For those scared of the size of Tolstoy’s stellar works like ‘War and Peace’ and ‘Anna Karenina’, this novella may be a good starting point as an introduction to the art of Tolstoy. Set in imperial Russia at a time when every aspiring person seemed to measure their success through their rank or office in the Russian civil service, it is an excellent critique of the elite’s aspirations, the suffocating formality of their lifestyles, of their being beholden to positions and job titles.
At the same time it’s a meditation on the fickleness of life people spend too much time decorating, and making big of one’s achievements. Only just when the middle-aged Ivan Ilyich feels he has made it in life and now can relax away his years in service at a higher position, he is visited by an illness that kills him in pain and misery. His unsuccessful fight against the illness forms most of the narrative of the novella, with frequent retrospectie meditations on his identity, his position, his achievements, and how he ought to be happy at where he has reached in life, but is he happy?
His colleagues receive the news of his death perfunctorily, feeling sorry for the poor devil, and immediately launch upon a discussion as to how Ivan Ilyich’s death might have affected the chain of promotions in the hierarchy of the civil service.
How once Ivan Ilyich seemed indispensable to everything – his work, family, friends – but was easily castaway from memory of things soon after his death. This story has a moralistic side to it too, as a critique of the love for the mundane, since it was written after Tolstoy’s famous reversion to Christianity.
First published in Russian 1886