Customer Review

120 of 126 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars I stand amazed..., February 15, 2001
This review is from: The Death of Ivan Ilyich (Bantam Classics) (Mass Market Paperback)
There are so many levels upon which this story can be read, yet they are woven so inextricably into this masterpiece that the complexity is staggering. The premise sounds simple: a man who is about to die realizes he has never fully lived. We've all heard this before--in fact, Hollywood likes to drum such messages into our heads on a regular basis. But rarely, if ever, is it portrayed with the exquisite mastery which Tolstoy employed upon writing "The Death of Ivan Ilyich".
Paradoxically, this story is just as much about the life of Ivan Ilyich as it is about his death. This is in order to fully appreciate who he is and the man he has made of himself before disaster strikes. It is also to highlight both the tragic deterioration of his life and the gradual enlightenment of his inmost soul.
In portraying Ivan Ilyich's character, Tolstoy's subtle but inexorable condemnation is devastating. Not a detail is gratuitous: every point further serves to illustrate what is essentially a life without ideals and without purpose. Yet the author does not beat us over the head with this, rather than allowing the clear and unembellished facts to speak for themselves. And the way Tolstoy knew exactly which facts to accentuate creates a psychological depth which is unparalleled.
Many seem to be under the impression that Ivan Ilyich was some sort of villain, and that the story is a warning against corruption and bad behavior. My personal view is that Ivan Ilyich is no worse--although no better--than many people. Perhaps he is of a slightly lesser moral calibre than most, but that does not make him completely evil. To believe that he is evil is to miss the whole point, for this story was meant to be universal, to depict a reality which exists for us all. This is obvious from the way the story begins, with Ivan Ilyich's friends' and relatives' reactions to his death. Like him, they see death as something that can never happen to them, and like him they lead lives which are shallow and superficial in an attempt to avoid the unpleasant realities of life. By the time he dies, Ivan Ilyich has risen above these people by at last coming to the realization of the worthlessness of his life. This has elevated him above the common man, who avoids the reality of death and the effort it takes to make life worthwhile. In Tolstoy's own words, "Ivan Ilyich's life had been...most ordinary and therefore most terrible."
Therein lies the impact of this story: Ivan Ilyich is Everyman, and the message he represents is applicable at every moment in our lives.
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