Although set in 19th century Russia, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a short story that still resonates today. Of course, this is primarily due to the subjects it deals with—things humans continue to be curious about: the state of death and the act of dying. Or, more saliently, the effects of death and dying on the person who is dying and his/her surroundings.
Funerals are, I believe, for the living and not the dead. Every time I attend, read about or watch a funeral, I see conflict. Of course, there is sadness and mourning, but most of all, I see conflict. There are jabs about how the funeral should or should’ve been carried out, how a relative should act and shouldn’t act, what should be who’s and whatnot. It’s awful to even think that someone would pretend to be mourning for the deceased, but the truth is, people do that and the supposed friends of Ivan Ilyich, his wife and his daughter, are no better. His daughter mainly thinks of her own happiness, his wife thinks about getting more money, and his ‘friends’ think about better positions at work and higher salaries. During Ivan’s last moments, we see only his son, who’s rather absent in the short story, and a servant named Gerasim are the ones who really care and feel sorry about Ivan’s inevitable death. It’s the actions of all of these characters that has me believing that this tale may forever relevant because there will always be people like them.
Of course, this tale can be rather boring to some people because of the lack of action, the repetition of Ivan’s complaints, and how shallow Ivan is. Though this shallowness of Ivan may have been intentional of Tolstoy because as Vladimir Propp states in the Morphology of the Folktale, characters are ‘spheres of action’ meant to act as the mechanisms for distributing ‘functions’ around a story. So, Ivan may simply be just that. A mechanism to distribute things Tolstoy wants to mention/allude to in a story. As for the lack of action, well, I didn’t mind that. Perhaps Tolstoy simply wanted to show that a normal man living a mundane life can be ‘unjustifiably’ afflicted with an unknown death-causing disease. Thus, due of this, the man realizes that he has never truly lived life because he hasn’t truly been assured of such and now, as he’s dying, he’s desperate to feel alive but is unable to because the disease has imprisoned him. It gets him thinking about the meaning of life and whether there’s any point of to it because living things cannot escape death. It’s nihilistic and depressive, but certainly thought-provoking.
Furthermore, what I find extremely interesting about this translation of The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the notes Slater adds, particularly the ones on the errors made by Tolstoy himself in the original Russian version of this tale. It’s also rather helpful for those who are analyzing this text (or thinking of doing such) for academic purposes and all.
Master and Man, on the other hand, shares a similar nihilistic theme, though it is not as salient in this short story. Unlike Ivan who tries to earn his pleasures through hard work, Vassili has no qualms in stealing from the church (as in he takes the church funds in his care and aims to use them to buy a plot of land for himself). Nikolai, on the other hand, is to a small degree, Gerasim’s counterpart. Moreover, there’s a little A Christmas Carol feel to Master and Man, since Vassili is like Ebenezer Scrooge and Nikolai is like Bob Cratchit, and that both stories are set in a period of festivities. I also got a The Little Match Girl feel near the end when Vassili is close to death.
Compared to The Death of Ivan Ilyich, there is more action in Master and Man. Vassili and Nikolai are lost in a blizzard while trying to reach their destination so the short story is largely about this, whereas The Death of Ivan Ilyich is largely about a man lamenting his wasted life. Thus, those who have found The Death of Ivan Ilyich ‘boring’ may prefer Master and Man.
Personally, I prefer The Death of Ivan Ilyich over Master and Man. Both of these short stories have interesting footnotes from Slater, but I feel that the former has a larger quantity of thought-prompting moments. Nevertheless, they’re both rather quick reads and certainly worth reading.