Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910)

Major works:
Family Happiness (1859)
The Cossacks
War and Peace

Anna Karenina (1873-1877)
The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)

Biographical Notes

Count Lev Nicholayevich Tolstoy was born at his family's large estate, Yasnaya Polyana, about 130 miles south of Moscow, and educated at the University of Kazan from 1844 to 1847, after which he joined the military and served as an artillery officer seeing action fighting mountain tribes in the Caucasus (described in The Cossacks) and against the French and English in the Crimean War.  After his military service Tolstoy returned to Yasnaya Polyana to manage his estates, where he founded and taught an "extremely 'progressive' school for peasant children" (Norton 1419). He married in 1862 and fathered thirteen children.

Tolstoy's writing career began during his military service, and his war stories established his literary reputation.  His humongous first major novel, War and Peace, one of the greatest novels ever written, is panoramic and truly massive in scope: in addition to describing events culminating in Napoleon's 1812 invasion of Russia, Tolstoy portrays the full range of Russian society, centering primarily on dual protagonists, Count Pierre Bezukhov and Prince Andrew Bolkonsky, both of whom follow parallel paths in pursuit of legitimate meaning in life.  Anna Karenina, Tolstoy's other masterpiece, is a novel of manners portraying the adultery of the title character, but also following the spiritual growth of a character named Levin, who like Pierre and Andrei in War and Peace, searches for significant meaning in life.  All three of these "soul searchers" in the two giant novels clearly represent aspects of Tolstoy's own personality.

In the 1870s Tolstoy experienced a profound spiritual crisis and religious conversion to a brand of radical, primitive Christianity: he became in essence the founder of a radical religious cult, as Tolstoyan communes sprang up throughout Russia. Following this crisis Tolstoy repudiated his earlier fiction and turned for a time to writing nonfiction propounding his moral and religious ideas (including a radical blending and rewriting of the four gospels as a single unified narrative).  Eventually he returned to writing fiction, but only as a means of conveying his new beliefs with pointed didacticism.  In Tolstoy's later years, much to the distress of his family, he tried to give up all his property and wealth, living very simply as a peasant and even making his own clothes and shoes and tilling the earth alongside his former serfs.  After one particularly heated dispute with his wife over his will, Tolstoy left home and wandered the countryside for a time until he fell ill and died at an Astapovo train station. 

"Simplicity is best"

Although the split between Tolstoy's pre- and post-crisis fiction is appreciable, the whole of the Tolstoy canon is fairly consistent in presenting many of Tolstoy's most important thematic concerns, none more so than the value Tolstoy placed on rejecting the harmful influence of "civilized society" and embracing the benefits of living the simplest life possible.  Indeed, earlier in his life Tolstoy was torn between the two polar forces of "society" and "peasant simplicity," dividing his time in alternating periods of enjoying the pleasures of "high society" city life and then returning to the country, with some guilt at his excesses, to be "closer to the land." He sensed an almost mystical superiority in the simple and supposedly more grounded life of the peasants who were "untainted" by the ills of "civilized society."  This dichotomy is reflected by the importance of peasant characters in virtually all of Tolstoy's fiction, early and late, and indeed the conflict is portrayed extensively both by Pierre Bezukhov in War and Peace and especially in Levin in Anna Karenina: the latter at one point concerns himself with educating serfs and works the land with his own hands just as Tolstoy did.  In The Death of Ivan Ilych Tolstoy portrays the peasant's "ideal superiority" and "inherent natural wisdom" through the character of Gerasim, the one character who lives outside the influence of or without significant regard for "society."

Uncanny psychological realism

As I have written elsewhere, "One of the key facets of Tolstoy’s greatness as a novelist is his ability to make readers think continually, 'I know just this sort of character,' 'I have been in just that situation,' and 'I have had that very same thought.'  Regardless of who we are—Russian, American, Japanese, or Venezuelan—and regardless of our growing distance in time from the late nineteenth-century Russian world Tolstoy depicts, peopled with characters ranging from peasants to princesses, we continually find ourselves identifying to an almost uncanny extent with Tolstoy’s characters.  It is this strong sense of identification with his characters and their worlds that led Matthew Arnold to say that in Anna Karenina Tolstoy created not art, but 'a piece of life' (412).  It is this close identification with Tolstoy’s characters that prompted Percy Lubbock to say of War and Peace, 'The business of the novelist is to create life, and here is life created indeed! [. . .] Peter and Andrew and Natasha and the rest of them are the children of yesterday and to-day and to-morrow; there is nothing in any of them that is not of all time' (29-30).  So often we have felt just that same excitement Natasha feels at a much-anticipated party, we have felt just that same guilt weighing so heavily on Pierre after a night of carousing, we have felt just that same frustration Andrei Bolkónski has when dealing with his aging father.  The greatest part of Tolstoy’s magic in creating life surely resides in his uncommon ability to see so deeply into what lies within us all, what unites us universally as living, breathing persons in the most fundamental ways" (draft of "The Illusion of Universality in Ivan Ilych" 18). 

In The Death of Ivan Ilych in particular, we experience these sorts of "I know just that sort of" moments in the thoughts and behaviors of a number of characters, but it's a sure testament to Tolstoy's ability to portray human nature with uncanny, almost Shakespearean insight, that as Y. J. Dayananda has proven, Ivan Ilych appears to follow quite precisely the observable pattern of grieving or confronting mortality experienced by actually dying persons, particularly the "five stages" established by Elisabeth Kübler-Ross nearly a century after Tolstoy wrote the story.  What's most impressive here is that Tolstoy was imagining the process and then presenting it so credibly in The Death of Ivan Ilych (see Y. J. Dayananda, Y. J., “The Death of Ivan Ilych: A Psychological Study on Death and Dying,” Literature and Psychology 22 (1972):192-97. 

"The purpose of art"

"As he explains in What Is Art? (1898), Tolstoy believed that art should function 'as a means of union among men, joining them together in the same feelings' (43).  Tolstoy thought the best art of his day conveyed 'religious feelings urging toward the union and the brotherhood of man,' striving to communicate 'such feelings as may unite everyone without exception' (164-65).  That Tolstoy succeeded in joining readers together in sharing the same feelings is evident in the overwhelming scholarly consensus that The Death of Iván Ilých appeals or applies to all of us universally.  As Gary Jahn notes, 'the novel impresses the reader [. . .] above all with the evident applicability of the life and death of its protagonist to each reader individually'" (9) (draft of "The Illusion of Universality in Ivan Ilych" 1-2).

A few themes, motifs, and features to consider as you read The Death of Ivan Ilych

bullet The "falseness" of Ivan Ilych's life.

bullet Heavy-handed repetition of key words, such as "pleasant," "proper," "decorous," "easy," "agreeable," "false," and more.

bullet The significance of Gerasim.

bullet Points of intersection or connection between the first chapter and later chapters.

bullet Ivan Ilych as Everyman? Tolstoy's encouragement of universal identification with his somewhat despicable protagonist.

bullet Ivan Ilych's recognition of his own falseness in others.

Psychological realism, in Ivan Ilych himself and in others.

Humor in The Death of Ivan Ilych?

Great continuing relevance of any of the novella's central themes.

The first sentence of the second chapter as the novella's theme: "Iván Ilých’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible."  (Boris Sorokin, noting idiomatic nuances apparently neglected by Aylmer Maude, amends the translation to read more precisely, “Iván Ilých’s life was quite ordinary and common and quite awful” [489]).

The novella's presentation of religious truths?