Wednesday, September 10, 2014

BOOK REVIEW: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

I’ve completed my Classic in Translation for the Back to the Classics Challenge: The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.

I confess that one reason I picked this book is because it’s short. (My copy is 113 pages, including the introduction.) But it’s also supposed to be "one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying."

Ivan Ilyich is a court justice of middle age (45 years), previously in good health, respected in his profession, who rather suddenly sickens and dies. He leaves behind a wife, two children (pretty much grown), and a few startled friends/acquaintances whose reaction to his death range from better-him-than-me to how-will-this-affect-my-career-prospects? The novel examines the reactions of the wife and friends at Ivan’s funeral, but the bulk of the story summarizes Ivan’s life and drawn-out death,

Ivan lives for his career and little else. He marries because it is what men in his station should do. He and his wife quickly discover their incompatibility and proceed to make each other miserable. He’s able to bury himself in his work. He likes to have things and to play whist. Then, he buys a new house and during the redecoration process, he injures himself. It seems minor at first, but then he starts to sicken. He grows sicker and sicker. Although in denial at first, it soon becomes clear he is dying. The death is agonizing and terrifying. Ivan becomes more and more unpleasant, furious with everyone and with himself. Eventually bedridden, reflecting on his life, he sees how badly he has lived, that his life has been wasted.

This is a pretty bleak book. Ivan is very real in his distress. His bitterness makes him a rather unsympathetic character, and yet, it’s difficult not to pity him because he is so hopeless. Ultimately, Ivan must accept his fate. The story becomes redemptive and Ivan finds a way to let go and die in peace. It’s a fascinating study of the way we live, look at life, and die.

Most of my classics challenge books are also TBR pile challenge books because I have a stack of classics I’ve been holding onto for years. So, this is another double challenge book.