(Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Leo Tolstoy’s tale of Ivan Ilyich begins with his death at age forty-five, which is reported by his law colleagues, who read about his demise in the newspaper. Immediately Ivan’s colleagues begin to wonder how his death might affect their own positions in the court bureaucracy. Several colleagues attend Ivan’s wake, but reluctantly because it interferes with their weekly bridge game.

At the wake, Piotr Ivanovich, Ivan’s closest colleague, is engaged in conversation by Praskovya Fyodorovna, Ivan’s widow, who tells Piotr that Ivan suffered greatly during the final days of the long illness that ultimately took his life. Praskovya then asks Piotr about Ivan’s pension, which she has already calculated, wondering whether she possibly could extract an additional widow’s stipend from the government. When Piotr suggests that Praskovya’s effort probably would not be successful, Praskovya quickly ends the conversation, and Piotr leaves to attend his bridge game.

After this brief opening scene, Tolstoy’s narrator begins to recount Ivan’s life, which he identifies as both ordinary and terrible. Ivan, the son of a Russian government official, has lived a life of relative privilege in nineteenth century Russia. He graduates from the state school of law, then moves up the legal bureaucracy, receiving promotions and accompanying increases in salary. After achieving the position of examining magistrate, Ivan begins to consider marriage, mainly on the advice of highly placed law associates. He marries a woman whose family has property and social position. Initially, Ivan and Praskovya seem happy with each other, but she becomes jealous and demanding during her first pregnancy. To avoid conflicts, Ivan withdraws from family life into his work and bridge games with colleagues. The Ilyich marriage produces five offspring, three of whom die in childhood.

Because his marriage is less than satisfactory, Ivan focuses on his career, driven by the power that he holds over individuals and by his salary, which does not increase as quickly as Ivan desires. When Ivan finally receives a good promotion and substantial salary increase, he seems happy. He purchases a large house and fusses over its furnishings. After Ivan and his family settle into their spacious new home, however, he complains that it is just one room short. Nonetheless, Tolstoy’s narrator describes the life of Ivan Ilyich as...

(The entire section is 990 words.)


(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, one of the greatest stories dealing with the subject of death, marked Tolstoy’s return to fiction writing after his religious conversion. In 1881, his imagination was sparked when he heard the story of the death of Ivan Ilich Mechnikov, a judge of the Tula court, who expressed on his deathbed profound regret for the life that he had lived.

As in the real-life story, Tolstoy makes his Ivan Ilyich wake up to the hidden possibilities of life on his deathbed. Before then, Ilyich has lived his life thinking only of himself and his next round of pleasure. In the past, when unpleasant events occurred, such as the death of a few of his children and his wife’s growing irritability, he turned away from these domestic concerns and spent time working at the office. His life continues for seventeen years in this manner, until the fateful day when he falls off a ladder while hanging drapes. He develops symptoms, a queer taste in the mouth and stomach discomfort, and, before he knows it, he is on his deathbed.

From a life built around the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of unpleasant reality, Ivan is suddenly catapulted into the world of sickness and death. He recalls, with irony, an old syllogism that he had learned: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” Never before had he seriously contemplated his own mortality. He tortures himself with the thought, “What if in reality, all my...

(The entire section is 505 words.)