die in agony? Something must be wrong. Perhaps I did not live as I should have.”

– Ivan Ilyich