The life of nearly all the characters in this story is shown to be a superficial round of social duties and routines. This kind of life appears stultifying and emotionally stunted. Yet none of the characters realise this, except Ivan Ilyich when the shadow of death falls upon him. In a famous sentence, the narrative condemns the whole of Ivan Ilyich's existence:
Ivan Ilyich's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.
Ivan Ilyich, on the face of it, has led an irreproachable life, securing a good job, marrying well, mingling with the right people, doing all that is expected of him in his respectable social position; but Tolstoy uses his story to illustrate the meanness, the spiritual poverty of such an existence. The full horror of this realization of this strikes him only at the very end of his life:
'What if my whole life has really been wrong?'
He sees clearly for the first time that
his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.
While Ivan Ilyich is dying he can derive no comfort from those around him. Except his young son who clings close to him and cries during his last hours, there is no emotional closeness at all with the rest of his family, nor with his colleagues, nor with doctors nor priests. He realises at last just what a sterile, empty life he has led, like everyone else in his social circle. The imminence of death reveals to him that a life devoted to social propriety is neither good nor fulfilling. The only truly worthwhile things in his existence that he can recall are memories of childhood, and early friendships, and the first pangs of love, before the deadliness of social duties fell upon him and claimed him.
It is only when Ivan Ilyich accepts that he has led the wrong sort of life that he is able to find peace at last. The narrative suggests, then, that real nature and purpose of life is something far bigger than mere social duties; higher realities must be sought and the fact of death should never be ignored, as Ivan Ilyich’ s family and other acquaintances seek to do.
However, not everyone in this story is seen to lead such a stifling kind of existence; one character who stands clearly apart from this is Gerasim, the young peasant who attends to Ivan Ilyich in his illness, and in whose company he finds some solace. This is because Gerasim (who hails from another kind of society altogether) is entirely natural and unaffected, accepting both life and death quite cheerfully, and wholeheartedly offering his support in Ivan Ilyich’s hour of need. He is free from the falsity and hypocrisy that are the chief characteristics of the society that Ivan Ilyich is mired in – this urbane, refined, supposedly advanced world.
He felt that he was so surrounded and involved in a mesh of falsity that it was hard to unravel anything.
Death, in the end, appears as the only possible release from such a situation.
In fact, we may even come to feel that 'the death of Ivan Ilyich' – to quote the simple, stark title of this unforgettable tale – refers not so much to his physical demise as to the greater part of his earthly existence.