Introduction: Leo Tolstoy and “The Death of Ivan Ilich”
Nearly everything that Leo Tolstoy wrote is of considerable interest, since he is one of the giants of Russian literature. The Death of Ivan Ilich, however, is regarded as one of his great masterpieces; many would say that it is the chef d’oeuvre of the second half of his literary career. Written in 1886, it was the first major fictional work published by Tolstoy after his crisis and conversion of the late 1870s. For a considerable period after 1878 Tolstoy had turned away from literature altogether in favor of his biblical and theological writings. Thus, it was with considerable interest that the reading public of the mid-1880s learned of the publication of a new novel from the pen of the author of War and Peace and Anna Karenina. The novel that they read in the pages of the twelfth (and last) volume of Tolstoy’s Collected Works (1886), subtitled Works of Recent Years, surprised many of Tolstoy’s old admirers and disappointed others.
The reasons for disappointment were largely ideological. I will discuss the initial reaction to the novel’s publication in the next section. Here it will suffice to say that it was not long before the novel came to be universally regarded as one of the greatest works of a very great writer. The Death of Ivan Ilich can be and has been variously interpreted, but it possesses certain basic qualities that must be accounted for in any cogent reading of the novel. It is a devastatingly satirical account of the life of the well-to-do professional class of late-nineteenth-century Russia. In representing the life of a member of this class, Tolstoy shows a masterful (and occasionally uncanny) ability to seize upon the apt situation or detail. The novel is a remarkable example of realism, but at the same time it contains many anticipations of the symbolist art that would shortly (during the 1890s and the first decade of the twentieth century) begin to predominate in Russian literature. Finally, the novel is exemplary of Tolstoy’s post-conversion philosophical concerns and revised understanding of the mission of art and of the artist.
These qualities, however, could hardly account, by themselves, for the continuing power of The Death of Ivan Ilich to seize and hold the imagination of its readers. The English poet and critic Matthew Arnold once said of Tolstoy (referring to the novel Anna Karenina) that “he created not art, but life itself.”  Tolstoy was a master of representation and verisimilitude. His characters, and the situations in which they find themselves, seem to come alive to the point that readers often feel as though they know Tolstoy’s characters as well as or better than some actual acquaintances. In addition, the particular dimension of life that Tolstoy addresses in The Death of Ivan Ilich is one of inescapable interest to all readers. His basic subject is the inevitable confrontation of a human being with her or his own mortality, the coming to grips with the certainty that our lives will end. It is one of Tolstoy’s major contentions in the novel that people are, in general, very adept at hiding this ultimate truth from themselves, and he spares no effort in his determination to “remove the coverings” with which we attempt to mask the figure of death in our consciousness.
The importance of the novel for the general reader, then, is that it provides a keenly observed and unsparingly realistic account of a moment in life that we shall all experience; as the character Gerasim says in chapter 1 of the novel, “We will all come to it one day.” Aside, then, from the elegance of its structure, the apparent simplicity and directness of its style, and the authenticity and acuity of its observation of a form of life that seems still rather familiar in the 1990s, the novel impresses the reader with the seriousness of its purpose and its moral earnestness, and above all with the evident applicability of the life and death of its protagonist to each reader individually.
Tolstoy in the Mid-1880’s
The Death of Ivan Ilich was the product of a time in Tolstoy’s life full of hope and anxiety. The years 1885 and 1886 brought death into Tolstoy’s house and serious illness to Tolstoy. In December 1885, he wrote (although he never sent the letter) to his friend and disciple, V. G. Chertkov: “I am living through what are perhaps the final hours of my life, and living badly — mournful and irritated with those around me. I am doing something that is not as God would have it; I try to find out what it is, but it eludes me. And always there is this constant anxiety, mournfulness, and worst of all, irritation and the desire for death” (85:294). If the essence of Tolstoy’s conversion in the 1870s had been the elaboration of an answer to the question posed by the ineluctable and nullifying power of death, these remarks of the mid-1880s suggest that that answer, which had until then “made life possible” for Tolstoy, was losing its power to persuade. Despite this, or perhaps because of it, these years also saw the creation of many of Tolstoy’s most affirmative fictions (the majority of his “Stories for the People” were written in 1885 and 1886) and of On Life, his most detailed statement of his views on the positive potential of human existence.
The surface of Tolstoy’s story about the life and death of Ivan Ilich seems to reflect more clearly the anxious rather than the hopeful side of the author as he was in the years 1885 and 1886. A full appreciation of the novel requires the reader to bear in mind both Tolstoy’s conscious conviction of having arrived at a satisfying explanation of death and its significance and his more hidden but still persisting and still powerful anxiety over it. The purpose of the remainder of this section, however, is to describe how it was that the novel came to be written, to provide background information concerning Tolstoy’s conception of art and of the mission of the artist, and to offer some preliminary observations on the organization of the text.
The Composition of the Novel
Tolstoy worked intensively on the novel from August 1885 to March 1886. In a letter to his friend D. Urusov (22 August 1885) Tolstoy refers to “an account of the simple death of a simple man, told from his own point of view” (26:681). Tolstoy’s active interest in this subject can be traced back to July or August 1881, when he first heard of the recent (2 July 1881) death of a certain Ivan Ilich Mechnikov, a prosecutor in the regional court of Tula Government (the major subsidiary regions in the administrative organization of Russia were called “governments”; these, in turn, were subdivided into “districts”). Tolstoy knew and liked Mechnikov, about whose death he learned from the deceased’s brother, Ilia Ilich. Mechnikov, who was known as a kindly and benevolent man, served as the partial prototype of Ivan Ilich Golovin, the protagonist of The Death of Ivan Ilich. Tolstoy’s sister- in-law, Tatyana Kuzminskaya, states in her memoirs that she repeated to Tolstoy what had been confided to her by the deceased’s widow, that Mechnikov’s dying thoughts had been of the “uselessness of the life which he had lived.
Tolstoy took no immediate action on the impressions aroused by Mechnikov’s death. He seems to have left them to develop without conscious supervision in some quiet corner of his reflecting mind; in the period between his first knowledge of the incident and August 1885, only twice is he known to have mentioned a continuing interest in the topic (April and December 1884).
Once Tolstoy had actively set to work on the novel, however, he involved himself in it intensely. He completed a finished draft of the story in January 1886 and sent it to the publisher late in that month or early in February; the proof sheets were returned to him for correction in mid-February; Tolstoy heavily revised these and submitted what was essentially a new version of the novel in early March. Tolstoy further revised the new set of proofs, which he received in mid-March. These corrected proofs, the novel’s final revision, were returned to the publisher on 25 March. The novel was first published in volume 12 (the final volume) of The Works of Count L. N. Tolstoy (edited by Mrs. Tolstoy) later in 1886.
- Matthew Arnold, "Count Leo Tolstoy," Fortnightly Review (December, 1887). Reprinted in A. V. Knowles, ed., Tolstoy: The Critical Heritage (London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1978), 353. ↵