The simplicity and power of this novella, the story of the terrible encroachment of death on a shallow man spiritually unprepared for it, has staggered millions (on reading it in 1886, Tchaikovsky feverishly recorded in his diary: ’I am convinced that the greatest author-painter who ever lived is Leo Tolstoy.’)
The tale’s original title was The Death of a Judge. It was inspired by events surrounding the death of a judge at the court of Tula in 1881, Ivan Ilyich Mechnikov, which Tolstoy had heard about from Mechnikov’s brother, and began as a diary in the first person. But as Tolstoy developed the idea he moved the story to the third person, retaining only Mechnikov’s name and patronymic for the title. By crafting a title that stripped Ivan Ilyich of his family name (later echoed by Solzhenitsyn in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich) he presented him as a disconcerting everyman.