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Reader’s Den

February in The Reader's Den: "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"


Welcome to the February edition of The Reader's Den.  This month we will be reading and discussing The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) was written by Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910) in his mid-career as a rumination on life and death—including the societal norms regarding this and the more inner religious/philosophical meaning of the death of the body and the awakening of the soul.  

While the story's subject matter has a heavy tone, it is a short and lively read, whose length is easily completed in a month's time.  We are not settling into War and Peace with this story, so it is a wonderful way to introduce ourselves to Tolstoy's writing, as well as 19th century Russian society.  Critics say that this short story is well balanced between Tolstoy’s early style of realism, as in Anna Karenina, and the more spiritual or religious tone of his later works.   

To find more critical information and reviews, check out Literature Resource Center from our articles and databases links and use the author (Tolstoy) and title (The Death of Ivan Ilyich) as search terms.  You may also find the guide Big Read: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, produced by the University of Illinois Library a comprehensive manual to online resources for looking at this short story in greater depth.  Several different translations of the story can be found in the Library's catalog and electronically on Google Books and HathiTrust Digital Library.

Please join us in reading and posting comments about the story.  And be sure to check back next week for a look at the author and to leave comments on what you have read so far.




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I finished reading The Death

I finished reading The Death of Ivan Ilyich and found it to be very informative and enlightening, i.e., I did not know that much about Russian life in that era and the viewpoint of a person that was dying. I didn't realize the way government officials received their jobs in Russian government. Also, their family life was definitely unique. I really felt that all the deaths that Tolstoy dealt with in his life certainly affected his writing in this particular story. I was disturbed to find that at the end Ivan was so consumed with how he had lead his life so wrong. How he was not at all at peace with the decisions he made along the way. It was sad, too, that he didn't marry for love. I think it would have changed his life it he had. His family did love each other in their own way but never really revealed it to one another much. That he found love and concern, in the end, from a boy who was not even part of his family was very sad. This was a prime example of having it all but not appreciating what you have or living your best life while you can. The mystery to me was why all the doctors seemed so vague, yet even today they can sometimes be that way when treating a patient. He should have gotten his appendix taken out, if they did that back then. It might have solved his problem and let his life continue. I have other stories written by Tolstoy in the book with this story and look forward to seeing how they compare to this story. They will most certainly get me to think outside the box, I am pretty sure.

Thank you for your comment.

Thank you for your comment. One of Tolstoy's literary gifts is to show insight into the common details of life. It is thought that Ivan's illness was probably cancer. You have touched on some points about the novella that will be great for prompting further discussion.

First look at Tolstoy

I apologize for it taking me most of the month to read. I find myself a slow reader who enjoys dragging out stories. My first experience with Tolstoy, I found his take on Ivan's slow plot with death to be quite grasping. The simplistic view of just being regretful of things you may have passed over in life, or missed opportunities is one thing that I feel most everyone flirts with. But the passion and anger that was portrayed through Ivan towards the influences in his life that defined who he was were really heartbreaking. I am leaning towards interpreting Ivan's story as one that the disease which was ravaging his body led him to skew his memory of his life and the people around him. And that he actually may have been moderately pleased or at least was comfortable with his life much more than was let on and was only reliving it in anger as in a way to justify the pain in which he was going through at the end. A lot of that anger was towards his family the people he most shared his life with. Here he was dramatically physically suffering and they were not yet feeling the same pain. And when dealt with something unexplained, the mind naturally tries to explain it. In Ivan's case, I feel, he justified his end ordeal by turning his life into a bad experience and thus making it seem more fair that he be taken in such a way. Thanks for the recommendation, upon further review Tolstoy seems to have a broad range of writing interests and will be worth another look.

First Look at Tolstoy

Thank you for your comment, Zach. Your emphathetic reading of Ivan is a fresh look at how his illness affects his judgement. I'm glad you enjoyed this story, please feel free to leave further comments or start a new discussion as you read other stories by Tolstoy.

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