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The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories (Signet Classics) Mass Market Paperback – August 7, 2012

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About the Author

Count Leo Tolstoy was born on September 9, 1828, in Yasnaya Polyana, Russia. Orphaned at nine, he was brought up by an elderly aunt and educated by French tutors until he matriculated at Kazan University in 1844. In 1847, he gave up his studies and, after several aimless years, volunteered for military duty in the army, serving as a junior officer in the Crimean War before retiring in 1857. In 1862, Tolstoy married Sophie Behrs, a marriage that was to become, for him, bitterly unhappy. His diary, started in 1847, was used for self-study and self-criticism; it served as the source from which he drew much of the material that appeared not only in his great novels War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877), but also in his shorter works. Seeking religious justification for his life, Tolstoy evolved a new Christianity based upon his own interpretation of the Gospels. Yasnaya Polyana became a mecca for his many converts At the age of eighty-two, while away from home, the writer suffered a break down in his health in Astapovo, Riazan, and he died there on November 20, 1910.

Hugh McLean has published widely on Russian literature.

Regina Marler is the author of Bloomsbury Pie: The Making of the Bloomsbury Boom and editor of Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell. She also writes for the New York Times Book Review and the Los Angeles Times. Marler lives in San Francisco.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

From David Goldfarb's Introduction to The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories

The continued popularity of Leo Tolstoy's story "The Death of Ivan Ilych" perhaps owes as much to the author's ability to sympathize with the bad choices his eponymous hero makes as to the fact that this protagonist represents a class still in existence to this day—an upwardly mobile middle class whose members will attend the university and read stories by Tolstoy and will recognize Ivan Ilych as a character they have met, perhaps in their own circle of acquaintances, in their family, or even within themselves. Tolstoy's success in conveying the psychological reality of his characters is not exclusive to his portrayal of Ivan Ilych. It is not uncommon to hear male readers say that they feel they know Anna Karenina as well as they know their own wives, or for contemporary female readers to say that they sympathize with Anna and identify with her in some ways. Though many readers would ascribe genius to Tolstoy, this acuity of psychological perception did not develop without practice.

The forms of the short story, novella, letter, and diary, which offered Tolstoy the possibility for greater narrative experimentation than did long works like Anna Karenina or War and Peace, provided a field for this practice. Written throughout his life, the stories offer some insight into the development of Tolstoy's ideas over time, while the long works, though broad in scope, provide only two snapshots of Tolstoy's evolution as a thinker and writer of fiction. The nineteenth century was generally a very dynamic period in the development of Russian prose forms, as writers reacted to the neoclassicism of the late eighteenth century and attempted to create a prose style that was modern and European but still distinctively Russian and not simply derivative. In an age dominated by realism, experimentation was not merely about style, but about truth in the representation of reality and in the critique of social reality. Where direct political criticism was stifled by tsarist censorship, literature and literary criticism often took its place. For Tolstoy it might be said that this critique is manifested in both the content and in the practice of writing fiction and in his ever-present question "How to live?" The process of writing for Tolstoy provides a means of understanding the subjective feeling of the reality of another person's existence and conveying that feeling to readers, thus creating a bond between the character and readers through the words of the author. Tolstoy's practice of psychological observation and the practice of fiction constitute a spiritual and social practice of forging unity among individuals.

The axis of the most pervasive disunity among individuals in nineteenth-century Russia and beyond is that of gender. Of Tolstoy's stories, the early "Family Happiness" and the late "The Kreutzer Sonata," provide distinct perspectives from which to evaluate Tolstoy's views on "the woman question." "Family Happiness" appeared in 1859, only four years before Nikolai Chernyshevsky's Fourierist novel, What Is to Be Done? This radical, utopian novel proposed the abolition of marriage and the establishment of communes, envisioned a future in which happiness would be guaranteed by technology, and regarded material comfort as the basis for human motivation. By this time Russian women pursued education and had even begun to enter medical school, first by traveling abroad and eventually in Russia itself. Science introduced new methods of contraception and abortion and new views on human sexuality that did not always coincide with traditional religious teachings.

In order to best understand modern life as a woman might experience it, in "Family Happiness" Tolstoy takes the bold step of attempting a first-person narrative in a woman's voice—the story is his only work in this form. As the family was then still the main sphere of women's activity, the problem of "domestic happiness" (as the title may alternately be translated) provides an avenue to most of the issues associated with the woman question, as well as questions about love, the nature of happiness, and what it means to "live for others," which will recur in all of Tolstoy's work. The prose, which evolved from letters between Tolstoy and his friend Valeriya Vladimirovna Arseneva, resembles that of a letter written from the perspective of a woman who has been married and had her first child—written perhaps to a younger woman of the age that the narrator is at the beginning of the story. The letters to Arseneva, which contain a fictional account of a romance between two invented characters, gave the author an opportunity not only to debate important social questions, but to test his ear, to write in a woman's voice that a woman would find believable. The choice of a quasi-epistolary voice is significant in that the sentimental romances that Tolstoy frequently criticizes were often written in the epistolary form or as a narrative in which letters played a significant role. The challenge for Tolstoy here is to write a kind of epistle that is believable and neither sentimental nor a parody of the sentimental epistolary novel in the manner of Dostoevsky's Poor Folk.

--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

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Product Details

  • Series: Signet Classics
  • Mass Market Paperback: 336 pages
  • Publisher: Signet; Reprint edition (August 7, 2012)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0451532171
  • ISBN-13: 978-0451532176
  • Product Dimensions: 4.2 x 0.8 x 6.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 5.6 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (11 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #253,342 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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9 of 9 people found the following review helpful By Bill R. Moore on February 17, 2010
Format: Paperback
Leo Tolstoy is of course best known and most acclaimed for long novels but is also one of the great short fiction writers. This collection has four of his best short works: "Family Happiness," the title story, "The Kreutzer Sonata," and "Hadji Murád." This may not seem like much, but as one might expect, they are not really that short, ranging from sixty to 120+ pages for a total of more than 350 - a substantial percentage of Tolstoy's non-novelistic fiction. More importantly, all four stories are superb. Two ("The Death" and "The Kreutzer") are masterpieces comparable to Tolstoy's great novels, and the other two would be nearly any other writer's best. The selection is also interesting in ranging over Tolstoy's career. "Family" is one of his earliest works, published in 1959 after a short series of autobiographical novels began to make a name for him but before the great works that earned him fame. The other three stories came in the decades after his most famous works and, postdating his religious conversion and transition to mostly non-fiction, are almost his last fictional pieces and so good that we see the full extent of literature's loss when Tolstoy turned from it.

The greatness of the stories ensures that anyone who likes classic literature must read them, but they are available in many editions, especially "The Death." Whether or not one will want this version depends on what translations one seeks and how much supplemental material one wants. "Family" and "The Death" are translated by Constance Garnett, the near-legendary translator responsible for first bringing most Russian classics into English. She remains perhaps Tolstoy's most widely read English translator, but some find her Victorian style off-putting.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Skip on June 10, 2008
Format: Paperback
'The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories' by Leo Tolstoy

All stories contained in this small volume are truly wonderful, however, I've chosen to focus on `Family Happiness' - the first short novel (or novella) in this issue - solely due to the fact that is unique amongst Tolstoy's writings. This narrative is written from the feminine perspective - a young girl named Masha's - which sets it apart from Tolstoy's unparalleled catalogue.

It is a tale of love, the evolution of marriage and the stresses found in so many relationships. Masha marries an older man, twice her age and a guardian figure, who has thus far experienced what he considers to be all of his life adventures and by the beginning of the narrative is well settled into a staid and happy existence. After an awkward beginning to their marriage, Masha experiences a world completely new to her - cosmopolitan and society based - as opposed to the country life she had heretofore experienced. As her life experiences expand, the way she views her husband becomes altered and she struggles to understand how their love has changed and whether or not it can ever return to what it once was. Consequently, Masha must face the future with the man she has always loved and struggle to accept this new reality, recognizing the evolution of her life.

Perhaps, Tolstoy's true feelings on marriage are on display in `Family Happiness'. The story evolved from his own relationship with a woman, significantly junior to he. However, Tolstoy did not marry her, and this story may demonstrate why. This is truly a wonderful novella that I'm sure you'll remember well after you turn the last page.
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By LB Song on April 11, 2014
Format: Mass Market Paperback
The marvel of Tolstoy is his instinctive grasp of the desperate choices humans face in life.

He has an uncanny skill in both portraying our ability to love and hate, as well as our motivations and fears. When reading his stories, I often feel myself completely succumbing to his world, as if I've known the characters my whole life. The deep emotional and intellectual resonance of his works stay with me long after I close the pages.

Such a work is The Death of Ivan Ilych, a short story published in 1886.

In it, the reader can see the roots of the moral questions that Tolstoy himself will wrestle with his whole life. The primary question being: what is a good life?

For Ivan Ilych, he had answered this question by leading a life that was, "the most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible". A dutiful Russian bureaucrat, his navigated life by relying on the good sense of society to decide what was proper. His chief pleasure came from a sense of his own power over inferiors, and secondary pleasures from playing bridge and indulging in bourgeoisie tastes at home.

Yet throughout this innocent ascendance in social position, there were cracks that betrayed a denial of the truth underneath the life of "legality, correctitude, and propriety". The truth at last manifested itself in the form of physical and psychological pain, plaguing him endlessly and making life more miserable than death. Faced with this curse and sensing death's close presence, Ivan Ilych began to wonder, "What if my whole life had been wrong?".

Ilych looked backed at his life, and realized suddenly, "all that for which he had lived- and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.
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