The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories


I am bad at reviewing short stories. It’s so difficult to sum up a number of varying stories providing the essence without giving away the plot.

Like you can guess from the title, the major theme of this book is death. In the majority of the stories, the protagonist confronts his own mortality. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Ivan, on his death-bed realizes that he has lived a life filled with material joys, but has neglected his spiritual core.

The story of Ivan Ilyich is then followed by the dense The Kreutzer Sonata and The Devil. All these three stories in varying levels of intensity deplore man’s succumbing to the pleasures of the physical world. The Devil is the story of a young likable landowner who suffers because of his sexual obsession with a woman working on his farm.

The Kreutzer Sonata is the story of Pozdnyshev who relates to a fellow traveler on a train, how he came to murder his wife. His story is fantastic and awful at the same time. It takes Tolstoy’s ideas to the extreme. I, personally, felt smothered reading this story. It was a long drawn out monologue from Pozdnyshev, without any other points of view injected. Portions of the story were ludicrous. Pozdnyshev thinks that a woman who doesn’t nurse her child develops amorous feelings towards other men in frustration. Because I sense that Pozdnyshev is mouthing some of Tolstoy’s own thoughts, I feel that Tolstoy might be quite the misogynist. Needless to say, this is my least favorite story.

This impression of Tolstoy’s misogyny is further solidified once I finish the book and realize that there is no memorable female character in the book at all.

However, I still enjoyed all the stories in this book. The Devil is then followed by lighter stories (although death is never far away). I preferred these stories such as Master and Man, and Father Sergius…primarily because in both these stories, the protagonist rises above his weaknesses and redeems himself. I always prefer an optimistic stance than a pessimistic one, even if the literary merits of these stories are weaker.

The stories of Alyosha the Pot and The Forged Coupon were a little meh. Alyosha the Pot was a bit too short and the ending was very abrupt. The Forged Coupon just has too many characters and too much going on in general, and it sticks out like a sore thumb from the very tightly character-driven stories in this collection.

The first and the last stories – The Prisoner of the Caucuses and Hadji Murat are set in the Caucuses and make nice bookends to this set of stories. I enjoyed both stories very much, although I should say Hadji Murat was a little too long and dragged in places.

All in all, this is a great, contemplative set of stories about the human condition. It completely suited my frame of mind now. I”ll be honest and admit that I may not have liked this book at any other point of time. I am not a contemplative person by nature, but the recent goings-on in my personal life prompted me to pick up this book, read it, and appreciate it.

I can’t say I always agreed with Tolstoy’s views here, but I do like the way he has thought through these issues, and the masterly way he depicts his protagonists struggle to control their morality. And in effect, that’s what I imbibed from this book – Tolstoy working out and debating issues of morality and mortality through his fiction. Like it or not, I couldn’t help admiring his strong feelings on the topic.

I have never read his longer books, but now after reading this, I am curious to try Anna Karenina and find out how he writes a full-blown character-driven novel.

I completely recommend this hardcover vintage publication with translation by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. This hard-cover edition is wonderful, the translation is superb, and the quality of the paper is excellent – a must for any book collector. I am so sad that I have to return this book to the library today :(.

I read this book as part of The Classics Club reading challenge.

  • You had some nice points here

  • I loved Anna Karenina, and the edition I read had the same translators 🙂 -Sarah

    • @TheClassicsClub: I am really on the hunt for a translation of Anna Karenina by these two. I think they do an excellent job maintaining the Russian atmosphere but still being very readable.

  • This is indeed a beautiful edition that I would covet! And it includes quite a few short stories as well. I can imagine this collection – so focused on the human condition, like you say – being a fitting companion to your mood. I was blown away by The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Master and Man, the other stories I still need to peruse.

    Let me know when you decide to attempt Anna Karenina, it’s one of those books that I keep putting off 🙂

    • @Chinoiseries: It’s a book I keep putting off as well. I guess I got turned off because I dislike books where fallen women end their lives in misery. Anna Karenina is on my classics reading list though. Let me know when you get in the mood for it, and we could even try reading it at the same time.

      • Chinoiseries

        I like that idea 🙂

  • I am a Russian classics buff and I quite enjoyed your views on the stories. I am forever planning to start Anna Karenina! Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky are good but they have done a lousy job on Dr Zhivago.

    • @umashankar: Oh really? I was hoping I had discovered the key to reading the Russian classics by reading their translations. Here, they kept the language very modern and yet seemed to retain the essence of the book.

  • Tolstoys’s my all time fav authors and this is next on the list to read after Anna Karenina! Good post Nishita. Keep writing.
    -A Book-Lover 🙂

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