Spiritual crisis experienced by Tolstoy in the late 1870s – early 1880s changed his worldview (Knowlson 33-47). In the “Confessions” (1879-1882) he speaks of revolution in his views, the meaning of which was refusal from the ideology of the noble class and moving to the side of the working class (Fuller 321-330).
According to Tolstoy, man lives in disagreement and controversy with himself. That’s why he is doomed to suffer, to be dissatisfied with himself. Man is constantly striving to overcome himself, to change, to become free from suffering. Man does not just live; he wants his life to have meaning.
The conclusion about the meaninglessness of life, which seems to derive from the experience and evidenced by the philosophical wisdom, from Tolstoy”˜s viewpoint is too logically contradictory too accept it. The very statement of the meaninglessness of life contains its own rebuttal: the man who came to this conclusion had to make away with his life, and therefore he would not be able to speak about its meaningless, but if he speaks about the meaninglessness of life and thus continues to live the life which is worse than death, then in reality life is not so senseless and bad, as stated (Sirotkina 75-81).
Thus, all the works of this period are combined by the idea of imminent and close shift of contradictory and obsolete public order (Fuller 321-330). In 1892, Tolstoy wrote that he didn’t know what the outcome would be, but he realized that life could no longer remain the same (Knowlson 123).
The novel “The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1884-1886) occupies the central position among Tolstoy’s works of the 1880s. It embodies the major features of realism of late Tolstoy. By this novel, one can judge what combines late and early works of Tolstoy, what distinguishes them, what is the peculiarity of the late Tolstoy compared with other realists in those years (Garnett 78-86).
The heroes of the latest works by Tolstoy are not bright individual characters, but ordinary people; their ordinariness, their usual life, like the lives of many people, is repeatedly emphasized by the writer. From the beginning of “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, Tolstoy says that its main theme is the description of life and death of an ordinary man, which could be met anytime and anywhere. But this ordinary in all aspects man is put in a dramatic, seemingly random, ‘exclusive’ status (Jones 1204-5): Ivan Ilyich prematurely and painfully dies from cancer due to accidental injury. By the exceptional situation in which characters are placed in late works of Tolstoy, the author ensures that they will be rethinking their former life and will understand its lies and deceits (Nabokov 111-114).
Testing of human death is a favorite story situation in Tolstoy (“Childhood”, “War and Peace”, “Anna Karenina”, etc.). In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” this theme is continued, but gets more concentrated: the whole story is devoted to one event – the painful demise of Ivan Ilyich Golovin (Taylor 299-304). The latter fact gave rise to modern literature specialists consider the story as an existential work, describing eternal tragedy and loneliness of a man. However, this approach decreases the socio-moral pathos of the story, while the basic meaning of “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is the horror of a life lived wrong (Jahn 68-72).
In the “Death of Ivan Ilyich”, the plot is not built in accordance with the sequence of events, but is intentionally violating the chronological principle. The story begins, essentially, from the end – the impression made by the death of Ivan Ilyich to his colleagues (Tolstoy 5-7) Such compositional structure is a characteristic feature of the artistic manner of late Tolstoy (Cockrell 310-312). Breaking the sequence of events, the writer enlightens the entire story with the reflection of terrible pictures of final consequences.
Conciseness, laconism, and concentration on the major matters are the characteristic feature of the narrative style of late Tolstoy. In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”, Tolstoy also applies his main method of cognition and embodiment of the world – psychological analysis (Cockrell 310-312). “The dialectics of the soul” is the main tool of artistic representation in the work. However, the inner world of the later heroes of Tolstoy changed in 1880s: they became harder and more dramatic.
Accordingly, the form of psychological analysis changed. The conflict of man and his environment was always present in works of Tolstoy. His best characters are usually opposed to the medium they belong to, seeking for new ways. Late Tolstoy is mainly interested by the rebirth of a person from the privileged classes, knowing the social injustice and moral baseness, falsity of life around him (Fuller 321-330). In Tolstoy’s opinion, the representatives of the ruling classes could start a “true life” only after realizing that all his past life was wrong.
In the late period the writer focuses on the social environment with its conflicts and disorders. Tolstoy describes these contradictions as painful inner struggle of his heroes.
Death-sick official Ivan Ilyich realizes the emptiness of his life, in which he follows common behavior for his circle.
The story is based on a contrast of Ivan Ilyich’s new ideas about life of and views of his family and colleagues.
The novel depicts a disaster disrupting the course of the hero’s life – the expectation of death. From outside it looks like the senseless agony leading to a painful end. Ivan Ilyich’s death is important for his colleagues only because his post becomes vacant, and their sorrowful speeches are full of indifference. But internally, for the hero dying is the way to the truth and eternal life. Ivan Ilyich perceives death from inside, and it is not terrible, it is not a fall into the darkness, but a step toward the light. Death teaches how to live. Death of Ivan Ilyich means getting used to life, only dying he realizes his love for himself, his wife and son (Tolstoy 87)
Before the face death all the values and career success seem miserable to Ivan Ilyich. Revelations given to Ivan Ilyich are absolutely personal. Ivan Ilyich is left alone with himself. Other people cannot neither follow him, nor even understand what is happening to him. A normal person can live only following everyone, feeling support from the space, and public order. Lonely and independent daring causes resentment and seem to be the greatest crime against people and against God (Jahn 37-41; Tolstoy).
Sharp focus on socio-ethical conflicts is the main feature of Tolstoy’s all late works. That is why the stories are dramatic and tense. R. Rolland remarked that in this period the creative thought of Tolstoy was strongly influenced by the laws of the theater (Rolland 95). The Death of Ivan Ilyich is the internal drama, the drama of the soul (Jahn 54).
Tolstoy’s usual interest to the movement of life and man’s inner world in the late period turned into a display of a complete revolution in the consciousness of the hero. To make this transformation, a catastrophe is needed, which awakens people. Awakening is often a long process of painful struggle, but it always ends with enlightenment. All the attention is focused on emotional life of the hero condemning his previous life, and his relationship with the environment.
Looking at the life of ordinary people, Tolstoy came to the conclusion that they only know the truth. They understand the meaning of life deeper, than the greatest philosophers.
For Tolstoy the question of the meaning of life is a matter of faith, not knowledge. The concept of faith in Tolstoy’s understanding has nothing to do with inconceivable mysteries, incredible transformations and other prejudices (Thompson 96-116).
Faith as power of life goes beyond the competence of reason. In this sense, the concept of faith is an expression of honesty of mind, which does not want to undertake more than it can. From such an understanding of faith, it follows that the question of the meaning of life hides doubt and confusion. The meaning of life becomes a question when life loses all meaning (Thompson 96-116).
All the works written by Tolstoy bring to the only conclusion: the meaning of life cannot consist in what dies along with the death of man. This means: it consists neither in life for oneself or in life for other people because they die, nor in life for humanity, for it will not last forever. Life for oneself cannot have any sense. To live wisely means to live so that death couldn’t destroy life.