The Death of Ivan Ilyich


This novela by the famous Russian novelist and philosopher Leo Tolstoy was hard to put down.  It tells the story of a successful 19th century Russian man who suddenly becomes ill and is dying.  He has to deal with pain and death and the meaninglessness of his life and death.  The story is told in poignant  detail in the “realist” writing style of the mid-19th century.  Such novelists saw themselves as clinical realists whose job was to describe exactly the way life is or was with no personal filters, colouration or romanticism applied.  It was like a scientific experiment – report exactly what you see and what you conclude based on the reality of everyday life.  Obviously this is impossible to do without imparting some personal view, perspective or flavour.  In this case, this book is actually a philosophic treatise on the meaningless of life due to the consequences of consumerism and secularization that was rampant in Leo’s time.

Leo Tolstoy is a very interesting character.  Born into a wealthy family in 1828 south of Moscow, he gave up all his wealth to live as a common serf in search of the real meaning of life.  Deeply religious, he began writing novels and papers on what he saw and what he thought about everyday life in Russia and Europe in the mid 19th century.  You have heard and may have read one of his famous books such as War and Peace and Anna Karenina.  Towards the end of his life, he abandoned his wife, children and hut to become a wandering esthetic but died shortly thereafter in 1910.

In the Death of Ivan Ilyich, like most of us, Ivan struggles with the fear of death and when he is dying, the utter meaningless of his life’s successes: court judge, wife, children, friends, status, good income etc..  It all means nothing when one is dying.  He is even a burden to his family as they can’t wait for him to die to get on with their lives.  As he suffers through his pain and thoughts, near the end he finally comes to grips with his own death.  In accepting the inevitability of his death he is suddenly able to feel compassion for others for the first time.  This is the “light”: One must live their life in full awareness and acceptance that they are dying and only then is there real meaning to life and compassion for others and, a better ability to prioritize what one does with their life, in the short time that we have.  Wow! 10 out of 10 by a real master.


Leo Tolstoy at 79, courtesy Wikipedia



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