The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

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In "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," why did Ivan conclude his life was not real?

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a Russian story written by Leo Tolstoy. It is about the death and life of one man, Ivan Ilyich. He was a person who lived his life in a very ordinary way, he never did anything out of the ordinary. But when he got sick with an unknown illness, he realized that all his life was useless and meaningless. He felt as if he had lived someone else's life instead of his own. And now, on his death bed, he wished to be forgiven for all the bad things he had done throughout his life.

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Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich, on its surface, is an exploration of a man questioning the purpose of his life and coming up short. However, as with Tolstoy's other famous works, commentaries on political and spiritual life are at the fore. One could even suggest that the tale is autobiographical, as Tolstoy found himself questioning his life, works, and his legacy in the second half of his life.

It's no accident that Gerasim, the sole servant in the story, is the only character who is unafraid of (or in outright in denial of) death. It was Tolstoy's belief (borrowed from his mentor, Arthur Schopenhauer) that only the poor could know spiritual truth because suffering was forced upon them. Tolstoy became somewhat obsessed by the suffering of the poor in his later years and found himself moving toward asceticism, including sexual abstinence, in his later years. His actions—in particular, turning over the copyright to his works to the people of Russia and renouncing personal property—were seminal to the Marxist movement, though his spiritual beliefs were ones of nonviolence; he believed revolution could be achieved through pacifism.

It's possible to read Ivan Ilyich apart from the author's own experience, yet there are significant parallels that should not be ignored. Biographers point out that Ivan Ilyich was the first work Tolstoy published after converting to Christianity. It is significant, then, that only in death does Ilyich find "the peace of God which surpasses all understanding" (Philippians 4:6) and is able to release all feelings of dread about the unknown. The strained feelings he has toward his family also lift, and he hopes for them to feel the same relief upon death.

While Ilyich may have concluded his life was "not the real thing," the story suggests that even in death it is not too late to find purpose. In fact, through death, Ilyich has found the meaning of life.

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It is interesting to come at this question by looking at the structure that the book takes. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy reverses traditional chronological narrative, starting in the aftermath of Ivan's death before jumping backwards to tell us about Ivan's life. As a reader, we could be forgiven for thinking that the book is going to be about Ivan's death—but, in fact, it is the reverse.

The opening of the novel is one of the clearest demonstrations of the artifice of life among bourgeois society. We start off in the law courts of St Petersburg when Ivan's colleagues hear of his death. The news is not broken to them in person; they learn it from a newspaper. Only Peter attends the wake, and this is out of a sense of obligation. We encounter Ivan's widow in theatrical tears, and she proceeds to ask how she can get the most out of Ivan's pension. 

In the course of Ivan's life, everything is pleasant and everything is decorous. Ivan trains as a lawyer, marries, and has children, living a perfectly ordinary and therefore, according to Tolstoy, "perfectly terrible" existence. The reason Ivan's existence is at the same time pleasant and terrible is due to its shallowness and materialism. It is only in the face of his mortality that Ivan begins to reflect upon his life. 

During his illness, Ivan becomes obsessed with the notion of death, while his family merely act as though he is just sick and will get better. It is only Gerasim who acknowledges the inevitability of Ivan's death, and this simple acknowledgement is a huge comfort.

It is through the contrast of Ivan's shallow, material life and Gerasim's calm acceptance of human mortality that Tolstoy examines the dichotomy of artifice and authenticity. We can conclude that this novel is not, as the title suggests, about Ivan Ilyich's death but is in fact an examination of his life. It is only when Ivan's life is held up against the profundity of death that Ivan realizes how empty and false it was. Gerasim serves as an exemplary character, living an authentic existence away from the false pleasantness of the bourgeoisie with the full spiritual awareness of human mortality.

The fact that the book is structured in reverse adds emphasis to Ivan's conclusion that his life was "not the real thing," as the novel is really about the ultimate realization that a good life is one lived in honesty and authenticity; one can only achieve a good death through living a good life. 

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As Ivan Ilyich moves closer and closer towards his death, he begins to realise more about his life and the way that he has lived it. His concluding realisation, that his life was not "the real thing," is based on the way that he is treated by his wife and family as death comes ever nearer, which exposes the vanity, and the falseness of the upper-class. Note what the narrator tells us about the appearance of his wife after his last communion and how this reveals the emptiness and the falsity of Ivan Ilyich's life:

Her dress, her figure, the expression of her face, the tone of her voice, all revealed the same thing. "This is wrong it is not as it should be. All you have lived for and still live for is falsehood and deception, hiding life and death from you."

The emptiness of Ivan Ilyich's life is of course contrasted with the simple acceptance of death by Gerasim, his peasant servant, who manages to comfort Ivan Ilyich precisely because he is open in his recognition that death is a part of life, contrasted with his family, who never mention it and do everything they can to ignore the presence of death amongst them.

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