Book Review | The Death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoy

Wow! This was my first Tolstoy, and also my first experience of Russian literature. I thought it was a brilliant book, if not a bit frustrating at times due to the sheer ignorance and attitude of our protagonist, Ivan Ilyich. Although, that was the intention.


Hailed as one of the world’s supreme masterpieces on the subject of death and dying, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a worldly careerist, a high court judge who has never given the inevitability of his death so much as a passing thought. But one day death announces itself to him, and to his shocked surprise he is brought face to face with his own mortality. How, Tolstoy asks, does an unreflective man confront his one and only moment of truth?

This short novel was the artistic culmination of a profound spiritual crisis in Tolstoy’s life, a nine-year period following the publication of Anna Karenina during which he wrote not a word of fiction. A thoroughly absorbing and, at times, terrifying glimpse into the abyss of death, it is also a strong testament to the possibility of finding spiritual salvation.


I must say, more often that I’d wish to admit, I read classic literature skimming over the terminology I don’t understand, and this doesn’t tarnish the books for me. It doesn’t take away from the narrative all the time. Yet, whilst reading this book, I had Google next to me ready to type in any vocabulary (and French!) I didn’t understand. Especially since this is a short story, I feel as though every word is of complete purpose. 

Some of my favourite newly discovered words are acquiescence, vituperation and obsequiousness. All three very satisfyingly roll off the tongue.

I’m not sure which translation of the book I read, but I found a PDF through searching online from Yale University Library. There were so many passages that stuck out to me, that if I had a physical copy I would have been highlighting, but instead I copied them down into my notebook word-for-word. Always, in reading translated texts, there’s an ambiguity because they are not precisely Tolstoy’s words. I have little experience in reading translations so I don’t really know how this is discussed and approached. 

I’m intrigued to understand why both him and his wife were constantly referred to with two names, is this a Russian thing or used to suggest the formality of their lives, existing mainly in work and hardly living outside of that?

There are so many things to be drawn upon in this short novel. While it is famously a work about approaching death, accepting death and retrospectively trying to puzzle out the meaning of your own life, I wouldn’t say it states anything novel that you aren’t already aware of. Rather, through an incredible artwork, Tolstoy presents these ideas with meticulous articulation and purpose. I find the character of Ivan Ilyich so comical, and fascinating, and ordinary (well, lavish in lifestyle, but a self-important character you will most definitely be able to liken to someone you know) The genius of this book is that you encounter a man who seems beyond redemption, because he does not even consider any flaws in himself. It’s absolutely frustrating to follow his character. 

What is so profound about Ivan Ilyich’s life is the conclusions he makes when dying, that he still refuses to accept. I love it when he is reaching a breakdown, and expresses himself in passages in italics. He’s a detestable man but I enjoy following flawed characters (my favourite book is Wuthering Heights, I think that says it all)

This is such a dark and reflective collection of thoughts, that I feel will be necessary to revisit at certain points throughout your life although hopefully not on the death bed! It’s not inspiring. It’s not glorious. But it’s just what it needs to be. I thought it was very sharp, and dare I say I feel inspired to take on more of Tolstoy’s books, which I am aware are tomes. However, I have a bit of life, hopefully, between current me and reaching a situation like Ivan Ilyich. So, I shall endeavour!

My Review ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️/5

If you haven’t read this, I urge you to because it is rewarding and concise! It is quite hateful and dark, but soon over if you’re not one to enjoy those types of books. On the other hand, if you’re one to enjoy flawed characters like me, you’ll enjoy it too!

To keep up to date with my reads, find me on Storygraph by clicking here (my preferred platform to Goodreads). We can be friends!

Have you read Tolstoy?

Catherine x

I have to leave you with some of my favourite quotes/passages. As this book very much explores a man’s consciousness, there is little in the way of spoilers to be given. However, I have left out the hard-hitting lines, that are my favourite, because they would definitely draw away from your experience of reading it for the first time (if you haven’t yet!)

‘I may have been an agent of the reforms […] but when it comes to dancing, I’m better than you, and you should know it.’

‘There, in childhood, there had been something so transcendently pleasant that if it would only return he could carry on living.’

‘She must be experiencing the most dreadful kind of unhappiness; she was irritated.’

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