Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

I’ve been wanting to read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy ever since I saw it referred to in Being Mortal by Atul Gawande.

It begins with Ivan’s colleagues receiving news of his death. While some of express regret, most of them are glad that they weren’t the ones who died and concentrate on the opening of position to replace him and the “very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.” Even at the funeral, they are more concerned with the propriety of what to say and do and escaping to a bridge game afterward than with expressing genuine sorrow to the widow. Even Ivan’s wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, seems primarily concerned with how Ivan’s last sufferings affected her and how she can get more money from the government. Only Ivan’s son seems genuinely sorrowful.

The next chapters detail Ivan’s life. He was the middle son, “neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them—an intelligent polished, lively and agreeable man.” He attended law school and rose up the ranks of a law career. “Neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them.”

At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

He had not planned to marry, but when he met Praskovya Fedorovna, she was reasonably attractive and had a little property, and a good marriage was part of a respectable lifestyle, so he married. He strove for a life that was “easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous.” That word decorous comes up often.

Things went well until his wife became pregnant and, evidently hormonal, she began demanding more of his time and became very jealous, introducing “something new, unpleasant, depressing, and unseemly, and from which there was no way of escape.” He handled it by ignoring it, spending more time with his friends or at work.

At one point, during a particularly happy phase of life, he had a fall and injured his side. It seemed minor at the time, but it did not heal. The pain increased, became more constant, he developed a bad taste in his mouth. He sought various doctors, but they all had different diagnoses.

As he gradually grew worse, he began to think he might die. At first he refused to believe it. But as his condition worsened, he cried out to God wondering why this was happening to him. Eventually he began to wonder if this was all because he had not lived a good life…but of course he had lived a good life, he thought, so that must not be it.

As he realizes that he is in fact dying, he simmers with rage over the reactions of everyone else.

[The doctor] comes in fresh, hearty, plump, and cheerful, with that look on his face that seems to say: “There now, you’re in a panic about something, but we’ll arrange it all for you directly!” The doctor knows this expression is out of place here, but he has put it on once for all and can’t take it off.

Just as the doctor had adopted a certain relation to his patient which he could not abandon, so had [his wife] formed one towards him—that he was not doing something he ought to do and was himself to blame, and that she reproached him lovingly for this—and she could not now change that attitude.

His daughter was “impatient with illness, suffering, and death, because they interfered with her happiness.”

Ivan just wants someone to be honest, to be real, to admit that he’s dying, and to empathize with him.

The awful, terrible act of his dying was, he could see, reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident (as if someone entered a drawing room defusing an unpleasant odour) and this was done by that very decorum which he had served all his life long.

The only person who seems comfortable with Ivan and his condition is the butler’s assistant, Gerasim, “clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright.” It was Gerasim’s job to take care of Ivan’s “excretions,” which terribly embarrassed Ivan, but Gerasim did his work in such a cheerful way that it comforted Ivan, and, when Ivan apologized, Gerasim continually said, “What’s a little trouble?”

Gerasim alone did not lie; everything showed that he alone understood the facts of the case and did not consider it necessary to disguise them, but simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master. Once when Ivan Ilych was sending him away he even said straight out:”We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?” —expressing the fact that he did not think his work burdensome, because he was doing it for a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came.

Ivan began relying on Gerasim more and more. His pain was most alleviated when Gerasim held Ivan’s legs on Gerasim’s shoulders, and he uncomplainingly supported him like that through the night.

As Ivan’s continues to deteriorate, he begins to question if perhaps he had not really lived a good life at all. The things which used to bring him happiness now seemed shallow and unimportant.

This might sound like a terribly depressing story. It’s sad, but it’s enlightening and moving at the same time. One of Atul Gawande’s points in his book was that we’ve become far removed from death. In former times, life spans were shorter, an agricultural society dealt with death of animals frequently, plagues happened more frequently, and people died at home rather than in hospitals. While we have much to be grateful for in the strides in health care that have been made throughout history, Gawande is right in that we have become so distanced from death that we don’t know how to handle it, are often surprised to face it, avoid dealing with it, and don’t know what to say to someone who is dying. Tolstoy’s book illustrates this abundantly.

I think Ivan’s progression of spirit was well told. I’m thankful to Sparknotes for pointing out that the time progression of the book slowed down from covering several years of Ivan’s life, then a few weeks, then days, then his final moments, and his world shrunk progressively as well from a “man about town” to the confines of his room and then his sofa.

I think in some cases God allows a slow progression of death like this because that’s the only time some people would stop long enough to consider their ways and think about death and whether they’re ready for it. Tolstoy wrote this after a crisis of faith in which he wrestled with what the meaning of life was, and that is reflected in Ivan’s wrestlings as well. From what I understand, Tolstoy ended up with kind of an amalgam of beliefs, but Christian principles undergird the narrative here.

In some ways Ivan reaped what he sowed. He didn’t take time to understand his wife’s concerns in their early marriage, and she responded in the same way when he was dying – not on purpose or for vengeance, but she was just as out of touch as he had been earlier. There are almost parallel sections in how he treated people ion his career and how doctors treated him. But he does come to realize and acknowledge this over time.

Gersasim is a breath of fresh air in the novel. His empathy, balance between cheerfulness and sympathy, willingness to do whatever needed to be done to help, all make the reader hope for a friend like him when our own time comes.

I appreciated Schmoop‘s conclusions in their “Why should I care?” section. They can be pretty irreverent at times, but I thought they were spot on here:

The Death of Ivan Ilych brings to our attention the unpleasant fact that we all have to die, and that we might have to suffer a whole lot first. Our medicines might be better than those of Ivan’s doctors, but we haven’t gotten any closer to escaping mortality, and many people still die only after a long and painful period of disease. Perhaps Ivan Ilych, which is famous for its psychological depth, will help you understand what many people go through when they’re dying.

Perhaps Ivan Ilych will also get you thinking about what mortality means for you. Like Ivan, you might start wondering how you should live your life, and how you can find meaning in it.

I listened to the audiobook marvelously read by Oliver Ford Davies. Not only was the narration done well, but particularly Ivan’s voice and the changes over the course of his illness were masterfully portrayed. The text of the novella is here.

(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday)

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8 thoughts on “Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

  1. Barbara, this was quite an educational and spiritual post. A lot to think about here and digest. Not sure what all you are dealing with, but I will get still and pray for you.

  2. I tried Anna Karenina and stalled out 400 pages in. I haven’t considered giving Tolstoy another shot, but after your well written review, I might! I am also an avid audiobook enthusiast, so I welcome another recommended title. Nothing better than a well-performed audio experience. Thank you for your review.

  3. Excellent review, thanks Barbara. I haven’t read anything by Tolstoy yet but this one has been on my radar beause it’s shorter than Anna Karenina!

  4. I really enjoyed reading this review. I think I read Ivan’s stories years ago when I was going through Tolstoy’s books, but I certainly didn’t glean all the spiritual principles and understanding from it that you did.

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