The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

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Leo Tolstoy’s tale of Ivan Ilyich begins with his death at age forty-five, which is reported by his law colleagues, who read about his demise in the newspaper. Immediately Ivan’s colleagues begin to wonder how his death might affect their own positions in the court bureaucracy. Several colleagues attend Ivan’s wake, but reluctantly because it interferes with their weekly bridge game.

At the wake, Piotr Ivanovich, Ivan’s closest colleague, is engaged in conversation by Praskovya Fyodorovna, Ivan’s widow, who tells Piotr that Ivan suffered greatly during the final days of the long illness that ultimately took his life. Praskovya then asks Piotr about Ivan’s pension, which she has already calculated, wondering whether she possibly could extract an additional widow’s stipend from the government. When Piotr suggests that Praskovya’s effort probably would not be successful, Praskovya quickly ends the conversation, and Piotr leaves to attend his bridge game.

After this brief opening scene, Tolstoy’s narrator begins to recount Ivan’s life, which he identifies as both ordinary and terrible. Ivan, the son of a Russian government official, has lived a life of relative privilege in nineteenth century Russia. He graduates from the state school of law, then moves up the legal bureaucracy, receiving promotions and accompanying increases in salary. After achieving the position of examining magistrate, Ivan begins to consider marriage, mainly on the advice of highly placed law associates. He marries a woman whose family has property and social position. Initially, Ivan and Praskovya seem happy with each other, but she becomes jealous and demanding during her first pregnancy. To avoid conflicts, Ivan withdraws from family life into his work and bridge games with colleagues. The Ilyich marriage produces five offspring, three of whom die in childhood.

Because his marriage is less than satisfactory, Ivan focuses on his career, driven by the power that he holds over individuals and by his salary, which does not increase as quickly as Ivan desires. When Ivan finally receives a good promotion and substantial salary increase, he seems happy. He purchases a large house and fusses over its furnishings. After Ivan and his family settle into their spacious new home, however, he complains that it is just one room short. Nonetheless, Tolstoy’s narrator describes the life of Ivan Ilyich as thoroughly pleasant and proper.

Ivan’s pleasant life takes a downward turn when he falls off a ladder while showing an interior decorator how new draperies should be hung. Ivan suffers a painful bruise on his side. The wound seems to heal quickly, but Ivan feels a lingering pain in his side and a foul taste in his mouth. He consults several doctors, none of whom correctly diagnoses Ivan’s problem. As his health deteriorates and his mood sours, Praskovya begins to hope that Ivan will die, then prays that he will live so that his salary will not cease. She fails to provide Ivan with any care or show any concern for him as his condition worsens. Medications offer no relief for Ivan. Only Gerasim, one of Ivan’s servants, provides any relief. On a particularly bad day, Ivan asks Gerasim to lift his legs and insert a pillow under them, and Ivan feels his pain ease when the young man raises his legs. He sometimes calls on Gerasim to lift his legs and place them on Gerasim’s shoulders until his pain eases.

As Ivan’s health continues to deteriorate, he falls into despair. He begins to hate his wife, who virtually ignores his suffering. He becomes frustrated with the medical specialists who attempt to treat his illness. Looking back on his career accomplishments and on the wealth...

(This entire section contains 990 words.)

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that he has accumulated provides no satisfaction for Ivan. A priest who hears Ivan’s confession provides only temporary relief. Eventually Ivan’s damaged spirit causes more pain and anguish than his deteriorating body, and he begins to sense that he is dying. In desperation, Ivan calls on God, asking why he has brought this endless suffering on Ivan, who still believes that he has lived a pleasant and proper life. The response to Ivan’s question comes in the form of an inner voice that asks whether indeed Ivan has lived life correctly.

Ivan begins to review his entire life and realizes that his fondest memories are from his childhood. He has some good memories of his time at the school of law, but no more after the start of the deadly period that produced Ivan’s current situation—his preoccupation with his salary and promotions, a loveless marriage, and the boring duties of a public official. Ivan recognizes that as he was rising in professional stature, his life was actually slipping away from him. He starts to think that he has lived improperly, even while he was rising in position and public opinion. As he looks into the eyes of Gerasim, the happy and healthy peasant, Ivan senses that his entire life might have been false.

Tolstoy’s novella concludes by relating the physical suffering and mental anguish that Ivan experiences during the final three days of his life. Screaming in anguish, Ivan wonders where his life went wrong and how he might have corrected it. Hours before Ivan’s death, his son visits his deathbed. Momentarily calm, Ivan reaches out to the boy, who grabs his father’s hand and kisses it. At that instant, Ivan sees a light and realizes his errors. He has made his family miserable; he has treated his wife and children wretchedly. Ivan tries to ask forgiveness and mutters “forego” instead of “forgive,” but he believes that God will understand what he intended to say. Ivan realizes that he must die to release his family members from the suffering that he has caused them. At that moment, Ivan sees light and experiences joy. Seconds later, Ivan says to himself that death is no more and dies.