Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins shortly after Ivan Ilyich’s death. A small group of legal professionals, court members, and a private prosecutor have gathered in a private room within the Law Courts, and while looking through a newspaper one of them reads the following;
“Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina, with profound sorrow, informs relatives and friends of the demise of her beloved husband Ivan Ilyich Golovin, Member of the Court of Justice, which occurred on February the 4th of this year 1882. The funeral will take place on Friday at one o’clock in the afternoon.”
Immediately members of the group begin to think how Ilyich’s passing will affect their positions and status; They thank God it didn’t happen to them and ponder on the implications of how they might benefit from their colleagues demise, each one of them oblivious of the fact that death will come to them all. ¬
The story takes us back and we see Ivan Ilyich in the prime of his life. He has studied law and is now a judge. He performs his work with a cold discipline and he is a social climber who has become devoid of emotion. He lacks empathy and any concern for his fellow man, seeking only to reach the top where he can look down upon his peers.
One day Ivan has a fall whilst decorating his new house. He sustains an injury and although he doesn’t know it, the injury will cause him to become ill and he will die as a result. During his illness he becomes bad tempered and bitter and refuses to believe he is coming to the end of his life.
He gets little sympathy from his family and his only solace are his conversations with Gerasim, a peasant who stays by his bed and gives him honesty and kindness. Reflecting on his current situation and his past life Ivan’s worldview begins to change. He realizes the higher he climbed in his noble profession the more unhappy he became, and looking back he realizes how meaningless his life had been.
Slowly Ivan comes to term with his immanent death and finally he sees the light. He begins to feel sorry for those about him busying themselves living a life of habit unable to see how artificial their existence is and that they are not living a good life at all. Finally after his illumination he dies in a moment of exquisite happiness.
About the author
Count Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, better known as Leo Tolstoy, is rightly regarded as one of the greatest writers in the history of literature and his masterpieces, War And Peace and Anna Karenina, are considered by many to be two of the most important novels ever written.
He was born in 1828 in Yasnaya, Polyana, in what was then the Russian Empire, into a noble family with old and established links to the highest echelons of the Russian aristocracy. His parents died while he was young leaving relatives to raise him and after a brief and disappointing time at University, where enrolled in 1844, he spent time gambling, and losing, in St. Petersburg and Moscow before joining the army in 1851.
He began writing whilst in the army and upon leaving took it up as his occupation with his first books detailing his life story as well as another, Sevastopol Sketches, discussing his experiences in the Crimean War. By the time he had completed Sevastopol Sketches he had returned from the first of two trips abroad which would change his outlook on life and consequentially his writing approach and the content of his work.
A trip to Europe in 1861 and a meeting with Victor Hugo, who had just completed Les Miserables, which had a marked influence on War And Peace, would further push Tolstoy towards the mindset that would lead him to write his most famous works. On the same trip he also met Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, a French anarchist, with whom he discussed the importance of the need for education for all rungs of society. This revelation lead Tolstoy to open up 13 schools in Russia for the children of the working class, further highlighting his continuing separation from his noble roots.
War And Peace, published in 1869, and Anna Karenina, published in 1878, were universally recognised as great works, but not long after the publication of the latter Tolstoy began to slip into an existentialist crisis. Although not suicidal in the literal sense of the term he did, however, decide that if he could find no reason or purpose for his existence he would rather die and so went about searching for a reason to live. He consulted his many friends in high places who espoused various intellectual theories but none of these sat well with him. Just as he was beginning to give up he had a dream that proved to be a moment of clarity and decided that God in a spiritual sense was the reason to keep on, though he was wary of the church and those that abused religion as a tool of oppression.
He published A Confession in 1882 which explained his crisis and his resolution and how it came about. Two subsequent works, The Death of Ivan Ilyich and What Then Must We Do?, further re-enforced his views in which he criticised the Russian Orthodox Church.
The culmination of his 30 years of religious and philosophical thinking was The Kingdom Of God Is Within you which was published in 1894. In the book he outlined the abuses of those in power in both the church and the government and this would eventually lead to his excommunication from the Russian Orthodox Church in 1901. Tolstoy’s main point derived from Jesus’ teachings to ‘turn the other cheek’ and Tolstoy believed that this was the key to Christ’s message which can be found in the Gospels and the ‘Sermon On The Mount’ in particular. This theory of ‘non-violence’ that dominated the book would make a profound impact on Mahatma Gandhi who read it as a young man whilst living in South Africa.
In 1908 Tolstoy wrote ‘A Letter To A Hindu’ in which he told the Indian people that only through non-violent reaction and love could they overcome their British colonial masters. The letter was published in an Indian paper and Gandhi not only read it but also wrote to Tolstoy to ask permission to translate it into his own native Gujarati. The Kingdom Of God Is Within You and ‘A Letter To A Hindu’ solidified Gandhi’s non-violent idea of rebellion which he implemented and which came to fruition in 1947 when British rule came to an end and India became independent. Gandhi and Tolstoy would continue their correspondence up until Tolstoy’s death in 1910.
Publisher: White Crow Books
Published April 2011
Size: 216 x 140 mm