History: Published in 1886, written shortly after his conversion to Christianity.
Plot: The novel tells the story of the life and death, at the age of 45, of a high court prosecutor in 19th-century Russia — a miserable husband, proud father, and upwardly-mobile member of Russia's professional class, the object of Tolstoy's unremitting satire. Living what seems to be a good life, his dreadful relationship with his wife notwithstanding, Ivan Ilyich Golovin bangs his side while putting up curtains in a new apartment intended to reflect his family's superior status in society. Within weeks, he has developed a strange taste in his mouth and a pain that will not go away. Numerous expensive doctors, friends of friends of friends, are visited in their surgeries, or called to the judge's bedside, but beyond muttering about blind gut and floating kidneys, they can neither explain nor treat his condition, and it soon becomes clear that Ivan Ilyich is dying.
The second half of the novel records his terror as he battles with the idea of his own death. "I have been here. Now I am going there. Where? ... No, I won't have it!" Oppressed by the length of the process, his wife, daughter, and colleagues—even the physicians—decide not to speak of it, but advise him to stay calm and follow doctor's orders, leaving him to wrestle with how this terrible thing could befall a man who has lived so well.
He spends his last three days screaming. He realizes he is "done for, there was no way back, the end was here, the absolute end ..." One hour before his death, in a moment of clarity, he sees that, far from having lived a good life, he has lived only for himself. After months of dwelling on his own anguish, he suddenly feels pity for the people he's leaving behind, and hopes his death will set them free. With that thought, his pain disappears. He hears someone say, "He's gone." He whispers to himself, "Death has gone," and draws his last breath.
Review: I love Tolstoy because of his insight into relationships, specifically marital, and honesty. The illness went on a little longer than necessary considering we know he’s going to die. And it’s good that we don’t have a lot of sympathy for him, hes’ not the greatest of men. But it did get depressing. Compared with today’s medicine, the lack of medical care is appalling, so much in the unknown, with no such thing as diagnostic testing. This book was written after Tolstoy turned Christian, maybe so that he wouldn’t fear death so much. Because it really is a gruesome picture at life, and death. Christians have often embraced the apparent conversion or redemption of Ivan Ilyich at the end of the story. Ivan Ilyich sees the light and cries out,"What Joy!" Tolstoy's faith was one that focused on the life of Jesus as a model of love in action. There is, for example, no definite indication of Christian doctrine, in regards to death, only the powerful depiction of the man’s experience of dying.
Opening Line: "During an interval in the Melvinski trial in the large building of the Law Courts the members and public prosecutor met in Ivan Egorovich Shebek's private room, where the conversation turned on the celebrated Krasovski case."
Closing Line: "He drew in a breath, stopped in the midst of a sigh, stretched out, and died."
Quotes: "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible."
"'Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,' it suddenly occurred to him. 'But how could that be, when I did everything properly?' he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible."
Rating: very good