The Death of Ivan Ilych
The Death of Ivan Ilych
Leo Tolstoy 1886
Tolstoy’s “Smert Ivana Ilyicha” (“The Death of Ivan Ilych”) was widely acclaimed when it was published in 1886 and remains a compelling narrative for contemporary readers. It is significant for its universally powerful portrayal of a man’s physical deterioration and subsequent spiritual rejuvenation at the moment of death, and because it is the first fiction which Tolstoy published after his conversion to radical Christianity. Several critics note a shift in his writing after his spiritual breakdown in the 1870s, which inspired him to write primarily on religious and philosophical issues while repudiating his earlier works. Tolstoy’s Voina i mir (1869; War and Peace) and Anna Karenina (1877) are almost unanimously praised as compelling documents of human existence and are lauded as excellent examples of the realistic novel. Devoting his life to introspection and excelling not only as a writer but as a scholar and philosopher, Tolstoy has influenced a wide range of writers and philosophers, from Ernest Hemingway to Martin Heidegger. He has been hailed by a variety of writers as one of the most important figures in modern literary history, successfully animating his fiction with the dynamics of life. Fyodor Dostoyevsky called him “a sublime artist”; Virginia Woolf claimed him as “the greatest of all novelists”; and Marcel Proust honored him as “a serene god.” Due to Tolstoy’s relentless examinations of psychology and society, he has won the admiration of multitudes of writers and still affects readers with his stark portrayal of human life. “The Death of Ivan Ilych” perfectly demonstrates this introspection as it magnifies a man’s struggle with how to live his life.
Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910), also transliterated as Lev or Lyof Nikolayevich Tolstoi, spent most of his life on his family estate near Moscow engrossed in his personal studies. As a youth he lived a free and restless life, but became socially active in the 1850s, fighting to improve the lot of the serfs. He later served in the army in the Caucasus, at this time working on his first novel, Detstvo (1852; Childhood). This work gained notice in Russian literary circles and was praised by Fyodor Dostoevsky and Ivan Turgenev. Tolstoy’s experience serving in the Caucasus was the impetus for short stories such as “Nabeg” (“The Raid”) and his military service in the Crimean War is described in his Sevastopol sketches. Other short stories and short novels were published during this time such as “Dva gusara” (“Two Hussars”), “Tri smerti” (“Three Deaths”), and “Kazaki” (1863; “The Cossacks”). These works began to demonstrate his interest in the issues of morality and the benefits of living simply without the preoccupations of society. This interest formed Tolstoy’s Christian doctrine and inspired him to cofound a publishing house, The Intermediary, in 1883, and organize aid for the starving population of Middle Russia in 1891 through 1892. In 1862 he married Sofya Andreevna Behrs; the couple had thirteen children. Tolstoy actively lived his doctrine, renouncing his rights to his books, personal property, and money in 1895-96. In 1901, as his doctrine became more extreme, he was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox church.
Voina i mir (War and Peace), written from 1863 to 1869 and translated and published in 1886, is often called the greatest novel ever written. Tolstoy’s next work, Anna Karenina, published in 1875-77, is considered by critics to be more structured; Tolstoy himself stated, “I am very proud of [Anna Karenina’s] architecture—its vaults are joined so that one cannot even notice where the keystone is.” Anna Karenina is unlike Tolstoy’s other works in that it is not as didactic as his later writing, nor as optimistic as War and Peace.
In 1882 Tolstoy published Ispoved (A Confession), documenting his spiritual crisis and subsequent rejection of his past work, along with the creations of Shakespeare and Wagner, as being an elitist aesthetic which failed to “infest” one’s perception with religious feeling. Tolstoy wrote many nonfiction pamphlets at this point in his life expounding upon the form of radical Christianity which he adopted, entailing celibacy and nonresistance to evil. He also wrote simple tales for the uneducated which conveyed moral lessons, such as “Brazhe lepki, a bozhe krepko” (“Evil Allures but Good Endures”). Critics usually look upon Tolstoy’s post-conversion writing as less substantial than his earlier texts, although his talent for storytelling always remained intact. This is evident as one reads his drama, which conveys an urgent sense of realism, especially in his most widely known dramatic work, Vlast tmy (The Power of Darkness). “The Death of Ivan Ilych” was Tolstoy’s first piece of fiction after his conversion. His last major novel, Voskresenie (Resurrection) was less successful than his earlier novels because of its moral digressions which tend to interfere with the artistic direction of the novel. Tolstoy’s moral, theological, social, and political writings at this time led to his excommunication and government censorship.
“The Death of Ivan Ilych” opens with Ivan Ilych’s colleagues discussing cases in Shebek’s private room. Amidst their friendly disagreements on a specific point of jurisdiction, Peter Ivanovich reads of Ivan Ilych’s death in the papers and conveys this information to his colleagues. Half of them are startled that someone so close to them in age and position should die, and half have pleasant expectations of the benefits which the opening of Ivan Ilych’s job will create. Peter Ivanovich’s colleagues also immediately think of the promotions that they are bound to receive upon Ivan Ilych’s absence, and each looks unenthusiastically on the duty of offering their condolences to the widow, Praskovya Fedorovna. They are left with a feeling of ease in knowing it is Ivan Ilych who has died; they are still alive and at work.
Peter Ivanovich tells his wife that he will now be able to help her brother attain a job in his circuit due to the open position once held by Ivan Ilych, and he sacrifices his usual nap to attend the funeral services. At the service he encounters Schwartz, a fellow bridge player who assures him by his look
that the funeral will not interrupt their bridge game that evening. Peter Ivanovich is relieved, but he is detained by the widow, Praskovya Fedorovna. While attempting to maintain the proper state of a newly widowed woman, she questions Peter Ivanovich on how she can get financial aid from the government in the guise of asking him information on her husband’s pension. Upon realizing that Peter Ivanovich cannot give her any insightful information, she politely ends their conversation and commences with the funeral service, which entails a display of tears, moans, and grieving. Peter Ivanovich leaves the funeral as quickly as possible to cut in on a game of bridge.
The second part of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” describes the life of Ivan Ilych while he was healthy. It can be summed up in the opening line, which states, “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” Ivan Ilych’s father had been an official, much like Ivan and his oldest brother. Ivan Ilych is praised as being the balance between his two brothers: the oldest is too serious, and the youngest too wild. Ivan Ilych has a pleasant childhood, from which he retains fond memories, and enjoys an easy and proper youth. He studies at the School of Law and is considered “an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man.” His first job is in the tenth rank of civil service, working under a governor; he is later promoted to the position of examining magistrate in another province. There he meets Praskovya Fedorovna and eventually marries her, not for love but because it seems the proper course of action at his stage in life. At first his marriage is pleasant and does not interfere with his social life. As his wife has children, however, she becomes more disagreeable and causes scenes which give Ivan Ilych much grief. In time he adjusts to these conjugal pressures by devoting his thought to his official work and playing vint, a form of bridge, with his colleagues. He is eventually promoted to the position of Assistant Public Prosecutor. Although he earns a respectable salary, Ivan Ilych and his wife never have enough money. Three of their children die at birth, while two—the oldest daughter, Lisa, and youngest son, Vladimir—survive.
The third section of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” documents the hardest year in the peaceful seventeen years of Ivan Ilych’s marriage. He has firmly established himself as a Public Prosecutor at this point and has passed up many offers of new positions, holding out for the best promotion. When this promotion is granted to someone else, Ivan Ilych’s existence is shaken by the injustice. To save money, Ivan Ilych and his family live for the summer with his wife’s brother in the country. Tormented by depression, Ivan Ilych returns to the city to find a new job and, fortunately, meets an acquaintance who helps him attain a new position at a higher salary, allowing him to gloat over the people who once refused him a promotion. Ivan Ilych and his wife buy a new home, which they meticulously decorate. The interior design of this new house is significant not only because it embodies the propriety and social class which Ivan Ilych has striven to personify but because it is while fixing a detail on the curtains that Ivan Ilych slips and injures his side. At the time, he laughs about it with his wife, but this proves to be “the fall” from which he dies.
The decor of the house creates a pleasant superficial unity within the Ilych household. Ivan Ilych does not argue as much with his wife, and he enjoys his new job. He revels in the correct social setting of which he feels himself to be a part. The Ilych family sheds any remnants of their “shabby friends” and are pleased as their daughter, Lisa, is courted by a wealthy young man.
About this time, Ivan Ilych starts to feel a pain in his side and a strange taste in his mouth. He quarrels with his wife around meals, and she believes herself to be abused despite being tolerant of his temper. Ivan Ilych goes to the doctor as the pain escalates and the doctor is unable to give him a thorough diagnosis, leaving Ivan Ilych bleak and worried over the seriousness of his condition. Ivan Ilych takes the medicine prescribed and his wife scolds him about taking his pills regularly and getting enough sleep, never taking his illness as seriously as she should. Ivan Ilych sees many specialists and doctors, but each tells him something different and none give him relief from his pain. At his office, people look at him strangely, and he feels as though they treat him differently. He even loses the pleasure he once derived from his official duties and from playing bridge; the pain becomes an omnipresent force in his life.
Ivan Ilych becomes yet more aware of his illness in this section. His brother-in-law visits and is stunned on seeing him, exclaiming to his sister, ‘“Why, he’s a dead man!”’ Overhearing this report by his brother-in-law confirms Ivan Ilych’s suspicions that he has changed drastically and is beyond the help of medicine and doctors. He ponders how close he is to death as he hears his family carry on with their social proprieties and is disgusted by their lack of pity for him.
In section VI it becomes apparent to Ivan Ilych that he is dying and that nothing will change that fact. He remembers his childhood and feels that he was sincerely happy in his youth. He tries to go to work to chase away the morbid thoughts that obsess him, but he is distracted by his pain, which constantly reminds him of his approaching death and makes keeping up a social pretense unbearable. Death, to which Ivan Ilych refers as “it,” takes on an antagonistic presence in his life. He is tortured not only by the pain in his side and the thought of “it” permeating his life but also by the pathetic manner in which he received his fatal wound—putting up curtains in a vain attempt to fashion his house after a wealth he never had.
Ivan Ilych’s illness takes over his life at this point in the narrative. He is given opium to ease the pain and his existence is a sequence of delirium and anguish. His only comfort comes through Gerasim, a Russian peasant who performs the duties of sick nurse. Gerasim emits a healthy physicality and treats Ivan Ilych as a man about to die, granting him all of his wishes willingly and pleasantly. He is the only one who offers him any comfort in these last days.
Life becomes distasteful to Ivan Ilych and death becomes his only reality. He feels as though his doctor and family are blatantly lying to him as they choose to ignore his condition, just as he once ignored his wife’s pleas for attention when she was pregnant. He comes to loathe their fakeness, especially his wife’s patronizing attitude. This section ends with Praskovya Fedorovna, Vladimir, Lisa, and Fedor Petrovich, their daughter’s fiance, leaving for the opera. His wife pretends that she would rather stay with her husband in his time of need. Since they have a box, however, she must go—for the children’s sake, she says. Ivan Ilych is repulsed by their shallowness, and as they leave, he is glad to be relieved of their “falsity” but is again left alone with his agony.
As Ivan Ilych lies dying, he is tormented by the feeling that he is being pushed into a “narrow, deep black sack.” He weeps “on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.” He listens deep within himself and hears a voice from within which questions, “What is it you want?” Ivan Ilych replies that he wants to live “well and pleasantly” as he did before his illness. He remembers his life from his childhood to the present and realizes that he was happy as a child but that his life became more and more empty and trivial as he grew older.
After a fortnight, Ivan Ilych does not leave his sofa any longer but lies and ponders death. He concludes that his life has gotten worse as time has progressed and that resistance to the loneliness of death is impossible. He searches for reasons for pain and death and cannot find any explanations. He is comforted by reminding himself that he has lived his life in accordance with propriety.
Another fortnight passes during which Petrishchev formally proposes to Lisa When Praskovya Fedorovna goes to inform her husband of this new and pleasant development, she finds him on his back, groaning. As she starts to remind him to take his medicine, he turns to her with hatred and asks to be left alone to die in peace. Ivan Ilych asks the doctor to leave and looks upon him, his wife, and his daughter with disgust, seeing in their every action the fakeness which characterized his own life. He realizes that maybe he “had not spent his life as he should have done.”
Ivan Ilych receives the sacraments of confession and communion and feels a slight hope which is dashed as he is reminded by his wife’s presence of the falsity and deception of her existence.
Before Ivan Ilych dies, he experiences three days of agony when all he can do is scream. Death is so near, yet he feels that his questions about how he lived his life are unresolved. The image of the black sack returns and he struggles with it when he feels as if he is being stuffed into it. He is, however, “hindered from getting into it by his conviction that his life had been a good one.” He is alleviated of this torment when his son, Vladimir, kisses his hand and begins to cry for his father. He feels sorry for his wife and son and finally is able to see “the light.” His last words are to his wife (“Take him away . . . sorry for him . . . sorry for you too. . . .”) and he tries to ask his family to forgive him. Ivan Ilych is then able to accept his pain, let his life and family go, and feel not death but light.
Ivan Ilych’s wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, is never emotionally intimate with her husband, though they both desire the same lifestyle. They take pride in their new house, which embodies the propriety and class in which they want to live. When she first became pregnant, Ivan complained that she deliberately caused scenes and easily became jealous. Instead of dealing with his wife’s emotions, Ivan ignored them. Praskovya ultimately reciprocates her husband’s distant coldness. She indulges in extreme self-pity but believes herself to be very tolerant of her dying husband’s moans. As her husband is dying, however, Praskovya does not acknowledge the seriousness of his situation. She chastises him for not taking his medicine and suggests that he see more doctors. At his funeral she is preoccupied with maintaining the proper persona of the grieving widow as she asks Peter Ivanovich if he thinks it possible for her to get money from the government to help her financially after her husband’s death.
See Fedor Vasilievich
Gerasim is a Russian peasant with whom Ivan Ilych takes much comfort during the last days of his life. He is a servant of the house and selflessly and compassionately acts as sick nurse for Ivan, often elevating the dying man’s legs throughout the night. Like Ivan’s youngest son, Gerasim does not display the fake and shallow propriety that Ivan comes to resent in his wife, daughter, and doctor during his final days. As a peasant, Gerasim accepts death as a natural element in the cycle of life and does not feel the need to politely ignore the fact that his master is dying. He grants Ivan his last wishes without resentment, and regards him as a necessary and acceptable part of society, rather than a burden.
Ivan Ilych had a pleasant early life, as he studied law and quickly became a professional. He is applauded for his ability both to be career-minded and to maintain a lightheartedness which allows his life to flow smoothly. He has a moderate disposition that was more balanced than that of his two brothers: one is very serious, while the other is too extravagant. Ivan marries an acceptable woman, Praskovya Fedorovna, and attains a respectable position in his career, first working with the governor and later as an examining magistrate. He considers his marriage a matter of convenience and is not in love with his wife. He realizes that marriage altogether is a troublesome venture when his wife eventually has children and becomes disagreeable. Ivan’s life revolves around what he believes convention requires. He conducts his official duties with competence and ease, trying to live as properly as possible. He maintains superficial relations with his family, keeping a facade of propriety while avoiding unpleasantness. He derives joy from absorbing his thoughts in the “official” matters of his work and in playing bridge.
Ivan Ilych’s life changes drastically when he slips and falls while adjusting curtains in his new house, a symbol of the proper lifestyle he and his wife wish to portray. This mishap causes Ivan’s slow physical deterioration, and inevitable death. His last days of painful existence are plagued by his fear of death and failure to understand why he must die. He is tormented by the possibility that he did not live his life as he should have, though he knows he has lived his life properly. At the moment of his death, Ivan Ilych’s son, Vladimir, selflessly kisses his father’s hand and Ivan is filled with love. He instantly realizes the shallowness of his entire life and dies finding comfort in the light of his newfound knowledge.
Vladimir Ivanich, the younger of Ivan Ilych’s two children, has not yet taken on the false social roles which the rest of Ivan’s family have assumed. He is comparable to Gerasim, the Russian peasant who helps Ivan Ilych in his last moments of life, in his sincerity and compassion. Vladimir plays a crucial role in Ivan Ilych’s death when he kisses his father’s hand as he is about to die, allowing him to realize the emptiness of his life and die somewhat peacefully.
Peter Ivanovich, Ivan Ilych’s closest colleague, studied law with him and felt indebted to him. Peter is the first person to relate the news of Ivan’s death to his colleagues, who subsequently begin to wonder who will be promoted to fill Ivan’s position. The first part of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” follows Peter to Ivan’s house for the funeral service, where he displays the proper conventions of expressing condolences to the widow, Praskovya Fedorovna. Peter wants to escape the morose and discomforting feelings of the funeral and longs to play bridge with his colleagues. As he pretends to grieve he must constantly assure himself that he is alive and that Ivan is the one who has died. Peter is worried about Ivan’s ominous expression as he lies in the coffin. He resists the warning he reads on the dead man’s face, which seems to relegate Peter and his colleagues to the same shallow existence of Ivan Ilych, realizing too late in life that he had never lived.
- “The Death of Ivan Ilych” was adapted for the stage by Myrtle Pihlman Pope and published by Stephen F. Austin State College in 1958.
See Ivan Ilych
The oldest child of Ivan Ilych’s two children, Lisa is very similar to her mother, Praskovya Fedorovna (Ivan Ilych’s wife), in that they go visiting and shopping together and attend the opera when Ivan is nearing death. They view him as a burden upon their social lives and an interference in their pleasant household.
See Fedor Petrovich
Fedor Petrovich is a respectable examining magistrate who courts Lisa, Ivan Ilych’s daughter. He is refined, wealthy, and proper, making him appropriate company for Ivan’s wife and daughter. By the time Ivan’s funeral has taken place, Fedor and Lisa are engaged.
See Peter Ivanovich
Schwartz is a colleague of Ivan Ilych’s who works and plays bridge with Peter Ivanovich. He is already at the funeral service when Peter arrives, and he gives Peter a knowing look which implies that funerals are burdensome and that they will soon be playing bridge. Schwartz contrasts with Peter in that his playful character is not affected by the depressing mood of the funeral; unlike Peter, he maintains an elegance and ease at the service.
“The Death of Ivan Ilych” begins when Shebek and his colleagues are in his private room discussing a case and find out that Ivan has died. They each then think of the possibility of their own promotion, reminding themselves that they are still alive.
Sokolov is the butler of Ivan Ilych’s house. He discusses the prices of Ivan’s plot in the cemetery with Praskovya Fedorovna, Ivan’s wife, as she speaks with Peter Ivanovich during her husband’s funeral.
Along with Peter Ivanovich, Fedor Vasilievich is one of Ivan Ilych’s closest acquaintances. He is also one of the colleagues who may be promoted after Ivan’s death; he immediately thinks of this when he reads the announcement in the papers.
See Vladimir Ivanich
Tolstoy was plagued for most of his life with a fear of death. He came to realize, as the character of Ivan Ilych demonstrates vividly, that the closeness of death can create a healthy urgency in life. Ivan Ilych only becomes aware of the superficiality of his social propriety because of his proximity to death. He is horrified in knowing that he cannot escape death as he has escaped all other unpleasantness in life—by treating them with a distance and insincerity. Gerasim stands in opposition to this fear in his simple acceptance of death as a part of life. A comparison can be made between the high-class social falsity among which Ivan Ilych has lived and the peasant, or servant, life among which Gerasim has lived. Ivan Ilych has an agonizing death which is only relieved when he accepts death. Gerasim, as he helps the dying man, comments, “We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?” Ivan Ilych’s refusal to accept death mirrors the sterility of most of his life and the lives of his colleagues and wife. They ignore his pain and maintain their social conventions in the face of his eminent death. Ivan Ilych, however, is unable to ignore his own death. “It,” the menacing reality of death, is irrational and goes against the facade of ease and pleasant living in which he has constantly lived and in which those surrounding him still live. Death ultimately forces Ivan Ilych to see the lack of compassion in his once well-ordered life. When he sees this, he can feel love and pity for his son and wife, and death is obliterated in this new light.
Love and Pity vs. Pride
Ivan Ilych had lived most of his life with a sense of pride and vanity. The society of which he is a part praises the trivial marks of wealth and propriety which consume the Ilych family and Ivan Ilych’s office. He believes himself to be condescendingly friendly towards those who come before him at work and takes pride in the impersonal “official” relationships which he masters. Ivan Ilych’s pride plays a crucial role in his “fall” from the stepladder as he fixes the draping of the curtains which the upholsterer has not done properly for the social decor he wants to exude. Like the Biblical fall of Adam and Eve from grace, Ivan Ilych‘s pride causes his fall and subsequent pain. Through his eventual selflessness and pity, which he finds through death, and the pity which is shown to him by Gerasim and his son, Ivan Ilych is able to feel love and accept death. Ivan Ilych is touched by the simple way in which Gerasim accepts death, comforts him, and shows him compassion. He is also moved when his son kisses his hand in his last moments of life. These instances, combined with his impending death and his struggle against being pushed into the deep black sack, bring Ivan Ilych to the realization that he pities his son and wife. He tries to ask for their forgiveness, rejecting the pride which previously consumed his life, and showing love.
Nature vs. Civilization
Ivan Ilych lives in an isolated and superficial world embedded within the civilization which his urban class valorizes. He denies his wife sympathy when she becomes irritable during her pregnancies and creates more walls within his social roles to compensate for ignoring her needs. The same lack of compassion, then, is all that she can demonstrate towards him as he lies dying; she maintains her social proprieties and is absorbed with going to the opera and with their daughter’s engagement. These impersonal relationships within the Ilych family and the insincere friendships between Ivan Ilych and his colleagues serve to depict the shallowness of his civilized world. As he used his friends and colleagues to gain higher positions, so they use him when he dies and his job is left vacant. The worth which each of these characters finds in one another depends on what they can get from one another. Likewise, at Ivan Ilych’s funeral, his wife’s main concern is how she can procure funds from the government after her husband’s death. The lack of humanity within Ivan Ilych’s world is contrasted to the world of Gerasim and the childhoods of Ivan Ilych and his son, Vladimir. Gerasim is of the land and not of the same social class as Ivan Ilych. Because of this, he does not display the same propriety towards death as Ivan Ilych’s friends and wife. Death, for Gerasim, is not an inconvenience which is to be ignored but is natural and pitiable. Ivan Ilych remembers his childhood, before he
Topics for Further Study
- Compare the philosophical attitudes of Leo Tolstoy’s contemporaries on death. Was a fear of death and its implications for a meaningless or more meaningful life a common preoccupation during the time Tolstoy was writing? What ideas of death are made more lucid in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych” which where also being explored by contemporary philosophers?
- Explore Tolstoy’s ideas about social conventions and their effect on human development in comparison with Franz Kafka’s portrayal of Gregor in “The Metamorphosis.” Could any of Freud’s works elucidate what these authors are trying to convey?
- Are Tolstoy‘s allusions to religious ideologies in “The Death of Ivan Ilych” (such as his use of Ivan Ilych’s fatal fall and the Biblical fall, and his reference to Ivan seeing the light before he dies) too dependent on a framework which has faith in God? Do Tolstoy’s religious undertones detract from the narrative of Ivan’s death?
assumed the mask of propriety which death has shown him to be false, as his happiest days. Ivan sees this same innocence in his son, who shows Ivan pity and kisses his hand. The honest manner in which Gerasim and Vladimir pity Ivan contrasts with the falsity of his wife and colleagues and the shallow civilized life which is also Ivan Ilych’s before his revelation at death.
Point of View
“The Death of Ivan Ilych” is narrated by a third-person voice, telling Ivan Ilych’s life story from what often seems like an objective point of view. The narrator speaks of the events in Ivan Ilych’s life, both great and small, in the same tone. Ivan’s marriage, his new house, the deaths of three of his children, the birth and education of two, and his fall while fixing the curtains are described in impersonal, quick paragraphs. Events that seem as though they should be more significant in his life are often thrown together with matters that are trivial, bringing all in Ivan Ilych’s life down to the same superficial level. As paragraphs start with “So . . .,” they sweep away years of Ivan Ilych’s life that are pleasantly and inconsequentially lived. Because Ivan Ilych treats all aspects of his life, from his work to his friends and family, in the same decorous and proper manner, everything within his life floats past him and is met with the same air of indifference.
The first section of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” takes place in Shebek’s private room, where Ivan Ilych’s colleagues first learn of his death and immediately think of the promotions that they are bound to receive. It orients the reader to a setting in which Ivan Ilych himself is later said to have enjoyed many breaks during the workday, and it connects the shallow mentality of his colleagues with his own lifestyle before his fall. The next section takes place at Ivan Ilych’s home during his funeral services, where the same shallow attitudes are further displayed—not only by his colleagues, but by his wife as well. This setting foreshadows the shallowness later described in Ivan Ilych’s life as details are given about the decorations and furniture of the room where Peter Ivanovich meets Praskovya Fedorovna. Sections III through V depict Ivan Ilych’s ordinary and pleasant life, and sections VI through XII mainly present Ivan Ilych dealing with the thought that he is a dying man until he is limited to the confines of a sofa as he dies.
The “fall” of Ivan Ilych, creating the wound which eventually leads to his agony and death, can be interpreted as representative of the Biblical fall from grace of Adam and Eve. Adam and Eve disobey God because of the sin of pride. Satan is able to tempt them by telling them that eating the forbidden fruit will make them as powerful as God. Ivan Ilych falls victim to the sin of pride as he insists on draping the curtains in a particular fashion which is most characteristic of the wealthy society of which he wants to be a part. It is his preoccupation with public opinion that leads to his demise. Ivan Ilych’s fall is further dramatized by the fact that, while he has fallen from a small step ladder, he feels as though he is being stuffed into a deep black sack. The black sack into which Ivan Ilych feels himself being thrust is symbolic of his struggle with death. He is unable to ease into the sack (death), since he fears that he did not live his life properly, but he cannot see how he can possibly redeem the life which he once thought so correct. As Ivan Ilych sees the light, his struggle with death (the sack) disappears. The light he sees can be identified as the light of love, enlightenment, or spiritual rebirth.
The irony of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is a tool utilized from the beginning of the narrative, when Ivan Ilych’s colleagues sit and discuss his death in the very same superficial manner which characterized his entire life in all of his affairs. The same shallow attitude, to which Ivan Ilych subscribed up to his moment of death, plagues his wife, daughter, doctor, and colleagues as he is dying. After he is dead, empty, conventional expressions of sympathy are the only emotion which Ivan Ilych’s death elicits, except those from his son and Gerasim. But Ivan Ilych’s colleagues and family treat him no differently than he would have treated them if they were dying. The doctors treat Ivan Ilych as impersonally as he treated those who came before him in his own official job. As Ivan Ilych lies dying, no one recognizes him as a dying man but instead treat him as a disturbance in their once-pleasant lives. This is an ironic treatment because it is the same manner in which Ivan Ilych always conducted his own affairs—never letting anyone’s troubles interfere with the easy and pleasant progression of his own routines. Examples of this would be the way in which he treated those who came before him when he was an examining magistrate and his treatment of his wife’s jealousy when she was pregnant. In both of these incidents, he kept a polite distance which displayed social propriety without making any personal investments.
In the period during which Leo Tolstoy was writing, Russia was experiencing much turbulence politically, socially, and economically. In the 1880s, the assassination of Alexander II and the reign of Alexander III facilitated violent reactions to the
Compare & Contrast
- 1900s: People in developed countries often die in their own homes before 50 years of age, following a brief illness. Families often gather around the deathbed, a ritual in which much importance is placed on the dying person preparing for death.
1990s: Most people in industrialized countries die after age 65. The average person spends about 80 days in a hospital or nursing home during the last years of life.
- 1882: Tolstoy publishes A Confession, in which he documents his spiritual crisis and repudiates much of his earlier work. He undergoes a radical religious conversion which greatly influences his subsequent works.
1990s: The Celestine Prophecy, by James Redfield, predicts a spiritual renaissance and renews interest in spiritual matters for many readers.
- 1800s: Social conventions discourage unhappy couples from divorcing. Divorce is frowned upon and even illegal in many nations.
1990s: Statistics show that more than half of all marriages end in divorce.
government and a period of autocracy within the government. Alexander III was extremely conservative and imposed many new rules upon the people of Russia to guard against revolution. His regime also saw a new campaign of Russification and anti-Semitic legislation. While industrial growth stagnated during this time, the first Trans-Siberian Railroad was built, which eventually aided in Russia’s development.
The hardships endured by the peasantry at this time, including a famine in 1891 and a cholera epidemic in 1892, were severe. One can read in Tolstoy’s writing the deep respect which he held for the peasants of his time who worked in harmony with the land and were not obsessed with material success. The character of Gerasim in “The Death of Ivan Ilych” demonstrates Tolstoy’s fascination with and romanticizing of Russian peasantry. Tolstoy devoted time before the writing of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” to improving the lot of the Russian serfs. He even organized relief for the starving population of the eastern “backlands,” which consisted of twenty provinces and forty million peasants, in 1891 and 1892. Even in the 1850s, before he began his writing career and became a soldier in the in the Caucasus, Tolstoy was politically active as a social reformer. He continued in this manner with even more determination after his spiritual conversion.
After Alexander III took over as Czar, the political climate of Russia was one of censorship and administrative dominance. Tolstoy’s pamphlets and political works were censored as he further developed his own Christian doctrine advocating pacifism, simplicity, and nonresistance to evil. Schools and universities became restricted and government sanctions infiltrated the education system. In 1859 Tolstoy became involved in education by organizing an experimental school to educate peasant children who were excluded from the education system by the new government.
During 1882, Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto was translated into Russian and slowly began to have an impact within the philosophical and political circles of Russia. In 1892 “Legal Populism” promoted a socialism based on the peasant “mir” and on clusters of small producers. These populists continued with propaganda in favor of rural socialism. About this time, a small working class rooted in rural society began to emerge within Russia. It became more of a risk to protest against government policies and to think differently from the regime of Alexander III after laws were passed to increase the prison terms for strikers (four months) and the organizers of any political rally (eight months) in 1886. Tolstoy continued with his political activism and pamphlets, but it became more dangerous and he was often censored. Although a law was passed in 1883 granting non-Orthodox religious groups the right to practice their religion with the strictest of limitations, Tolstoy was excommunicated from the Russian Orthodox church in 1901.
Though “The Death of Ivan Ilych” was Tolstoy’s first piece of fiction after his spiritual conversion, and many critics have thought his post-conversion writing to be less art and more moralizing, this particular short novel has been respected as an intriguing work. Dennis Vannatta confirms this view when he states that, in “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” “the two phases meet in one of the most memorable short stories ever written.” This deeply affecting story has been Tolstoy’s most-praised post-conversion work, a topic of discussion, along with Tolstoy’s other major works, in literary courses and critical discourse. As Edward Wasiolek remarks in Tolstoy’s Major Fiction, “The story is great enough to support the weight of different critical perspectives. It has the ‘transparency” that Roland Barthes has put forth as a mark of the greatest works of literature, permitting us to speak about it with the different critical languages of time, place, and critical intelligence.” The fact that “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is still meaningful today and is discussed within modern literary theory once again demonstrates its artistic merit.
The last moments of Ivan Ilych’s life seem to be a common focus for many critics. What is the light that Ivan Ilych sees as he is about to die? Most critics agree that after Tolstoy takes such pains in structuring the narrative, demonstrating the pathetic shallowness of Ivan Ilych’s existence only after ironically depicting the same shallow attitudes of his colleagues and wife, his last dying moments take on a much more significant meaning than when one first reads of his death through Peter Ivanovich. Irving Halperin traces Ivan Ilych’s struggle with death in his essay “The Structural Integrity of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych”’; he describes Ivan’s death as “the route of his metamorphosis . . . from despair (the black hole) to love (the son’s kiss) to redemption (the light). Thus Ivan Ilych’s dialectical direction, so to speak, is from nothingness to meaning: he has learned that the one thing necessary for a man is to be.” Dennis Vannatta similarly concludes, “The most somber and forbidding of stories, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ is also the most optimistic. It shows that a man can live his entire life in darkness but in the final moment be resurrected into the light.” Wasiolek comments in Tolstoy’s Major Fiction that “it is the consciousness and acceptance of death that reveals the significance of life. . . . Without the consciousness of death, the things themselves become spectral, as indeed they become with Ivan’s consciousness of his impending death.” By way of contrast, Temira Pachmuss notes in “The Theme of Love and Death in Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’” “that despite Ivan Ilych’s perception of the mystery of death and his ultimate calm acceptance of it, the whole story reflects an icy coldness.” As examples, he cites Gerasim acting only out of moral duty to his master, and not out of sincere love, and Tolstoy’s focusing on the emotions and experiences of Ivan Ilych only, as if no other characters mattered. He also claims that Ivan Ilych’s dead face fails to evoke pity in those at the funeral service, but rather gives a look of warning. Pachmuss resolves this inconsistency by asserting, “There is no need for us, however, to dwell on Ivan Ilych’s facial expression in death as perceived by his relatives and colleagues, for the constructive principle of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych ‘ requires concentration on the dying man rather than on those who surround him. The high point of the story is undoubtedly Ivan Ilych’s discovery of the ultimate reality which is love.” Most critics agree that though “The Death of Ivan Ilych” may seem like a dark and moralizing story, especially when viewed from the context of Tolstoy’s religious conversion, it is ultimately a liberating story about the power of love.
Frattarola is a freelance writer and scholar. In the following essay, she discusses characterization and the theme of redemption in the story.
Though “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is an affective text which is still read with enthusiasm today, there are some difficulties which contemporary readers may have with Tolstoy’s novella. The character of Ivan Ilych and the shallowness of his colleagues and wife are haunting for any reader. They come alive in their superficiality and their mundane worries. In many ways, these characters can be seen as the norm in our society when viewed through a pessimistic lens. However, Tolstoy does supply his readers
What Do I Read Next?
- In Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” (1891), Peyton Farquhar is about to be hanged from a bridge because of a military crime. The rope breaks, he escapes by swimming away, and he reviews the events of his life—all in a hallucination in the instant before his death.
- In Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour” (1894), Louise Mallard receives news that her husband has died in a train wreck. Tearlessly, she retreats to her room and reviews the course of her married life. She comes to recognize that she has gained great personal freedom with his death. When her husband suddenly walks in the door—he was not on the train after all—she drops dead. Her family and physician assume she died of joy.
- “The Metamorphosis” by Franz Kafka, published in 1937, depicts the transformation of Gregor Samsa from a responsible young man to a bug. Kafka’s emotional portrayal of Gregor and his family create insight on the facade of social propriety and one’s need to escape the dominating roles of society.
- In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, written in 1938, the central character, called the Stage Manager, reviews the histories of the lives of various inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.
- Joan Didion’s “Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,” published in 1966, mingles fact and fiction. It is the real account of a real woman, Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller. However her story is told through Didion’s narrative and her notion that life can become superficial without a hint of the forbidden.
- Trainspotting, published in 1993 by Irvine Welsh is a collection of short stories recounting the revelries and derelict antics of a group of boys in Edinburgh doing everything in their power to not fall victim to “growing up.”
with a few minor exceptions among the majority of pathetic characters. It is important to note that Ivan Ilych is depicted as being equally shallow and thoughtless in his “agreeable, easy, and correct” life, of which the reader is informed after reading of his death in the opening sketch. The extreme pervasiveness of characters who are primarily concerned with propriety is interrupted by the introduction of Gerasim and Vladimir. These characters demonstrate deeper emotions than the others and are singled out as being the only characters able to show pity and kindness to Ivan Ilych in his last days of life.
Gerasim is the Russian peasant who acts as Ivan Ilych’s sick nurse as he is dying. Ivan Ilych takes much comfort in Gerasim’s presence and feels that his healthy and agile body gives him hope. While looking at Gerasim’s “sleepy, good-natured face with its prominent cheekbones,” Ivan Ilych meditates, “What if my whole life has really been wrong?” This is an example of Tolstoy’s often overly romantic and idealized portrait of Gerasim which can grow tiresome to readers who are constantly on the guard against such essentialistic characters. These pure characters frequently fail to be dynamic figures within a text, and merely become stereotypes of an idealized image. Critics have repeatedly noted Gerasim’s role in “The Death of Ivan Ilych”; Edward Wasiolek sums up Gerasim’s character, “He breathes the health of youth and natural peasant life, lifts up the legs of the dying Ivan Ilych, cleans up after him with good humor, and in general shows him a kind of natural compassion.” Irving Halperin echoes these sentiments when he concludes, “because of Gerasim’s devotion, Ivan Ilych becomes capable of extending compassion to his wife and son. In this overall perspective, then, Gerasim may be viewed as the true hero of the story.” And another critic, Temira Pachmuss, asserts that Gerasim possesses “real humanity” since
“Regardless of Tolstoy’s possible shortcomings in his character development, he is able to present a timeless masterpiece for contemporary readers.”
“Tolstoy thought the instinctive understanding of life and death that enabled Gerasim to do right naturally, to tell the truth, and to feel a deep sympathy for his fellow creatures was a result of Gerasim’s natural identification with nature.” The recurring portrayal of Gerasim as the healthy and simple Russian peasant, who has more compassion and understanding than all the other socially proper and therefore entirely empty and shallow characters, is often hard to accept because it is too easily interpreted as a black and white photo; these are the “good guys,” these are the “bad guys.” (It is also essentialistic in that it is like saying that all women understand nature because women are essentially bound to the earth and the body, or that African Americans naturally have “soul.”)
This overly simplified and essentialistic stereotype is again found in Vladimir, Ivan Ilych’s son. Because Vladimir is a child, he is immediately assumed to be innocent and beyond the socially determined conventions of his mother, sister, and Ivan Ilych’s colleagues. This image is too simple, too easy. In such a hauntingly vivid depiction of death, it can be disappointing for a reader to encounter such one-dimensional characters who are supposed to carry heavily essentialistic ideologies: the rough Russian peasant who innately holds an understanding of death and love because he is in tune with nature; the innocent youth who has not yet been corrupted by social convention and is therefore privileged with a more sincere and real love for the dying man. These images allow a reader to fully grasp the intentions of Tolstoy and therefore they are useful. However, their limitations may make Tolstoy a less dynamic writer. These characters are less believable because they are designed to embody all that is good and innocent in “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” They represent one side of a dualism, or schism, which Tolstoy perpetuates throughout the text and which serves his purpose—to bring the reader a better understanding of a facet of life which he feels is important.
Regardless of Tolstoy’s possible shortcomings in his character development, he is able to present a timeless masterpiece for contemporary readers. Though “The Death of Ivan Ilych” was written after Tolstoy’s conversion to radical Christianity and some critics believe that the moralizing of his post-conversion writing detracts from his artistic abilities as a writer, it is because of the message which Tolstoy is striving to convey that “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is so memorable. Even without a belief in God, Tolstoy’s message comes across to a reader as a lesson of life. Ivan Ilych is callously treated after his death because that was the attitude which he showed others. It is not until his last days that he is forced to think about his life with an urgency which colors every conscious minute due to the proximity of death. It is within this context that Ivan Ilych ascertains that he most definitely did not live his life as he should have and gets “the sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction.” Tolstoy devotes the text to detailing the reasons why Ivan Ilych and his peers are living within a “falsity,” and within a few crucial paragraphs is able to sum up how he rids himself of this “falsity” in his final days. Tolstoy’s point is not to taunt a reader and mock the one who realizes only moments before death that he had never lived. Rather, Tolstoy wants the reader to have this realization along with Ivan Ilych so that she/he too may discover the beauty to be found in love before it is too late. The simple concept that one gets back what one gives is the apparent message I find in Tolstoy’s novella.
After his death, Ivan Ilych’s family and colleagues seem to carry on as if nobody has stopped to think about their lives after the death of their friend. Instead, characters like Peter Ivanovich and Schwartz, Ivan Ilych’s co-workers and friends, fight thoughts of death from their minds and are constantly assuring themselves that they are still alive and that it is Ivan Ilych who has died. Praskovya Fedoravna is still preoccupied with her proper role of the grief-stricken widow, the maintenance of their meticulously decorated house, and her financial situation. Tolstoy assures the reader that no one has learned from Ivan Ilych’s death; they all continue to live as he once did—shallow yet always correct. This contrast makes the reader conscious that Tolstoy is now pointing to you; you are the one who should learn from Ivan Ilych’s death. Tolstoy’s ability to make the reader feel as though he/she is seeing a revelation which no one else can see privileges the reader as the one who can benefit from Ivan Ilych’s agony.
Gerasim and Ivan Ilych’s son are able to give the dying man love and through experiencing this, he realizes that love is what he must give back. Though some critics believe that the revelation which Ivan Ilych feels in his last moments of life and which allows him to die in peace is an unrealistic hope for most readers, I believe that the existence of such a revelation is exactly Tolstoy’s point. Ivan Ilych was lucky in that death fell upon him and he was able to come to this realization of the need for love and compassion in life. We, as readers, can read the story of his death and learn from it what the other characters so obviously miss. In contrast, John Donnelly attests, “[Both] Tolstoy and Ilych (that is, the Ilych in the last two hours of his drawn-out dying period) were much too sanguine about the human condition and the prospects for attaining moral integrity in this life. In short, I believe the Tolstoy an lesson to be drawn from Ilych’s dying is not a realistic expectation, although it is devoutly to be wished.” This reading seems to neglect the basic lesson behind “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” leaving a reader with little else.
Before Tolstoy died, he told his daughter, “The more a man loves, the more real he becomes.” This seems to be the overwhelming message of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” also. Tolstoy understood this concept most completely after his spiritual conversion and could not rest until he tried his best to convey it to others through his writing, whether in parables, folk tales, drama, pamphlets, or fiction. Like the look of warning on the dead face of Ivan Ilych which Peter Ivanovich looks down upon, Tolstoy’s story communicates a warning of the same message to his readers. Thus, “The Death of Ivan Ilych” can be read repeatedly throughout one’s life as one always needs to be reminded, or rather warned, to live and love before death comes.
Source: Angela Frattarola, “An Overview of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’,” in Short Stories for Students, The Gale Group, 1999.
In the following excerpt, Wasiolek offers an overview of Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” paying particular attention to how Ivan’s refusal to accept death affected his life.
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Source: Edward Wasiolek, in Tolstoy’s Major Fiction, The University of Chicago Press, 1978, pp. 167-79.
At the time this article was published, Halperin was teaching at San Francisco Stage College. In the following excerpt, he examines the narrative structure of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” and discusses Ivan’s emotional transformation in the story.
[The] question may occur—why does the novel open with minor characters on-stage? To begin with, this structural arrangement is in accord with the protagonist’s ultimate discovery that the apparent end of human consciousness, death, is in reality the beginning of life. But, more important, if we first witness the actions of some people whose interests and values are very much like those that the dead man subscribed to, the typical values of average men in a quantitatively oriented society, we may more fully grasp the nature of Ivan Ilych’s failure as a man. And this is the salient function of Part II—to adumbrate his history of self-deception.
Throughout Part II Ivan Ilych’s life is described as filled with duplicity. He married because marriage was considered the “right thing” in his social set. Between husband and wife there had been little human connection; their essential attitude toward each other remained one of deep hostility. For the sake of mutual convenience, they sought to project the appearance of a happy marriage.
From an unhappy marriage, Ivan Ilych retreated into his work; but there, as magistrate, he existed in an equally reprehensible state of falsity. Yet he is not to be criticized, Tolstoy seems to imply, simply for being attached to the baubles and trinkets of professional prestige and gain, but rather because he set himself up over others. Specifically, he did not turn a human face, as it were, toward those who were tried in his court; his most common attitude toward them was one of prideful condescension. Altogether, he prided himself on maintaining a public image of professional incisiveness and coolness.
Ivan Ilych’s mask resembles the one worn by his colleagues, Petr Ivanovich and [Schwartz]. All three are self-centered and indifferent to humanity; they wish to lead lives of light-hearted agreeableness and decorum. And viewed within the frame of our larger consideration, the novel’s structure, the likeness of the three men constitutes an important functional relationship between Parts I and II.
If it may be held that Part II sketches the lineaments of Ivan Ilych’s pride, the key purpose of Part III is to trace his Fall. Just as he chooses to appear before others as the prominent public official and the pleasant, well-bred social figure, he needs his house to lend proof to his professional attainments and aesthetic taste. In this perspective, his explosive reactions to the slightest disarrangement in the house’s meticulously selected furnishings may be understood. For what is this compulsive orderliness if not the expression of a need to be on guard against the warm, spontaneous feelings of human affection? So it seems ironically fitting that
“But if Ivan Ilych is agitated and fearful, at least he is no longer playing at life. Suffering has humanized him; in consequence, he is able to look outside of himself.”
during this cycle of preoccupation with material details (he had to show the upholsterer how the curtains were to be draped), Ivan Ilych should suffer the accident which eventually resulted in his death. Accordingly, his fall was more than from a ladder, but, symbolically, from a pinnacle of pride and vanity. And from this point in Part III to the ending, the novel’s narrative focus narrows in proportion to the contracting scope of Ivan Ilych’s delusion.
Enter the doctors of Part IV who pursue their profession in much the same way that he does his—from behind well-mannered masks. They appear to be self-assured but will not commit themselves on whether his condition is serious; instead they speculate that the cause of his pain may be a floating kidney or a defective appendix, perfunctorily referring to these organs as though they were separate from his total, sentient nature. The doctors’ reluctance to commit themselves on his condition reduces him to a state of helplessness comparable to what, doubtless, was felt by some who had been tried in his court: “he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him.”
But if Ivan Ilych is agitated and fearful, at least he is no longer playing at life. Suffering has humanized him; in consequence, he is able to look outside of himself. In contrast to the man of Part III who was obsessed with house furnishings, his chief interest now is in the health and ailments of others.
Until this stage in his illness, Ivan Ilych has continued to hope that he would recover. Therefore, it is the function of Parts V-VI to shock him into emotionally recognizing that death is not simply a commonplace fact, something that happens to everyone—rather it is coming to him. Previously, he had manipulated the machinery of marriage and his official duties; but he will be unable to control death; this irrational force is coming to upset his temporal plans. He is especially fearful because dying appears to him to be a revelation of the nothingness of the self, a “dead emptiness” [Dimitri Merejkowski, Tolstoy as Man and Artist, 1904]. This awareness drives him into further despair, and yet is a requisite condition for his final illumination: for to the extent that despair scourges him of pride, he is vulnerable to self-scrutiny. . . .
It is immediately significant that Gerasim comes from the country, from the fecund earth [see Charles Neider, Short Novels of the Masters, 1948] as contrasted to the sterile urban backgrounds of Ivan Ilych and his colleagues. Gerasim’s clothes are clean, neat, and functional: his boots smell of tar and winter air. Thus he is literally and figuratively “a breath of fresh air” in the sick-room. Moreover, honest and self-sacrificing, Gerasim actuates the familiar Tolstoyan principle that the primary purpose of existence is to live for others and not merely, as did Ivan Ilych, to gratify one’s own will and desires. He does his work willingly and without lying to his master about the latter’s hopeless condition. Hence Ivan Ilych can abandon himself to Gerasim’s care, and this is no small act for a man who hitherto had been given to placing himself over others, especially those of lower social stations. Implicit, too, in this relationship between master and servant is the suggestion of a generic interdependence between human beings which transcends considerations of worldly station and rank. Again, because of Gerasim’s devotion, Ivan Ilych becomes capable of extending compassion to his wife and son. In this overall perspective, then, Gerasim may be viewed as the true hero of the story.
In Parts VIII and IX, Ivan Ilych is brought a step closer to his most important discovery. What impels him in this direction is the continuing duplicity of the doctors and the obtuseness (e.g., their desertion of him for Sarah Bernhardt’s performance) of his family, who look on him with the humiliating pity of the living for the dying. Searching for an explanation to account for his suffering, he reflects on the past, concluding that his life had been going downhill for many years; his marriage, work, and social ties have not satisfied him. Altogether, his existence seems to him in this moment of “ontological shock” to have had no meaning. Only death looms as the real. He can not understand why such a meaningless, wretched ending ought to be for one who has conducted his life so properly. “Why, why dost Thou torment me so terribly?” he complains. “What for?” Yet though Ivan Ilych has begun to pose questions about the past, he nevertheless avoids asking the crucial one.
The central effect of his physical and mental anguish in Parts X and XI is to edge him into asking the significant (for the older Tolstoy it was the “obsessive”) question—“What if my whole life has really been wrong?” Then Ivan Ilych finally perceives that amid the mechanics of familial, official, and social functions, he had been estranged from his essential nature, had shrunk from life itself. And though he had been driven by pride and vanity, these motives had not only been condoned but actually praised by his society. Following this admission, he is assailed by extreme torment and self-hatred, because he does not know how, in these last few hours of consciousness, to rectify the falseness of the past.
In Part XII, two hours before his death, he suddenly apprehends the “right thing” to be done. Death is inevitable but a man can choose to die loving instead of hating. The Christian principle of brotherly love, he now feels, as did Pierre in War and Peace and Nexljudov in Resurrection, is the supreme human value. Here he seems to be in communion with the words Tolstoy himself dictated to his daughter, Aleksandra, a few days before his death—“The more a man loves the more real he becomes.”
Acting out of conscious choice, Ivan Ilych gestures to his wife and son to forgive him. Significantly, this gesture occurs at the moment he feels himself being thrust into a black hole. The point is that grace comes to him only when he is in a state of utter despair. Previously, in Part VII, we have noted this identical pattern of despair followed by grace (Gerasim’s help). Now, too, grace comes from the outside in the form of his son’s love. Moreover, it is revealing that directly following his son’s kiss, Ivan Ilych claims to see a light. For now the route of his metamorphosis becomes clearly visible—from despair (the black hole) to love (the son’s kiss) to redemption (the light). Thus Ivan Ilych’s dialectical direction, so to speak, is from nothingness to meaning: he has learned that the one thing necessary for a man is to be.
Source: Irving Halperin, “The Structural Integrity of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’,” in Slavic and East European Journal, Vol. 5, No. 4, Winter, 1961, pp. 334-40.
In the following excerpt, Pachmuss examines Ivan’s transformation from his fear of death to his discovery of love.
Tolstoy described a most terrifying agony in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” Ivan Ilyich also lived a false life, filled with lies and artificially multiplied needs. All his colleagues liked him, and yet, on receiving the news of his death, their first thoughts were of the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances. They gave no thought to the deceased himself, who had but recently lived among them. Even in the beginning of the work we may conjecture from Ivan Ilyich’s feeling of loneliness that the sense of isolation while dying horrified Tolstoy as much as the thought of death itself. This isolation, the novelist warns, influences man’s relationship with nature, which includes not only his life but his death. Affected by “civilization,” Ivan Ilyich had escaped real life and failed to see his inner loneliness. He was completely absorbed in self, and this absorption, in turn, intensified the feeling of solitude he experienced at the approach of death. The very basis of Ivan Ilyich’s relationship with nature was corrupt; however, although able to escape real life, he could not escape death.
We find the consciousness of this loneliness at the moment of dying not only in the works of Tolstoy but also in many other writings, such as the English morality play Everyman and Hugo von Hofmannsthal’s adaptation Jedermann. When Everyman felt the approach of death, he sought desperately to find a companion for his last journey, and when he failed to do so, he was overwhelmed by despair at his terrible loneliness. A man like Ivan Ilyich, who during his life had no real contact with his closest relatives and was so alienated from nature that he could place no trust in it, had to experience his separateness in full measure. This same loneliness made him while dying want to weep: “. . . he wished most of all for someone to pity him as a sick child is pitied. He longed to be petted and comforted.” As soon as he knew that death was approaching him, he felt “a loneliness, in the midst of a populous town and surrounded by numerous acquaintances and relations, yet which could not have been more complete anywhere—either at the bottom of the sea or under the earth.” He wanted to be loved and to be pitied; he wanted others to feel and share his distress and sorrow: “And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an
“Ivan Ilyich’s physical sufferings were insignificant compared with his spiritual pain, which enabled him gradually to understand the complete falsity of his simple, ordinary, and therefore terrible life. While he lay dying he saw truth slowly supplanting falsity, yet all living people still kept on lying.”
abyss, while no one understood or pitied him.” He remained alone with death: “And nothing could be done with it except to look at it and shudder.” “He wept on account of this terrible loneliness . . . and the absence of God.” Slowly Ivan Ilyich came to understand that loneliness had always been around him, but he had been blind to it because of his false ideas of life. He had always lived for himself alone, near his fellow creatures, yet never in real community with them. Tolstoy called these wrong ideas of life “falsity,” describing “the approach of that ever-dreaded and hateful death which was the only reality, and always the same falsity.” This “falsity,” in Tolstoy’s opinion, sprang from man’s overrating himself. Ivan Ilyich’s approach to life had always been completely egocentric; he considered his existence the center of the universe, never being able to understand that he, as a human being, was just a small particle in nature. His individualistic outlook was the trap in which he remained all his life. “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal,” argued Ivan Ilyich. “That Caius—man in general—was mortal was completely correct, but he wasn’t Caius, not man in general, but a creature quite, quite different from all others.”
This attitude was the reason why only “I” had meaning for Ivan Ilyich, never “you.” As a result, his whole life was filled with unceasing care for himself and his own comfort, and this attitude even characterized his family life. He cared for his own feelings, never for those of his wife. Even the death of his children meant nothing more to him than an inconvenience. He always did what was considered decorous in his circle, yet always managed to connect what was considered necessary for “decorum” with what was pleasant for himself. Living this kind of life, Ivan Ilyich naturally lacked all sense of humility. He liked the feeling of possessing the power of crushing at his will people dependent on him, and yet, at the same time, it pleased him to think of himself as a generous and kind man. He deceived one feeling with another: he wanted as a comme ilfaut and decorous man to display his love and kindness toward human beings, but at the same time he was not prepared to renounce the heady feeling of possessing authority. Thus his kindness, all the enjoyments of his business and private life, his love for his wife and children, all these were falsity—the feeling that originated in his false attitude toward himself. All the people around him also lived the same kind of life and were involved in this same pretense. Like Ivan Ilyich, they accepted falsity as reality: “. . . I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different from that of Caius.” In Tolstoy’s words, “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary, and therefore most terrible.” Tolstoy’s words may seem paradoxical, but it was Ivan Ilyich and his associates who considered their lives to be simple and ordinary, and the very fact that their twisted and distorted lives should seem ordinary to themselves was in itself terrible.
Ivan Ilyich’s physical sufferings were insignificant compared with his spiritual pain, which enabled him gradually to understand the complete falsity of his simple, ordinary, and therefore terrible life. While he lay dying he saw truth slowly supplanting falsity, yet all living people still kept on lying. Even in the presence of death they still lived in accordance with decorum, the master he had served all his life. His wife simulated sympathy and care for him because these belonged to that decorum; but now Ivan Ilyich was sick of falsity, and “while his wife was kissing him he hated her from the bottom of his soul and with difficulty refrained from pushing her away.” “Those lies—lies enacted over him on the eve of his death and destined to degrade this awful, solemn act to the level of their visits, their curtains, their sturgeon for dinner—were a terrible agony for Ivan Ilyich,” because now he understood that all their interests and enjoyments, which he had shared while healthy, were nothing but illusions created by his selfishness. With this discovery, life appeared unreal, in contrast to which stood death, the only reality, about which there could be no mistake: “. . . the approach of that ever-dreaded and hateful death which was the only reality, and always the same falsity.”
Ivan Ilyich gained comfort only through his contact with Gerasim. Gerasim, a fresh peasant lad, knew nothing of the pretenses of the “civilized” life Ivan Ilyich had lived before his malady; on the contrary, his life had been more real because he sensed his minute part in the universe, that he was a human being just as any other human being. Because of his real humility he alone was able to grasp Ivan Ilyich’s position: “We shall all of us die,” said he, “so why should I grudge a little trouble?” Death was to him not only inevitable but also natural; he did not fear his dying master, and so Ivan Ilyich felt at ease only with him. Gerasim’s assistance to him was not an act of hypocrisy; it was not burdensome work at all, but a service to life. Tolstoy thought the instinctive understanding of life and death that enabled Gerasim to do right naturally, to tell the truth, and to feel a deep sympathy for his fellow creatures was a result of Gerasim’s identification with nature. His closeness to nature enabled him to live a life which, being foreordained by God, stood in striking opposition to Ivan Ilyich’s life corrupted by culture and civilization. Culture and civilization were the poisons that filled Ivan Ilyich’s soul and body all his life and became evident only through his malady and the torments caused by the prospect of death. “Ivan Ilyich was left alone with the consciousness that his life was poisoned and was poisoning the lives of others, and that this poison did not weaken but penetrated more and more deeply into his whole being.”
It was love that Ivan Ilyich experienced after the realization of his guilt and the purification of his soul, and it was this love that enabled Ivan Ilyich to face death without fear. His pity for his family was part of his new relation to people—free of egotism and selfishness. “Love is the sole medicine against death,” Unamuno maintained [Miguel de Unamuno, Tragic Sense of Life, 1954], insisting, like Tolstoy or Thomas Mann, on the interrelation between love and death. Elsewhere in Tolstoy’s works we find this feeling of love experienced by dying people. However, the sequence of the stages of death is somewhat vague, or perhaps is represented as just one step, including all three in one. At the time of writing Three Deaths, Tolstoy, it seems, lacked the spiritual maturity which permeates “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” written some thirty years later.
Love is ultimate reality—this is Tolstoy’s conclusion. As opposed to the primitive man, the “civilized” individual becomes a part of the harmonious whole only through death, or, during life, through love. Without love, Ivan Ilyich’s life was empty and meaningless. With the discovery of love, Ivan Ilyich felt that his death was reduced to insignificance. He was allowed to become a part of the unity of the whole, an experience he described with the words: “Death is all over. It is no more.”
It is, however, striking to note that despite Ivan Ilyich’s perception of the mystery of death and his ultimate calm acceptance of it, the whole story reflects an icy coldness. Even kind and understanding Gerasim acts out of a sense of moral duty rather than from real love. Furthermore, Tolstoy is concerned here only with Ivan Ilyich; no one else matters. Ivan Ilyich’s painful experience is over; his dead face does not express any pity for those who survive him, but a reproach and a warning. It seems that he has slipped back into his former remoteness from the world of mortals, of the Caiuses, those frightened and confused people who came to bid farewell to his coffin. There is no need for us, however, to dwell on Ivan Ilyich’s facial expression in death as perceived by his relatives and colleagues, for the constructive principle of “The Death of Ivan Ilych” requires concentration on the dying man rather than on those who surround him. The high point of the story is undoubtedly Ivan Ilyich’s discovery of the ultimate reality which is love.
Source: Temira Pachmuss, “The Theme of Love and Death in Tolstoy’s ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’,” in American Slavic and East European Review, Vol. XX, No. 1, February, 1961, pp. 72-83.
Citati, Pietro. Tolstoy, Schocken Books, 265 p.
Examines Tolstoy’s life and works, with sections specifically addressing his short fiction.
Magarshack, David. Afterword to “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” New American Library, 1960, pp. 295-304.
Discusses the story focusing on the circumstances under which it was written and the extensive revision process Tolstoy employed.
Maude, Aylmer. Preface to “Ivan Ilych,” “Hadji Murad,” and Other Stories, Oxford University Press, 1935, pp. vii-xiv.
Introduces the story, describing the actual events from which it originated.
Olney, James. “Experience, Metaphor, and Meaning: ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’,” in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 31, No. 1, Fall, 1972, pp. 101-14.
Olney suggests that it is the innocence of the characters Gerasim and Vasya in Tolstoy’s ” Ivan Ilych” that leads Ivan to the realization of divine love.
Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy, Twayne, 1986, 143 p.
Biographical and critical study with sections devoted to Tolstoy’s short fiction.
Simmons, Ernest J. Introduction to Leo Tolstoy: Short Novels, Modern Library, 1965, pp. v-xv.
Examines Tolstoy’s short stories, citing them as examples of his realism and as forerunners to his novels.
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