The abiding concern of the most controversial and often the most fascinating instances of Leo Tolstoy’s later fiction was the struggle for meaning in the midst of the author’s own existential crisis. Among that later fiction, there is arguably nowhere that struggle attains more pathos nor more honesty than in his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Unlike other works by Tolstoy, the novella does not seem to contain an easily discernible, specific answer to the question of how one’s life should be lived. Perhaps a reflection of the author’s own inability to see a definite meaning in life or a definite reason for his own impending demise, or perhaps an expression of the very personal anxiety of reflection at such proximity to death, the physical decline of Ivan Ilyich is characterized by a parallel rising search for reason and meaning.
Though one is not given the particulars of Ivan Ilyich’s final realization, one is provided with the context and effect of that most joyous ultimate epiphany, as well as the particulars of the series of smaller revelatory modes of thinking which lead to it. As Ivan Ilyich passes through phases of thought, he gains more and more insight into his past, his life, and the nature of existence, ultimately concluding that what he has lacked and sorely desires is authenticity.
Proximity to Death: