Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886)

Tolstoy’s brief novella describes the rise and fall of Ivan Ilyich, a high-court judge in 19th century Russia, who develops an increasingly serious and debilitating illness that prompts in him an existential examination of his own life. Another precursor (along with Dostoyevsky) to the slew of existentialist fiction that would arrive in the 20th century, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is an accomplished short, late work from an acknowledged master. The novel opens with Ilyich’s death and the apparent unconcern of those who know him. Those in his bourgeois social circle are more concerned with the ramifications Ilyich’s death will have for their hopes of promotion and their chances of making a card game, than for the loss of the man himself. Tolstoy proceeds to take us on a rapid tour of Ilyich’s life, which is devoted above all to the maintainence of an easy, pleasant lifestyle. Despite a few hiccups, Ilyich is largely successful. But when, upon receipt of another promotion, he moves his family into a luxurious apartment he insists on decorating himself, Ilyich slips and bangs his side, and this seemingly inconsequential moment begins the end. As Ilyich’s injury develops into an unspecified but terminal illness, Tolstoy slows the rapid pace of the novella to a crawl. Bedridden and increasingly self-scrutinising, Ilyich grapples with the raw reality of his impending death and its metaphysical implications. Why has God seen fit to deal him this blow? As the novella, and Ilyich’s life, draw to a close, Ilyich begins to suspect that his carefree and decadent lifestyle have been his undoing. In his increasing agony Ilyich can take solace only in the care of his peasant servant Gerasim, who represents a sort of Marxist vision of the idealised lower class. The novel embodies Tolstoy’s ethical beliefs: that a sinful life is a moral death. The rapid pace and artful construction of the novella, as well as its perennial central conflict, makes it a brisk and yet powerful read, and Tolstoy’s newly developed anarcho-Christian values find here an eloquent and forceful expression.

Country: Russia
Genre: Philosophical Novel
Ism: Existentialism, Realism
Influences: Nikolai Gogol, Charles Dickens, Stendhal
Influenced: Contemporaries: Fyodor Dostoyevsky, Anton Chekhov, Gustave Flaubert. Successors: Virginia Woolf, James Joyce, William Faulkner, Marcel Proust, Vladimir Nabakov

From Peter Kropotkin’s entry ‘Anarchism’ in the 1911 Encyclop√¶dia Britannica:
Without naming himself an anarchist, Leo Tolstoy, like his predecessors in the popular religious movements of the 15th and 16th centuries, Chojecki, Denk and many others, took the anarchist position as regards the state and property rights, deducing his conclusions from the general spirit of the teachings of Jesus and from the necessary dictates of reason. With all the might of his talent, Tolstoy made (especially in The Kingdom of God Is Within You) a powerful criticism of the church, the state and law altogether, and especially of the present property laws. He describes the state as the domination of the wicked ones, supported by brutal force. Robbers, he says, are far less dangerous than a well-organized government. He makes a searching criticism of the prejudices which are current now concerning the benefits conferred upon men by the church, the state, and the existing distribution of property, and from the teachings of Jesus he deduces the rule of non-resistance and the absolute condemnation of all wars. His religious arguments are, however, so well combined with arguments borrowed from a dispassionate observation of the present evils, that the anarchist portions of his works appeal to the religious and the non-religious reader alike.

Further Reading: