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Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

The death of Ivan Ilyich is a novella written by one of Russia's most famous authors, Leo Tolstoy. This complex and thoughtful work, published in 1886, tackles the themes of mortality, existentialism, and the seeking of purpose in life. The story begins such that Ivan Ilyich, a highly regarded official of the Court of Justice, is all too suddenly (and rather bizarrely) struck down by a terminal condition after falling and hurting his side. In the days to come, Ilyich is forced to confront a plethora of all-consuming emotional stages (as one can assume occurs when faced with a death of any degree, let alone the gradual approach of one’s own): denial, anger, grief, acceptance, and finally a resounding indifference to his untimely conclusion.

Ilyich’s life, as per Tolstoy, is ‘most simple and most ordinary, and therefore, most terrible’. He is driven up the walls by the mundaneness of his demanding wife and high-status job. Though Ilyich consistently portrays that he is deeply unsatisfied with his life, it is clear that a subconscious calm and ego drive him.

A calm and ego that comes from knowing that though life is not nearly perfect, there are people in way worse positions than he is at this very moment. But life is just that, a chain of moments that disappear as suddenly as they once appeared. Ilyich is reluctantly jolted back into reality by his diagnosis. In a split second, his age-old worldview shifts as he realizes that neither his pride nor the privilege of his professional standing can eradicate what is now his fate. 

I wished extensively and often while reading this book that I had found it at an earlier time in my life, specifically when I was eighteen and anxiously riddled by the ways of the universe and the life cycles thrust upon us. Existence and its nuances, if you will. I picked at questions regarding the purpose of human nature like a scab whose only healing would be to ‘not worry about all of this because it's all inevitable anyway.’

Be that as it may, it was not good enough to fortify the constant underlying panic associated with ruminating about it because no one is terrified of death as much as they are of what comes after. Unable to recollect any memory from before my existence, the thought of the same possible nothingness after it consumed me. Human life would proceed as usual, but where would I be? This thought overpowered me, like being caught in a wave amid a tsunami. 

Ivan Ilyich, too, flails about for a lifeboat in the same flood. Once the impossibility of avoiding his kismet dawns on him, he begins to shut the rest of the world out. It is as if he metamorphs into a Kafkaesque creature. Ilyich remains isolated in a room, misunderstood and pained by queries about his existence and the colossal changes it underwent almost overnight. 

His visitors make their rounds to convey their condolences. Still, there is an omnipresent collective relief that ‘it is him who is dying, not I.’ Ivan Ilyich is all too aware of this silent sentiment, no matter how disguised it comes each time. He recognizes it as the feeling he thrived on before his diagnosis, but now he is in a way worse position than his peers. His suffering is being used to leverage a sense of relief and security in other people’s lives. 

Even his family treats him as simply ill rather than in rapid demise. The shock, anguish, and traumatism of it all reduce Ivan Ilych to a teetering shell closely reminiscent of the man it used to host inside of it. After countless hours and days of being unable to find comfort in his new reality, he detaches from it altogether. During the days spent in seclusion, Ivan Ilyich begins to understand that the life he has lived, and the same one his family and colleagues continue to live, is but a contrived one after all. 

A real life, he profoundly decides, is one consisting of compassion and love. And what makes it more authentic than a selfish and feigned one, is the calm acceptance of the absoluteness of death. 

It is worth noting that after my days of pondering and silent trepidation, I arrived at the exact resolution that Ivan Ilyich came to, and that was nothing. This cognizance cascades to you as gently as an autumn leaf softly touches the pavement after swaying in the air for a while: there is no eluding death; all that is there is the here and now. 

When the same discernment washes over Ivan Ilyich during his final days, he is finally able to let go of all he has been holding onto, comfortable in the understanding that it is, in fact, to nothing at all, stretch out, and die. Reading this book at a time when I have substantially confronted my fears regarding death and existence is still quite comforting because an existential crisis can be a daunting feeling that is never truly gone.

It is also reassuring to learn that Tolstoy wrote this book when he was distressed by the unease of his death. It felt uniting to me, writer, protagonist, and reader, under the same umbrella, all reaching the same eventual consciousness. Such is the way of human nature. 

The writing style of Tolstoy in The Death of Ivan Ilyich is reflective and philosophical. He deeply explores Ivan's inner thoughts, worries, and regrets, creating a dramatic portrait of his emotional and psychological struggle. The novella is a striking critique of society's fixation with superficial values and the chase of worldly achievement, emphasizing the emptiness such a life may bring. This novella is a must-read for anybody interested in severe and reflective writing, whether they seek philosophical pondering, emotional connection, or enjoy skilled storytelling.

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Tags: Existentialism Book Review


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