The Paradox of Happiness. Lessons from Ilyás by Tolstoy

The Paradox of Happiness. Lessons from Ilyás by Tolstoy

01 Dec 2023
Julianne Arteha
3:25 m read
The Paradox of Happiness. Lessons from Ilyás by Tolstoy

In the vast landscape of Tolstoy's literary works, "Ilyás" stands as a poignant exploration of the elusive nature of happiness. Through the life of the titular character, Tolstoy weaves a narrative that challenges conventional notions of wealth and success, offering profound insights into the human experience.

For fifty years we looked for happiness, but only now have we found it. “Ilyás” by Leo Tolstoy

The Rise and Fall of Fortune:

Ilyás, a Bashkir in the Government of Ufá, begins his journey with meager possessions but diligently works his way to affluence. Tolstoy paints a vivid picture of Ilyás's industrious life, highlighting his dedication to labor and family. The narrative takes a turn when misfortune strikes—plague, famine, and theft gradually diminish Ilyás's wealth. The once prosperous man finds himself destitute in his old age, left with nothing but his memories and his faithful wife, Sham-shemagi.

Before he knew it, all was gone, and in his old age he had to go with his wife to live among strangers. All that Ilyás had left of his fortune was what garments he had on his body, a fur coat, a cap, and his morocco slippers and shoes,
Ilyás, Leo Tolstoy Open book

The Invitation to Humility:

In his time of need, Ilyás is taken in by a compassionate neighbor, Muhamedshah. The shift from affluence to servitude serves as a powerful metaphor for life's unpredictability. Tolstoy uses Ilyás's story to underscore the transient nature of material wealth and the importance of humility in the face of adversity.

“Evidently fortune flies around like a wheel: one it lifts up, another it takes down.“
Ilyás, Leo Tolstoy Open book

The Wisdom of Perspective:

As guests visit Muhamedshah's abode, a profound dialogue unfolds between Ilyás, his wife, and the visitors. Tolstoy masterfully uses this interaction to explore the essence of true happiness. Sham-shemagi, with unwavering sincerity, shares the revelation that came with their newfound circumstances.

“I judge like this: My husband and I lived for fifty years trying to find happiness, and we did not find it; but now it is the second year that we have nothing left and that we live as labourers, and we have found that happiness and need no other.”
Ilyás, Leo Tolstoy Open book


“Ilyás” by Tolstoy teaches us that real happiness isn't tied to how much we own. In the story, Ilyás goes from being wealthy to having almost nothing. Yet, through his journey, Tolstoy shows us that genuine happiness comes from simple things: working with purpose, caring for others, and finding joy in everyday moments. In a world often obsessed with chasing material success, “Ilyás” reminds us that true contentment is found in relationships, meaningful work, and embracing life's ups and downs with humility. This story encourages us to rethink what makes a successful and happy life, emphasizing the importance of what truly matters beyond material wealth.