Born into a wealthy aristocratic family but orphaned by the age of ten, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy suffered a protracted period of psychological and spiritual crisis in the 1870s, when he was in his late forties. He found himself overwhelmed by depression and despair and unable to find meaning in life. Ultimately, inspired by the religious faith of Russian peasants, Tolstoy resolved this crisis by embracing his own system of Christian belief. The Death of Ivan Ilyich was written in the aftermath of his conversion. In this famous novella, a middle-aged government magistrate, whose life has been “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible,” sinks into a mysterious illness after a seemingly trivial accident. Finding that his doctors treat him as impersonally as he treated defendants in court, and that his wife regards his illness primarily as a nuisance to herself, Ivan is comforted only by the presence of his servant Gerasim. Brought face to face with death, Ivan reviews his life and struggles to find meaning in his suffering. This story opens up some of the most fundamental questions of human existence: What is a good life? What does it mean to live in the shadow of death? How should we respond to our own suffering and to the sufferings of others? How should we die?
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The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Vintage, 2010.