The Death of Iv?n Ilych was published in 1886, several years after a period of depression and personal intellectual turmoil (1875-1878) that ended with Tolstoy's conversion to Christianity.
Tolstoy's Christianity is well known, but his ideas about faith and God were the complex products of years of tortured meditation through numerous crises of faith. The great crisis preceding his conversion began with Tolstoy's struggle with the inevitability of death, which for Tolstoy seemed to make life meaningless. Tolstoy found something of an answer to his questions among Russia's peasants, whose simple, hard lives were enriched by their faith. Between 1878 and 1882, Tolstoy wrote four works examining the importance of faith and the meaning of life in spiritual terms. Tolstoy's writings on faith create a religion colder and more rational than the simple fervency of peasant belief. His faith is important in much of his later writing, but his Christianity is quite different from the faith of most organized churches, or the faith of the modern American "born-again" movement. In the end, Tolstoy could not accept the simple faith of the Russian peasants he admired. He rejects the importance of miracles. Christ to him is primarily a teacher, rather than the resurrected Son of God. Tolstoy's ethical and aesthetic views strike many as somewhat severe, and his conversion did not seem to improve his treatment of his wife or children. In later writings, Tolstoy attacks Shakespeare, along with several other writers of colossal stature, as an immoral scribbler who stands against religion, the working classes, and human progress.
Not surprisingly, The Death of Iv?n Ilych is a deeply religious work, but religious on its own terms. The protagonist is a somewhat clueless, spiritually empty hero whose long illness forces him to confront the meanings of both death and life. Iv?n Ilych represents a small but important class of urban bureaucrats, prominent in the day-to-day running of Russian affairs in Tolstoy's days, whose lives became increasingly detached from nature, the land, and spiritual values. By exposing the horrible vacuity of Iv?n Ilych's life, Tolstoy explores the self-deception, immorality, and alienation of a whole class of individuals. Although Iv?n Ilych is nowhere near as intelligent as his creator, like Tolstoy he comes to accept death and gain a deep, if painful understanding of what his life has meant. The novel embodies perfectly the kinds of values and purpose Tolstoy thought literature should have.
Tolstoy wrote many works of non-fiction, and professed a preference for these explorations of ethics and religion over his novels and short stories. The fiction writer in him, however, was hard to suppress. Tolstoy's late novel, Hadji Murad, was never published during his life; this fact suggests some of the author's ambivalence about the work, but Tolstoy could not resist writing it. Far from the near-didactic nature of his non-fiction, Hadji Murad is a short novel with the breadth and power of an epic, with vivid characterization and intense storytelling that sweep the reader away. While the reader senses the moral concerns of the tale's creator, the short novel is a far cry from the didacticism of Tolstoy's non-fiction. The gap suggests that Tolstoy sometimes had trouble reconciling Tolstoy the artist with Tolstoy the ardent and moralizing Christian. The Death of Iv?n Ilych is one of the works in which Tolstoy is able to bridge that gap.