Wiliam Giraldi at The Virginia Quarterly Review:
Written in 1886, The Death of Ivan Ilyich was the first fiction Tolstoy published after the spiritual upheaval he chronicles in Confession. It’s easy to imagine Ilyich as the old and bearded sage-looking man Tolstoy was upon his death, but he’s only forty-five years old, and this fact adds to the tremendous pathos of the story: The death of a young man is always more awful than the death of an old man. The priest gives Ilyich little spiritual consolation, and the doctors are self-important fools, incapable of mitigating his pain. His co-workers are disgusted by the thought of his wasting body and care only about jockeying for cozier positions once he dies. His wife and children, occupied by the minutiae of their quotidian lives, refuse to admit what has befallen him. He finds their refusal to confront this fanged truth most disgusting of all: “Ivan Ilyich’s chief torment was the lie—that lie, for some reason recognized by everyone, that he was only ill but not dying.” His sole comfort comes from Gerasim, the peasant servant who does not recoil from the foul stench, who accepts the inevitability of all flesh. If Ilyich’s upper-crust friends regard death as indecent, Gerasim knows otherwise: His peasant’s dirty-hands understanding of life, his calm acceptance of every person’s fate, helps to calm Ilyich into his own acceptance. (The peasantry’s calm acceptance of death, by the way, can be noticed in Turgenev, Dostoevsky, and Solzhenitsyn, to name a few—it seems to fall somewhere in line between Russian literary trope and Russian cultural myth.) Relief for Ilyich comes only after he has followed Gerasim’s lead and acquiesced to his fate.