According to Tolstoy, what is terrible about a simple and ordinary life in the novel The Death of Ivan Ilyich?

Expert Answers
M.P. Ossa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Chapter 2 of the novel The Death of Ivan Ilych opens with one of the most famously-quoted phrases in Russian literature

Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible

Tolstoy tells us that the simplicity of Ivan's life is actually his tragic flaw. This is because Ivan uses simplicity as part of a formulaic way to live his life in a way that renders him free from taking any emotional, professional, or personal risks.

To live life in an automated mode, for the sake of not running into complications, is not living at all. It is merely existing and admitting that one is way too weak, or too unimaginative, to come up with solutions that arise from complex decisions.

These choices that we get to make in life are for two things: to make us better, or to make us worse. No choice ever comes without a consequence. That is precisely what Ivan's weakness was: he dreaded consequences as  much as he dreaded making mistakes. He also lacked any idea of how to make meaningful connections because of his fear of loving and exerting emotions. This is precisely how he dies, in the end, making an unlikely physical (and brief) connection as his chest starts to die out from a heart attack.

His existence, then, comes out as a lifeless life. He is a life-form, not a full, flaw-filled, human being. This type of ridiculous over-simplistic attitude can affect a lot of people who either love or depend on someone like him. He takes too many chances for everyone by not taking any chances for himself.

At work, Ivan is equally unimaginative and lackluster. He cannot excel at anything because he is not willing to take risks. On the contrary, he figures out ways to avoid confrontation, issues, or any complications. Now, to the reader whose life is chaotic and hectic, Ivan's life might seem ideal. However, how ideal is it, really?

  1. Ivan isolates himself from people when he has to face any problems, or when problems seem to arise. - How does he really get to be in touch with his human side, and that of others, if he does not even take the time to get to understand situations and emotions?
  2. Ivan pushes away anything that is disagreeable- How will Ivan learn to grow emotional and social defenses to deal with situations of which there is no control? How could he ever grow up if he does not allow himself to mature in this area?
  3. Ivan is emotionally and (therefore) morally disconnected from his family and friends- Why then have them in the first place? Why drag them with him? Why make them suffer with his distancing and lack of moral support?

The saddest part about this issue with Ivan is that, in chapter 9, he asks the dreadful question:

'Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,' [...]'But how could that be, when I did everything properly?' he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.

This discloses Ivan's real poor quality of life, despite of being a relatively financially stable man of a good family. Was his formulaic way of living, living at all? Did he love and feel loved? Did he ever get to know who he really was?

Notice how he immediately dismisses the thought from his mind and thinks about another way to push down yet another conundrum. He relentlessly continues to not live, and just exist. These are the factors that make his simplicity “terrible”, and which make his death all the more tragic…for there was really no life there to begin with.

Read the study guide:
The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Access hundreds of thousands of answers with a free trial.

Start Free Trial
Ask a Question