The Black Monk & The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Chekhov A. (1894), The Black Monk, Athens: Roes
Tolstoy L. (1886), The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Athens: Roes

Well, my Instagram page is here to mock me, since I posted this picture 19 weeks ago, when I was currently reading these two little books! 19 weeks, that’s how long it’s taken me to finally write a few words about these stories and I am kind of ashamed, because I did enjoy them, I would suggest them to everyone who’d like to see Chekhov’s or Tolstoy’s views on life and death and I should have done it way sooner. I had to reread my notes and spend a serious amount of timing to write this review but what’s done is done.

Chekhov writes the Black Monk during summer 1893, while he was living in the village of Melikhovo. Andrey Kovrin, a university scholar, suffers from exhaustion and his doctor advises him to spend a couple of months in the countryside, in order to rest. He thus visits Yegor Semyonitch, who used to be his guardian, and his daughter, Tania. The two of them work on the premises and see Kovrin as a brilliant intellectual who deserves all of their attention and awe. Tania’s father confides to Kovrin that he’d like him to become his son-in-law and while father and daughter are enjoying the family’s new member, Kovrin meets the Black Monk, whose opinions about life and our position in it upset him…

The Black Monk is a masterpiece. In just 80 pages Chekhov creates something much deeper than a story with a start, a middle and an end. He manages to paint Kovrin’s character in such a short amount of time, telling us that this short story could easily have been a play in four acts. According to Chekhov himself, this story is a historia morbi, the story of a disease called megalomania (Postface, p.101) from which Kovrin suffers. The Black Monk is considered as one of the most enigmatic creatures of literature, since many theories have been expressed over the symbolism it holds. You should definitely read the book in order to find your meaning…

“A mysterious disease brings Ivan Ilyich close to death. While the seems to be slowly approaching, the well-known judge can no longer hide behind the illusions that used to define his life and is forced to look it in the eye, with sobriety and honesty. What he gradually discovers is painful, is there any time to change it?” (From the back cover).

The death of Ivan Ilyich is in fact his life in retrospect. Ivan, a while before he dies, reminisces about his past: a middlebrow, always typical, a sad personality that never showed any interest for deeper and meaningful quests. This is such a short and at the same time so rich a story, that can easily be considered as both a literary and philosophical work of art. As Nabokov has written, “Tolstoy as a thinker was ultimately interested in two subjects: Life and Death -subjects that inevitably interest every artist.” (Postface, p.127). That’s what this story is about: researching the meaning of life and its relation to the [unavoidable] death.

 You can read both of them in English here (The Black Monk) and here (The Death of Ivan Ilyich).

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