"The Death of Ivan Ilyich transports the reader to 19th-century Russia, a world that may seem remote to 21st-century Americans. Certainly Tolstoy grounds his novella in a particular social, political, and religious context. But the universal questions transcend time and place: What provides true happiness? What does it mean to live a good life? Does God exist? If so, why would He allow suffering? What is one’s responsibility to other human beings?
Perhaps most of all, Ivan’s “commonplace” and “horrifying” life challenges us to consider our mortality, for whether by disease, disaster, or an accidental fall, we all—like him—will die. Tolstoy doesn’t prescribe an answer for Ivan, or for us. But he does offer a work of art that he intended as “a means of communion among people.” In this way, his novella can illuminate even the darkest human truths."