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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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Leo Tolstoy | Biography


Early Life and Marriage

Leo Tolstoy (Lev Nikolayevich Tolstoy, Count Tolstoy) was born September 9, 1828, in the Tula Oblast region of Russia. He was an aristocrat and landowner who wrote primarily about his own class. He was orphaned by the time he was nine, and lost additional close relatives by age 13. He and his siblings were raised by their relations. Tolstoy never completed his university education but was successful in the military, earning promotions and a citation for bravery under fire. In 1862 Tolstoy married Sofya Andreyevna Bers, and the couple moved to the family estate, Yasnaya Polyana. There, Tolstoy wrote his greatest literary works.

Writing Masterpieces and Religious Conversion

It was at his estate that Tolstoy wrote the novels for which he became most famous and celebrated as one of the world's greatest novelists. His greatest literary masterpieces are War and Peace (1865–69) and Anna Karenina (1875–77).

After completing his masterworks, Tolstoy began to experience a profound and life-altering spiritual crisis. It was brought on by his fear of death and his conviction that he was not living what he called an authentic life. Eventually, he came to hate his life as an aristocrat and desired to give away his wealth. In his early period of spiritual transformation, he was reading the philosophers Plato, Spinoza, Kant, Schelling, and Hegel. The philosopher Schopenhauer had an enormous influence on Tolstoy. He would eventually explore the tenets of Eastern religions as well—specifically Hinduism and Buddhism. Not surprisingly, The Death of Ivan Ilych is an indictment of the bourgeois and aristocratic classes the author knew well. It delves deeply into the inauthentic life that, In Tolstoy's view, causes the greatest fear of death.

The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886) has enjoyed widespread acclaim among both authors and readers. The novella explores Tolstoy's view that the way of life people live imposed by society is shallow, artificial, and ultimately unsatisfying. It is also a life that is, crucially, not attuned to God.

Most of the works that followed The Death of Ivan Ilych explicated Tolstoy's religious beliefs and his ideas about how to live an authentic and Christian life. These works include fiction such as The Kreutzer Sonata (1890) about an unhappy marriage, and nonfiction such as The Kingdom of God Is Within You (1893).

Tolstoy's religious beliefs impelled him to try to free his serfs in 1856, but the serfs thought these efforts were some kind of trick and Tolstoy failed to liberate them. Tolstoy also tried to give away all his land and possessions to live in poverty as Christ had taught. These radical ideas led to intense conflict with his wife, who was naturally concerned about the economic welfare of her numerous children and herself.


Tolstoy's ideas were so influential and his reputation so stellar that a group of disciples, called the Tolstoyans, formed around him. Tolstoyans referred to themselves as Christian anarchists, and they believed in Tolstoy's ideas about radical Christianity. As the Tolstoyan movement grew, Tolstoy found life on his estate increasingly intolerable. In 1910 Tolstoy left his estate by train with his granddaughter Alexandra and his doctor. The trio stopped at Astapovo railway station so Tolstoy could rest and recover from pneumonia. Instead, the great writer's illness grew worse. He died of heart failure at the station on November 7, 1910, at age 82.

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