What is the moral of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich"?

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Several morals are at the heart of Tolstoy's novella, but the one I'll discuss is the author's message that the material world is basically illusory and meaningless in the long run.

Ivan Ilyich is an ordinary man, and a not a bad man at all. He has led a standard,...

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Several morals are at the heart of Tolstoy's novella, but the one I'll discuss is the author's message that the material world is basically illusory and meaningless in the long run.

Ivan Ilyich is an ordinary man, and a not a bad man at all. He has led a standard, conventional existence: marrying, having children, and finding success in his working life. This ordinariness is what the author tells us somehow makes his fate "all the more terrible." When a serious disease strikes Ivan Ilyich, he reacts as if an absolutely inexplicable thing has happened. He (like most people, in fact) has never grasped the reality of death. And those around him are the same way. His wife and especially his daughter are remote from the trauma of his illness. None of the family have ever given a thought to non-material concerns. The only person who appears to have empathy for Ivan Ilyich is his servant Gerasim, a young man of rural background. Tolstoy's point, the subtext of Gerasim's difference from the others, is probably that laboring people, because they are not consumed with wealth and possessions, have not lost their spirituality and their awareness of the realities of suffering and death, in the way that middle- and upper-class people, concerned with the material world, have done.

With illness, constant pain and the inevitability of death, Ivan Ilyich's entire world has collapsed. It is not until his final three days when he screams continuously in agony that he becomes aware that the focus of his life has somehow been in error, or that at least, he has missed the main point of existence which, in Tolstoy's moral, is the reality of death and the primacy of the spiritual over the material world.

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"The Death of Ivan Ilyich" (1886) can be compared with "A Christmas Carol" (1843) by Charles Dickens, a writer Tolstoy admired. In the story by Dickens the greedy, selfish Ebenezer Scrooge goes through an ordeal and comes to the realization that he has been leading the wrong kind of life, that the right kind of life is to stop thinking about himself and to start thinking about other people. Ivan Ilyich goes through a much longer ordeal while he is dying, but he comes to the same realization as Scrooge: that selfishness leads to misery, while altruism leads to liberation and peace of mind. Ivan Ilyich is not as miserly as Ebenezer Scrooge, but Tolstoy was more of a realist than Dickens. Ilyich seems like a real person, while Scrooge seems more like a caricature. 

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As the title of this poignant story suggests, death is a major preoccupation of this tale and Tolstoy uses it to explore his own feelings of death and how a man can die well and be at peace with himself. If there is a moral to be found in this story, it is to be discovered by considering the treatment of death and the role it plays in the last few days and weeks of the life of Ivan Ilyich. Consider what kind of a man Ivan Ilyich is:

Even when he was at the School of Law he was just what he remained for teh rest of his life: a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man, though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered to be his duty: and he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority.

He is a man who lives his life trying to meet the expectations of society, and it is this ironically that causes his death, as it is when he is placing the curtains that he falls and initiates his sickness. It is only his sickness that he becomes aware of the superficiality of his situation and life. Death is not something that can be astutely avoided or managed in the way that he has so cleverly managed his family and work. The last three days, marked by Ivan Ilyich's screaming, only end when he is able to confront and accept death in the same way that Gerasim so obviously does, compared to the way that his wife and family avoid referring to "It" and refuse to acknowledge the truth of Ivan Ilyich's inevitable decline. Thus the moral of the story seems to be that we all need to accept death as a necessary part of life and not to ignore it as society dictates. It is only then that we are able to love and lead meaningful lives, and Ivan Ilyich discovers too late when he is finally able to discover the light that is in death and love his wife and son.

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