The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy

The second short work in the Tolstoy collection which OH gifted me at Christmas time is the title story, and it’s apparently reckoned to be one of his masterpieces. First published in 1886, so considered one of his later works, I imagine it’s been gathered with the three other pieces in the book as they all seem to focus on marriage and the relationships between men and women. However, although I’ve only read the first two, I think “Death” is something more than just a meditation on the battle of the sexes.

The novella opens with three men receiving the news that their friend and colleague Ivan Ilyich Golovin has died. These are officials of the Russian court of Justice and although sorry about their friend’s death, they also can’t help thinking of the effect this will have on their careers and their lives. Golovin’s best friend of the three, Pyotr Ivanovich, goes to pay his respects; yet he cannot wait to leave the house after the service, glad to be alive and able to go on with his own life.


The story then takes us back to Ivan’s younger days, following his life from childhood through to school days, early working life and making his way in the civil service. He moves from province to province to improve his lot; meets his future wife Praskovya in one of these outposts and they marry because she is in love and he thinks it would be a good match and she is quite agreeable; and they have a family. However, things deteriorate once the children arrive, as Ivan finds his wife too demanding and unreasonable, and he retreats into his work.

In all this the great thing necessary was to exclude everything with the sap of life in it, which always disturbs the regular course of official business, not to admit any sort of relations with people except the official relations; the motive of all intercourse had to be simply the official motive, and the intercourse itself to be only official.

After a good promotion, however, the family move to a new home which Ivan decorates in readiness for their arrival. It is here that fate takes a hand: Ivan falls whilst hanging curtains and hurts his side. This apparently minor injury develops into what will be a fatal one, and the rest of the book takes us with Ivan on his final journey towards an angry death. And a long, dark journey it is. Ivan’s illness is undefined, and the doctors seem unable to diagnose or treat him properly. His family is relatively unsupportive, with only his young son seeming to care about him, and Ivan himself only realises towards the very end quite how much his condition has deteriorated. He suffers the indignity of having to have what we would now call ‘personal care’ from a peasant in his employ, who ends up being the most comforting presence around him because he is totally non-judgemental. Ivan is not ready to die, and suffers more when he comes to realise that he has probably wasted his life, doing things that were pointless and meaningless, and it is this that makes his death so painful – as well as dealing with the physical agony, he is also in mental and emotional agony.

What of the portrayal of his marriage? Well, it isn’t a happy one but then when are they in Tolstoy? Initially the young couple seemed to jog along quite nicely, but as soon as Praskovya becomes what Ivan thinks of as far too demanding he pulls away, shutting himself off from his family and making walls around himself. Tolstoy is critical of Praskovya, but I couldn’t help thinking that in fact Ivan was emotionally copping out and if he had *really* cared about his wife he would have tried to understand and meet her halfway (especially as her demanding behaviour began when she was pregnant and her hormones were presumably running riot). The marriage is mostly conflict and it does seem to be Tolstoy’s feeling that that’s what a marriage is.

But of course central to the book (and its title) is Ivan Ilyich’s death, and Tolstoy is unsparing in his depiction of this. I can’t recall reading anything that deals so starkly and realistically not only with the physical effects of a human’s deterioration but also the mental effects. Ivan’s coming demise dominates his thoughts and emotions to the exclusion of anything else; he is unable to put it out of his mind and it gnaws away at his brain as much as his disease does at his body. His gruelling path to death is not an easy read, but perhaps it’s an essential one. In a society that doesn’t talk about the practicalities of death very much, maybe we need reminding of what it’s really like to take leave of this earth and this life.

So a much more powerful read than the first story in the book, a dark one which I can understand being ranked with Tolstoy’s great works. Next up will be “The Kreutzer Sonata”, a story I’ve tried to read before and failed because the attitude towards women and marriage was just too much. We’ll see whether I can get through it on a second attempt! 🙂