Goodreads Review: The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

So much to say about this little book about dying. It’s also about living. Tolstoy takes us through the different stages of Ivan Ilych’s life, the choices he makes, and the values he exhibits. We are allowed inside Ivan Ilych’s mind so that we know the true man. In the end Ivan Ilych struggles with the choices he made in life and the values that he had. Were they right? As he is in physical anguish, he is also in mental anguish when he evaluates what it was all worth now that he has come to this black tunnel. We also see his wife, children, and friends reacting to this illness. We’re not taken inside their minds as much as we are Ivan Ilych’s, so I’m not certain as to how much truth we know about them.

I could relate to some of the feelings of the family and friends. Twenty-three years ago I left my NY home and went to Alabama to spend what would turn out to be the last 6 weeks of my younger brother’s life. I was with him the moment he took his last breath. It was not pretty. My brother was staying in the home of our older brother. During that time that the family was caring for him, I observed the interactions with the many, many visitors that James had. Yesterday I shared the following on social media:
I’m reading/listening to “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, and some of it is reminiscent of spending those last weeks with my brother James as he was dying from cancer. Although my family is not quite like Ivan’s family and friends, there are ideas that are similar to what was most likely going on in all our hearts and minds.

I have no way of knowing all that my brother James was thinking and feeling in the way that Tolstoy takes us into the thoughts and feelings of Ivan, but here’s one thing that brought James to mind:

“Peter went out. Left alone Ivan Ilych groaned not so much with pain, terrible though that was, as from mental anguish. Always and for ever the same, always these endless days and nights. If only it would come quicker! If only what would come quicker? Death, darkness?… No, no! anything rather than death!”

James had friends who were very faithful in visiting him at our brother Mike’s house where James lived out his last days. James was very well loved. I overheard a conversation where a friend was telling him that he was being “a great example of dying” (meaning, I assumed, that he was exhibiting great peace considering what was drawing near, and possibly more of an encouragement to his friends than they were to him). I heard James respond, “But I don’t want to be a great example of dying; I want to be a great example of living.”

I’m reading now about Ivan’s wife and family going out to a concert (that I think Ivan had bought tickets for in anticipation of going himself), and the wife is saying that, of course, she’d rather stay home and be with him, but that she has this obligation. I remember that feeling of guilt for enjoying things in life when James couldn’t. And that feeling lasted long after he died. It took me several years to recover the enjoyment of the things I love in this life. Sometimes, 23 years later, I still struggle with being okay with it.
As I ended the book this morning I wondered, How did Tolstoy know so much about dying?

“The Death of Ivan Ilych” ought to be required reading for every high school student. Although he won’t be able to fully relate to someone approaching death, evaluating and mourning over his life choices, it might at least insert the idea that things aren’t as big a deal in the end as they seem in the moment when you’re 20 and 30 and 40. What is really Worth it All?

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