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The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Bantam Classics) (original 1886; edition 1981)

by Leo Tolstoy, Lynn Solotaroff (Translator), Ronald Blythe (Introduction)

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Member:unlucky
Title:The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Bantam Classics)
Authors:Leo Tolstoy
Other authors:Lynn Solotaroff (Translator), Ronald Blythe (Introduction)
Info:Bantam Dell (1981), Mass Market Paperback, 128 pages
Collections:Your library
Rating:****1/2
Tags:Russian, Russian Literature

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The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy (Author) (1886)

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Until the nature of his injury makes itself known Ivan Ilych ambles through life, succeeding in both his career and personal life (at least he keeps up the facade of success in those realms). Yet Ivan Ilych never exhibits any passion, nor does he examine the path he has taken and where it might lead.

When a foolish accident brings home his own mortality, however, Ivan Ilych is forced to consider all the things he had taken for granted before. His unhappy marriage, his career that he sometimes enjoyed but largely performed for the sake of a salary and social advancement, and his life in general where he never stood for or against anything, all provide grist for Ivan's tormented mind. The nature of life and the inevitability of death spur in Ivan thoughts about dying for the first time. Tolstoy gives us a dying man who is bitter that everyone else is continuing their lives as if "the world was going on as usual." Of course, to everyone except the dying man, it is. He gives us a man who always thought of himself as death's exception. Everyone has probably done something similar, at least at times, because that thought is so much easier to grasp compared to the idea that we are mortal and will be dead someday, our consciousness ending like a candle being snuffed. He gives us a man railing against the cruelty of God while simultaneously railing against God's absence. Finally Tolstoy lets Ivan Ilych begin to examine his own life, and as he does so he realizes that his moments of purest happiness were during childhood, and since then his life has been one big death-spiral, before giving Ivan a moment of forgiveness and what I interpret as divine absolution.

Tolstoy in this book tells what I imagine is a universal tale of a person trying to reconcile themselves with his or her own mortality. We probably have all had the thoughts that go through Ivan's head in our own head at some point in our lives- if anything Ivan Ilych thinks about hasn't occurred to you in at least a general sense before then you probably don't spend much time thinking- but Tolstoy presents these thoughts well. That being said, his writing did not spur any realization about life or death that I didn't have before I began the book. Maybe I contemplate my own mortality more than most people do? I think that, despite the lack of new insight, the book could have been great if the scenes of Iva Ilych's terror and suffering were portrayed with great prose that made the scenes depicted viscerally striking. I didn't find the prose to be particularly impressive, unfortunately, though that may be the fault of the Maude translation. I also thought the ending was a bit of a cop-out, at least if you interpret the ending as his soul receiving forgiveness, as it undercuts the fear of death and the ensuing nothingness that was such an integral part of the story up until that point. I hope Tolstoy really believed in such forgiveness, and didn't include it so as to give a more uplifting ending, because the story would have been better off without it.

If you've never really thought about death, it's worth reading a book that contemplates such a thing. There are plenty to choose from: Death Comes for the Archbishop, Gilead, The Tartar Steppe, or Hamlet just to name a few (death is hardly a rare theme). Still, The Death of Ivan Ilych stands out as perhaps the work most focused on death. Choose it if that sounds appealing to you. ( )
  BayardUS | Dec 10, 2014 |
In this short novella Tolstoy ingeniously unmasks the raw emotions and the puzzled lamentations of one Ivan Ilyich, a typical personage of his time, as he lies dying while suffering physical and mental agony (the latter being as excruciating as the former), trying to grasp the seeming "unfairness" of his position and finally arriving at some startling realizations about his life. The surrounding characters come under harsh light as they hover around the dying man and reveal their most unattractive human traits, and Ivan Ilyich is finally able to see through the veil of human hypocrisy. Not an upbeat story in the least. But one with a pretty clever insight into human nature. It also does point to the unrelenting frailty of life. ( )
1 vote Clara53 | Oct 25, 2014 |
A brilliant short work. He captured the psychology of a dying man and those around him with a great deal of thoroughness. The end of Illych had him questioning so many of the silly societal mores which he had self-imposed, but in the end, his resignation to the peaceful pull of death put the angst behind him. Wonderfully written. ( )
  AliceAnna | Oct 15, 2014 |
My left side started hurting. A lot. ( )
  mvbdlr | Aug 2, 2014 |
This is my first venture into the land of Tolstoy. As with Camus, I was intimidated by the name 'Tolstoy' and, as with Camus, this should never have been so. The Death of Ivan Ilych is a rather poignant, striking novella written following a time where it is said Tolstoy went through a religious conversion. The book provokes thoughts around mortality and provides us with a harsh lesson in 'live life well'.

Despite the book title, the story focusses upon the life which Ivan Ilych felt he had lived and the process of dying he goes through rather than the death itself. It is striking, emotive and, at times, frighteningly remorseful. It's that 3am in the morning kind of stuff. If you're the kind of person who lies in bed agonising over your mortality, that funny twitch in your arm, pain in your chest or asking yourself "Why is John's car far superior to mine?" "Is the cat ill running around like that or just being a cat?" then the themes running through this wonderful novella will certainly chime.

Ivan Ilych is a well-respected judge who receives an unspecified diagnosis but deduces that he is terminally ill. As his condition deteriorates, we witness Ivan Ilych struggling to come to terms with his condition and the fact that he is dying. He begins to look back on his life with some sadness and regret.

"Lately in that loneliness in which he found himself....in these late days of horrific loneliness Ivan Ilych lived only by his memories of the past. One after another he imagined scenes from his life. He would always begin with the most recent and proceed to the earliest, to his childhood, and settle there." p.92

Such memories proved painful to bear. On looking back through his life, Ivan Ilych realises that as he grew older, more removed from the innocence of childhood, as the worries of life, his career and family took hold, the more superficial and shallow his life had become.

"...the further back he looked, the more life there had been in him; both the more sweetness to life, and the more of life itself....There had been one point of light far back at the start of everything, and ever since everything had gotten blacker and blacker, and moved quicker and quicker." p.93

Ivan Ilych starts to look on his friends, colleagues and wife with the same feelings of bitterness, regret and hate which he has for life and himself. The only moments of tenderness and understanding he finds are in Gerasim, the butler's assistant, who is able to emphasise and understand his needs as Ivan Ilych views others around him as looking inwards to their own needs.

"His marriage...so accidental, and such a disappointment, with his wife's bad breath, and her sensuality, and their hypocrisy. His moribound professional life, the obession with money...The further on in years the more deadening it became. In perfectly measured steps I went downhill imagining I was on my way up.... In public opinion I was on my way up, and the whole time my life was slipping away from under me....and now it's all over, and it's time to die."p.88

The inevitability of death pervades the book and feeds into this readers mortality. As Ivan Ilych struggles to come to terms with his life, dying and death so the reader is also carried along and forced to ask questions of his/her own mortality and life. The fact that Ivan Ilych is terminally ill is, for want of a better word, irrelevant. Death is inevitable - we are all dying, we will all face death and this is the only thing we can be sure about in life. The important lesson we should learn is how to spend our time wisely as we move towards this inevitability.

I'm so glad that this is my first experience of reading Tolstoy. It's a quick, compelling read with so much feeling and emotion packed into the 104 pages of this edition. It is without doubt a fantastic masterclass in writing where we are witness to emotions being laid bare for all to see. ( )
  lilywren | May 23, 2014 |
Showing 1-5 of 47 (next | show all)
The work has a twofold value - first as a commentary of a Russian upon the most noteworthy event of Russia's contemporary, and, secondly, as a soldier's account from personal observation of the most stirring scenes of a mighty war.
added by Shortride | editThe New York Times (pay site)
 
The light ridicule with which it commences and the black horror in which it terminates... are alike suggestive of the Thackeray of Russia.
added by Shortride | editThe New York Times (pay site)
 

» Add other authors (65 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tolstoy, LeoAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Aplin, HughTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Bremer, GeertAfterwordsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Edmonds, RosemaryTranslatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Eekman, T.Translatorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
Prebble, SimonNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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In the great building of the Law Courts, during an interval in the hearing of the Melvinsky affair, the members of the Court and the public prosecutor gathered together in Ivan Yegorovich Shebek's private room, and the conversation turned on the celebrated Krasovsky case.
(the Rosemary Edwards translation)
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Please note that this work is only for "The Death of Ivan Ilych" ONLY.

NOT for any work with any other stories or with commentaries.

Please note that "The Cossacks" and 'Hadji Murat" are NOT the same work and please do NOT recombine them. Thank you.

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This is a classic book discussing the difference between life and death and a substantial way of living versus a frivolous way of living. In the frivolous way of living, life is materialistic and self-centered. In the substantial way of living, life includes real emotion such as remorse and sympathy.
The climax of the story is when Ivan Ilyich asks God or empty space why he has been suffering. He actually stops and listens for an answer and gets one. It is simply, "becuase". And that is enough of an answer for Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy is answering the question that most people ask about suffering with the simple answer of "because". He does not make excuses, does not try to reason it out. He simply states that there is suffering because. I think this is very profound.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0553210351, Mass Market Paperback)

Hailed as one of the world's supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a worldly careerist, a high court judge who has never given the inevitability of his death so much as a passing thought. But one day death announces itself to him, and to his shocked surprise he is brought face to face with his own mortality. How, Tolstoy asks, does an unreflective man confront his one and only moment of truth?

This short novel was the artistic culmination of a profound spiritual crisis in Tolstoy's life, a nine-year period following the publication of Anna Karenina during which he wrote not a word of fiction. A thoroughly absorbing and, at times, terrifying glimpse into the abyss of death, it is also a strong testament to the possibility of finding spiritual salvation.

(retrieved from Amazon Mon, 30 Sep 2013 13:24:18 -0400)

(see all 6 descriptions)

Ivan Ilyich is wasting away. He lies alone, dosed up on opium and deceived by doctors, haunted by memories and regrets. His friends come to see him, their faces masks of concern. His faithful servant tends to his every need. But as he forces down false remedies and listens to empty promises, Ivan grows aware of one terrible truth. His wife and his children are not awaiting his recovery. They are waiting for him to die.… (more)

(summary from another edition)

» see all 8 descriptions

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