Study Guide

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan Ilyich Themes

Christian Themes (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a story of sin and redemption. Ivan had been blindly building what he thought was a good and proper life. He had completed his education, landed professional positions with increasing responsibilities and salary, married well, and surrounded himself with the outward signs of wealth—a large estate with handsome and stylish furnishings. However, Ivan’s obsession with work, money, and possessions, and his neglect of his family, brought on Ivan a personal crisis from which he could not recover. Ivan’s physical problems—which began when he fell from a ladder while obsessing over draperies—provoked the spiritual crisis that caused his anguish and eventually led to his death.

Ivan’s suffering, however, prompts a self-examination that leads ultimately to his redemption. That self-examination begins when Ivan asks God why he is allowing Ivan, who believes he has led a pleasant and proper life, to suffer. An inner voice questions whether Ivan has lived a good life, provoking Ivan to review his entire life, from his childhood to the time of his illness. This self-examination results in an epiphany for Ivan, as he realizes the sterility of a life of materialism and meaningless work, a life without love and human contact. On his deathbed, Ivan asks his son’s—and God’s—forgiveness for his errors and accepts his own death. His admission of guilt and acceptance of death relieves his suffering, allowing him to see...

(The entire section is 401 words.)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich Themes and Meanings (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

As the title indicates, Leo Tolstoy’s story concentrates on the death of a very ordinary middle-class person. The second chapter opens with the sentence, “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible,” which has been called one of the most frightening sentences in all literature. Ivan’s life has been lived according to those middle-class values set by his society. Ivan has always done the correct thing to achieve success; while in school, he did things that disgusted him until he noticed that those in good positions did the same things and did not consider them wrong.

In working at his career, he is punctilious, reserved, completely honest; when he has affairs, they are with women of the best society. He marries, not really for love but because this is what society expects him to do. Everything Ivan does is according to what one should do to rise in society; his values are material values, exemplified by his remodeling his house to look exactly like the homes of others in his social position. His relations with people have the semblance of friendliness, but he never develops any close or deep relationships.

It is not until he experiences his fatal illness that Ivan ever questions his values and his life. Even the cause of his illness—a freak accident that occurred as he was hanging curtains—is insignificant. Ivan comes to the realization that his life has been wasted. It is only with his death that he comes to a joyful revelation that, though his life had been wrong, it can still be rectified. He thus dies at peace with himself and with the world.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich Themes

Death
Tolstoy was plagued for most of his life with a fear of death. He came to realize, as the character of Ivan Ilych...

(The entire section is 862 words.)