Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

Every year I sludge through 1-2 books over the summer, and then as soon as the weather turns chilly I somehow become an avid reader. I think the desire to settle into a cozy chair with a book is part of my winter hibernation process; reading is just more fun when it’s dark and cold outside. I’ve decided to write a small review on each of the books I read this fall. Last week I read The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a novella and is quick and easy to read. Ivan Ilyich is a man focused on living his life solely for today. He marries out of social obligation and chooses to avoid his wife instead of working through the hard issues of marriage. He busies himself with creating the perfect image of self and home to impress a class of people he wants to belong to instead of being grateful for what he has and enjoying his family. It’s a simple story reminding us that we will all face death someday, and we will be forced to reflect on how we chose to live life.

Ivan Ilyich spends his last days fearing death and fighting through the process of dying. Although this process can appear frightening, I think this story shows the importance of this painful time of reflection on life. All the things he once thought were important suddenly appear frivolous. This book is a reminder to check our priorities, and it reminds us to live in such a way that someday we aren’t filled with regrets that we wasted energy on unimportant details.

I immediately felt the need to read Ecclesiastes after reading this book because it also talks about the purpose and point of life. If life is just living for today and dying, what keeps us going? I’ve always really enjoyed the honesty of Ecclesiastes. I think in our hearts we all question the point of life, and if we don’t work through the answer now we will eventually be forced to face this question as we die, just as Ivan Ilyich did. 

Ivan Ilyich hates everyone around him when he is dying because they are healthy and he is not; everyone except for one man who has compassion on him. This man is full of life, and his kindness and compassion towards Ivan contrasts the selfish way Ivan lived his life. I think this contrast stands as the subtle answer to the question of life and happiness and shows an alternative path to the self-serving, social climbing, image focused way Ivan chose to live his life.

Overall, I loved this little book and the thoughts and questions it brought up.

“The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the whole duty of man. For God will bring every deed into judgement, with every secret thing, whether good or evil.” Ecclesiastes 12:13-14