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The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories (Penguin Classics) Paperback – May 27, 2008

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Editorial Reviews

About the Author

Count Leo Tolstoy was born in 1828 at Yasnaya Polyana, in the Tula province, and educated privately. He studied Oriental languages and law at the University of Kazan, then led a life of pleasure until 1851 when he joined an artillery regiment in the Caucasus. He took part in the Crimean War and after the defence of Sebastopol he wrote The Sebastopol Sketches (1855-6), which established his reputation. After a period in St Petersburg and abroad, where he studied educational methods for use in his school for peasant children in Yasnaya Polyana, he married Sofya Andreyevna Behrs in 1862. The next fifteen years was a period of great happiness; they had thirteen children, and Tolstoy managed his vast estates in the Volga Steppes, continued his educational projects, cared for his peasants and wrote War and Peace (1869) and Anna Karenina (1877). A Confession (1879-82) marked a spiritual crisis in his life; he became an extreme moralist and in a series of pamphlets after 1880 expressed his rejection of state and church, indictment of the weaknesses of the flesh and denunciation of private property. His teaching earned him numerous followers at home and abroad, but also much opposition, and in 1901 he was excommuincated by the Russian Holy Synod. He died in 1910, in the course of a dramamtic flight from home, at the small railway station of Astapovo.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Hadji Murat


I was returning home through the fields. It was the very middle of summer. The meadows had been mowed, and they were just
about to reap the rye.

There is a delightful assortment of flowers at that time of year: red, white, pink, fragrant, fluffy clover; impudent marguerites; milk-white “love-me-love-me-nots” with bright yellow centers and a fusty, spicy stink; yellow wild rape with its honey smell; tall-standing, tulip-shaped campanulas, lilac and white; creeping vetch; neat scabious, yellow, red, pink, and lilac; plantain with its faintly pink down and faintly perceptible, pleasant smell; cornflowers, bright blue in the sun and in youth, and pale blue and reddish in the evening and when old; and the tender, almond-scented, instantly wilting flowers of the bindweed.

I had gathered a big bouquet of various flowers and was walking home, when I noticed in a ditch, in full bloom, a wonderful crimson thistle of the kind which is known among us as a “Tartar” and is carefully mowed around, and, when accidentally mowed down, is removed from the hay by the mowers, so that it will not prick their hands. I took it into my head to pick this thistle and put it in the center of the bouquet. I got down into the ditch and, having chased away a hairy bumblebee that had stuck itself into the center of the flower and sweetly and lazily fallen asleep there, I set about picking the flower. But it was very difficult: not only was the stem prickly on all sides, even through the handkerchief I had wrapped around my hand, but it was so terribly tough that I struggled with it for some five minutes, tearing the fibers one by one. When I finally tore off the flower, the stem was all ragged, and the flower no longer seemed so fresh and beautiful. Besides, in its coarseness and gaudiness it did not fit in with the delicate flowers of the bouquet. I was sorry that I had vainly destroyed and thrown away a flower that had been beautiful in its place. “But what energy and life force,” I thought, remembering the effort it had cost me to tear off the flower. “How staunchly it defended itself, and how dearly it sold its life.”

The way home went across a fallow, just-plowed field of black earth. I walked up a gentle slope along a dusty, black-earth road. The plowed field was a landowner’s, a very large one, so that to both sides of the road and up the hill ahead nothing could be seen except the black, evenly furrowed, not yet scarified soil. The plowing had been well done; nowhere on the field was there a single plant or blade of grass to be seen—it was all black. “What a destructive, cruel being man is, how many living beings and plants he annihilates to maintain his own life,” I thought, involuntarily looking for something alive amidst this dead, black field. Ahead of me, to the right of the road, I spied a little bush. When I came closer, I recognized in this bush that same “Tartar” whose flower I had vainly picked and thrown away.

The “Tartar” bush consisted of three shoots. One had been broken off, and the remainder of the branch stuck out like a cut-off arm. On each of the other two there was a flower. These flowers had once been red, but now they were black. One stem was broken and half of it hung down, with the dirty flower at the end; the other, though all covered with black dirt, still stuck up. It was clear that the whole bush had been run over by a wheel, and afterwards had straightened up and therefore stood tilted, but stood all the same. As if a piece of its flesh had been ripped away, its guts turned inside out, an arm torn off, an eye blinded. But it still stands and
does not surrender to man, who has annihilated all its brothers around it.

“What energy!” I thought. “Man has conquered everything, destroyed millions of plants, but this one still does not surrender.”

And I remembered an old story from the Caucasus, part of which I saw, part of which I heard from witnesses, and part of which I imagined to myself. The story, as it shaped itself in my memory and imagination, goes like this.

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Product Details

  • Series: Penguin Classics
  • Paperback: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Penguin Classics (May 27, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0140449612
  • ISBN-13: 978-0140449617
  • Product Dimensions: 5.1 x 0.8 x 7.8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 8.5 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.9 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (7 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #318,879 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

3.9 out of 5 stars
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

2 of 2 people found the following review helpful By Israel Drazin TOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on December 28, 2009
Format: Paperback
Both Leo Tolstoy and many literary experts consider this 1886 tale The Death of Ivan Ilych "one of Tolstoy's best stories."
It is impossible to fully evaluate the success of a person's life until the person is dead. Thus, The Death of Ivan Ilych is really an examination of an only outwardly successful life. This examination, performed by one of the world's greatest writer, sensitizes readers to the values and vanities of their own lives. Tolstoy tells his tale indirectly; we understand what happens to Ivan by seeing how people act toward him and by seeing how he acts, without Tolstoy needing to explain matters to us.
At the outset, we sense how Ivan's wife reacted to his death when we read that she asked one of Ivan's friends, before the funeral, how she could increase her pension now that he was dead. We understand about Ivan's friendships when we read how his friends wanted to play cards rather than attend his wake. Those who thought about his death at all were more concerned about what his death tells them about their own mortality than about Ivan.
Then Tolstoy shows Ivan's life, his apparent joys, difficulties, behaviors, his advancements in his jobs and his final illness.
We learn how Ivan was affected by the deterioration of his marriage by reading what he did inside and outside his home. We read about all the troubles Ivan took to decorate his home when he became successful and acquired a higher salary. He was very proud. Yet: "In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves." In reality, despite his efforts, despite his pride, his house was like the others, in no way exceptional.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful By Catherine Wilson on January 7, 2014
Format: Kindle Edition Verified Purchase
I need the specific other stories for my Tolstoy class, and while the title says it has "The Raid" and "Woodfelling," the version that was delivered to me has "The Cossacks" and "Family Happiness." This is beyond frustrating--I just wasted 5 dollars and won't have my reading done for class tomorrow.
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2 of 3 people found the following review helpful By Dennis Littrell HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on January 16, 2009
Format: Paperback
[Note: Nearly a hundred of my fiction reviews by great literary artists and others not so well known are now available in my book, "Novels and other Fictions." Get it at Amazon.]

I've been reluctant for decades to read the great Russian master because I never felt I had the time to tackle War and Peace or Anna Karenina. I suspect others have felt the same way and thereby missed reading one of the truly great literary artists to have ever lived. Put it off no more. Pick up this 317-page splendid collection of some of Leo Tolstoy's best stories including the celebrated "The Death of Ivan Ilyich."

There are six other stories, the most significant of which is perhaps the sad "Polikushka" which is just about as long as "Ivan Ilyich" and to my mind a bit better in some respects. I also very much liked "The Raid" and "The Woodfelling" which are starkly realistic stories about soldiers engaged and not engaged in battle told wistfully without phony heroics or needless sensationalism. In fact, every story is not just excellent, but deeply engaging, cathartic and transcending as only great literature can be.

You don't have to read more than a few pages before you are struck with the sheer majesty of Tolstoy's gargantuan narrative style, his command of all aspects of storytelling from the kind of deep understanding of character that one finds in Shakespeare, to the kind of descriptive power about people and their environs that can only come from someone with a prodigious memory, a sharp eye and an unusual ability to concentrate. Somehow Tolstoy always knows what to leave in and what to leave out. He knows how to describe without slowing down the tale or making the reader aware of "purple passages.
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By Steiner VINE VOICE on August 25, 2008
Format: Paperback
Tolstoy's brief novella 'Death of Ivan Ilyich' is one of the most compact and brilliant meditations on the meaning of death in literature. Tolstoy's breathtaking naturalism is truly miraculous. Ivan Ilyich is respectful administrator who is dying a painful death from a malignant tumor. Much as Kafka would later do in 'The Metamorphosis,' the dying man's suffering is nothing more than an annoyance for his friends and family. He spirals into a decline of intense suffering as he must stare into the meaning of his life and his inevitable end.

Master and Man is also a wonderful novella, filled with stark, realistic depictions of the Russian peasantry, as a greedy landowner drags his obedient servant on a journey into a night blizzard to claim more property. As the pair become increasingly lost, they too must grapple with the possibility of their mortality.

Pasternak has provided competent, though clunky translations of Tolstoy's original Russian.
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