The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Narrated by Oliver Ford Davies

The Death of Ivan Ilyich was written at a time of great crisis in Tolstoy’s life. He was questioning his faith – the Orthodox Christian religion in which he had been brought up. He wanted to face up to the inevitability of death and make some sense of it.
Expand text… The result was The Death of Ivan Ilyich, in which he follows the gradual process of a man wasting away through death, and in the process discovering the truth about himself, his family and friends. He recognises the lives they all lead are shallow, self-centred and ultimately worthless, though he had always believed he was leading a good and moral life, but as the mercilessly objective narrator of the story says:

‘Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.’

Ivan had never reflected on his life until the moment of his death. The simple goodness of the peasant boy Gerasim, who attends him in his final illness, tells Ivan more about the true purpose of life than his wife or any of his close friends can communicate.

In a Christ-like compassionate way, Gerasim serves and helps the dying Ivan without complaint or self-interest, accepting that death is a part of nature, and Ivan enjoys being comforted and cared for like a little child. It is the human contact he has denied himself for so long. Gradually Ivan realises this is the ‘real thing’ and he’s been living a false life obsessed with materialism, never examining or questioning its true value.

In his final illness he now sees his own worthlessness reflected in the lives and attitudes of those around him. He sees his wife contriving to blame him for the inconvenience he is causing her; his daughter Lisa, bored with his illness that interrupts her social life; his friends and colleagues in the judiciary totting up the opportunities that will be created by his death.

They do not, or will not, or are afraid to connect with Ivan’s suffering. Self-preservation comes first, and as the death drags on through the weeks, their apathy towards Ivan grows, just as Ivan’s hatred for them as representatives of his own shallow life proportionately increases.

Ivan’s struggle with death mirrors Tolstoy’s own life-long struggle, both spiritual and intellectual.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Part 1

The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Part 2

The Death of Ivan Ilyich - Part 3