Leo Tolstoy and the Meaning of Life

Book Review: The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy

Ivan Ilyich

Tolstoy the dandy

Like many entitled young men in the nineteenth century, Tolstoy spent his days dutifully attending to his responsibilities as a young noble while slipping through dark streets at night to enjoy the soft pleasures of the whore house. In later years, though he was never able to fully wrestle away from his sex drive,  he mostly gave up both whores and politics when he found religion.  Found True Religion is more accurate. He was Russian Orthodox his entire life until renouncing orthodoxy for his own version of True Faith in Jesus. The Death of Ivan Ilyich – a novella easily read in an afternoon – was his first published effort after his awakened faith. It tells the story of a man who, with no real effort or drive, rises to a mid-level bureaucratic position, and in so doing, learns to despise his once beloved wife, largely ignores his once adorable children, and spends his time proving to his colleagues and neighbors that he is a man of great culture and import. He is a Kardashian. He trades in pretense without substance.

While hanging the perfect curtains in his new and ostentatious and perfect home, Ilyich falls. Over the next few days, he feels an ache in his side and develops a metallic taste in his mouth. At his wife’s nagging, he agrees to see a doctor, then doctors, and then specialists who all fail to accurately diagnose his ailment. He knows, but will not admit, that he is in a downward spiral toward pain and death. He detests his life and despises those around him. Death was never meant for him. Not now! Doctors, friends, and family are all liars who feign concern but plot their escape to the card table. People avoid him, he thinks, because he reminds them of death, of their death, of wasting, and of their own demise. His only comfort is his peasant servant, a theme that runs strong through all of Tolstoy’s writing.

His last days are excruciating. Not from pain only but from the pestering realization that he can now admit: he has lived his life wrongly. Like a vapor. He has lived a false life elevating artifice and selfishness just as those he now despises. Just an hour before dying he feels release realizing that a good life is an authentic life.  A peasant life.  A life of empathy and compassion. His heart turns and he is washed in love and pity for his family and friends. He sees his death as their release from the burden of his care.

No Answers But Good Questions

Ivan Ilyich

Tolstoy the religious recluse

But Ilyich is no mere pamphlet.  Tolstoy avoids pedantry and Ilyich’s dying revelations are implied and open to interpretation. Is this part of Tolstoy’s genius? To let each reader meander to their own meaning? Can we live authentically as wealthy people? What good is it to ‘inherit the earth’ if you are poor, weak, and dying? Thirteen years later, Tolstoy will publish Resurrection where the themes of Ilych are expanded. The Death of Ivan Ilyich rests comfortably on the same bookshelf with other great philosophical fiction (and isn’t all Russian lit philosophical?). Tolstoy presents the problem, hints at solutions, but raises as many questions as he answers.

What does it mean for readers thinking about The Good Life? Tolstoy’s protagonist, sweating and metal-mouthed on his deathbed, came to see what we already know: the good life includes living with intention. It includes engaging relationships. It is knowing what is truly meaningful. There are still questions: are leisure and fine things wrong? Is there an intrinsic reward in service and hard work? Read the book and work these things out for yourself.

Modern readers can struggle with the prose and Tolstoy famously takes time to develop the story. But it is a wonderful and thought-provoking read. Can be profitably read and re-read.

Four stars.

For more reviews, go here to see the book on Goodreads.


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