Hailed as one of the world’s masterpieces of psychological realism, 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?
The first part of the story portrays Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues and family after he has died, as they discuss the effect of his death on their careers and fortunes. In the second part, Tolstoy reveals the life of the man whose death seems so trivial. The perfect bureaucrat, Ilyich treasured his orderly domestic and office routine. Diagnosed with an incurable illness, he at first denies the truth but is influenced by the simple acceptance of his servant boy, and he comes to embrace the boy’s belief that death is natural and not shameful. He comforts himself with happy memories of childhood and gradually realizes that he has ignored all his inner yearnings as he tried to do what was expected of him. Will Ilyich be able to come to terms with himself before his life ebbs away?
This short novel was the artistic culmination of a profound spiritual crisis in Tolstoy’s own life, a nine-year period following the publication of Anna Karenina, during which he wrote not a word of fiction. A thoroughly absorbing glimpse into the abyss of death, it is also a strong testament to the possibility of finding spiritual salvation.
Public Domain (P)2009 Blackstone Audio, Inc.
“Written more than a century ago, Tolstoy’s work still retains the power of a contemporary novel." (Publishers Weekly)
"But however much he thought, he found no answer [why he was dying]. And when it occurred to him, as it often did, that it was all happening because he had not lived right, he at once recalled all the correctness of his life and drove the strange thought away." This is the elegant story of the agonizing decline of a most average of men until his premature death. Ivan Ilyich leads the life most of us lead, driven by career, climbing the social ladder, and supporting his family, never stopping to reflect until bedridden by his illness. His perspective of life and the world around him changes profoundly when he finally begins to question brutal truths, causing him to lose tolerance for the attitudes and ways of those closest to him, including his former healthy self. "I am leaving life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me, and there's no correcting it, then what?" Meanwhile, those around him show no interest in the least to understand his circumstances or to understand what he has come to know as sacred truth, and the frustration he suffers from their denials cause him more suffering than his illness. Meanwhile, they anticipate his death and upon its arrival do not rejoice, but rather use it as their own means to achieve the same things which he had previously been working towards: career advancement, climbing the social ladder, and supporting their families. In short, they treat his death for the purposes of those things in which he had finally seen the folly in the last months of his life.
At it's essence, the story is about the human capacity to change and learn as lives evolve, and that it's never too late to find peace. Any person who has undergone profound transformation, either through effort on their own part or through drastic life experiences, will relate to Ivan Ilyich's struggle, and especially to the profound shift in relationships he experiences with those around him, whose lives remain static and unchanged in the face of his own evolution, and how difficult it is to evolve when one is surrounded by friends, family, and colleagues who do not.
This story is also about the virtue of being able to tell hard truths, and the comfort that the truth can bring even when it communicates bad news. No one around Ivan Ilyich would admit that he was dying despite his own inner feeling that it was so, except for one of his peasant servants, who spoke bluntly and truthfully, endearing him to Ilyich as the only person he could stand to be around until his death, the only other healthy person so enlightened as a dying man. And when you're dying, there's no time for anything except blunt, simple truths.
This is a very powerful story about the point of life. It illustrates, through an explanation of the life and death of the main character, Ivan, that we should all take a hard look at how we live our lives and our assumptions about that.
[SPOILER ALERTS from here on.] Ivan does everything seemingly right in his life. He studys hard, gets married to a women from the upper crust, has children, has many friends, is popular at work, entertains the high society folk, eventually becomes a judge, and fixes up his house, work, and social life so it's all very "comme il faut" (stylish and enviable).
Then he is struck with an illness which to me sounds a great deal like cancer. As it drags him slowly and irreversibly toward death, Ivan is mentally tortured. He cannot figure out why, beyond the obvious cold terror of his approaching demise, he is so misable, frustrated, and angry. By the end, he finally gets it. His life was, in the final analysis, wasted. Perhaps he could have died with more peace of mind had he focussed more on giving love and kindness to others. In his last moments he does a bit of that, though, and leaves the world with some measure of happiness.
Wow. Heavy stuff. But it certainly rings true. Your BMW won't come and visit you in the hospital and your kids will probably never say, "I wish dad was more distant and harsh and spent less time with me."
On a final note, Simon Prebble is a reallly fantastic narrator. He did this profound story justice in a way I think very, very few others might have been able to do. At the very end of this book and his marvellous narration of it, I was so moved I had to wipe away a tear or two.
I really like to read, and when I discovered I could get things done while listening to my favorite books, it was a light bulb moment.
Live the outward life.
My favorite character was the young farm boy, who came to hold up the legs of Ivan Illyich. He exemplified the life lived for others.
This is my first Simon Prebble's performance, and he made the book worth listening to. Frankly, if I had to pronounce those Russian names, I probably would have given up the book.
This book caused a lot of introspection. I found myself wondering what kind of person I am; one who is obsessed with the latest and greatest, or one who looks for the opportunities to help others.
When I read a translated novel I question if the voice I am reading reflects the author's subtlety and nuance. Constance Garnett's translation is exquisitely descriptive in tone and texture. I am unable to verify its literal accuracy, but translation or not the writing is masterful. The Death of Ivan Ilych tells the story of a man who had a successful life by all outward metrics, but was driven by perception, vanity and ego. Always doing right and the expected, but never being guided by his passions. He reflects upon his life through the stages of his illness. The emotions and realizations reflect the stages of grief and give him a vantage point to analyze his society. The 'beat' writers would later tread similar ground, but for 1884 it is a compact and scathing look at the upper-middle class' society of ambition and perception.
the midst of an unremarkable life of doing what is expected and rarely any more or less, Ivan Ilyich Golovin is involved in the most mundane of tasks. The Russian high court is hanging drapes in a house he is decorating to conform closely to expected style of someone of his station when an accident occurs. This smallest of accidents, he suffers an awkward fall that injures his side, changes his destiny. What follows is his descent into illness leading inevitably toward death and along the way the ever widening gulf that separates him from the living.
This novella offers a Existentialist dilemma summed by Tolstoy in his Confession published a few years earlier, “Is there any meaning in my life that will not be destroyed by my inevitably approaching death?” He answers this fundamental question of life by examing Ilych's life through the choices that formed him as he always decided in favor of social and professional advancement, choosing only what was expected of someone of his station making a move toward higher honors.
Tolstoy reveals the isolation and terrible emptiness of his path as he shows our unlikely hero confronting the wrongness of his path as he finally puts others first and finds some joy in his final moments. This is not so much observations of a singular death as a a life affirming work by an author grappling with meaning followi g his conversion to Christianity.
Incredible that in such a short book the relative importance of life, marriage, family, career, and death should all be captured.
Recommended for everyone. Simon Prebbles performance is first rate.
Had my doubts near the beginning, and wondered why people consider this one of the "greats". It seemed insightful, but commonplace. By the end, though, I was deeply moved. Mind you, the best part is the last few minutes, but only then do you realize that you NEEDED all the buildup of the rest of the narrative. Wow, incredible story.
I most enjoy reading spiritual books to nourish my soul; psychology books to enhance my profession; & psych thrillers for fun escapism.
This book is not about death, although it certainly describes the death of Ivan's body. It is about life.
We are all going to die. Just last week we were told so in no uncertain terms, even going so far as to be marked with the dust to which we will ultimately return. But most of us deal with the irrevocable fact of death in the same way the characters around Ivan Ilyich deal with it: worrying about promotions at work or whether there’s a sturgeon available for dinner or if we can get together a bridge foursome after dinner. That’s the way Ivan Ilyich dealt with the fact of death, too; at least until he realized he was dying.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a concentrated tonic. Running a little over two and a half hours, it is at once dreadful and uplifting, hopeless and hopeful. Yes, doing everything “right” is the surest way of getting it all wrong. But sincere acts of humane kindness can overcome years of sustained indifference. The thought Ivan Ilyich refuses to consider (“What if my life…has been not the right thing?”) becomes, when he accepts it as a working premise, the way to some relief from his doubts and sufferings. Though his wife only urges the Blessed Sacrament upon him because it is the “right” thing to do, it really is the right thing to do. As in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, another piece of apt Lenten listening, we leave our protagonist at the very beginning of the beginning of the right road. Binx Bolling has the rest of his life to find and follow it. Ivan Ilyich can look forward to the cleansing fires of Purgatory.
Simon Prebble, who is fast becoming one of my favorite readers, does a masterful job with a book that is profound in a way out of all proportion to its size.
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