The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a story of sin and redemption. Ivan had been blindly building what he thought was a good and proper life. He had completed his education, landed professional positions with increasing responsibilities and salary, married well, and surrounded himself with the outward signs of wealth—a large estate with handsome and stylish furnishings. However, Ivan’s obsession with work, money, and possessions, and his neglect of his family, brought on Ivan a personal crisis from which he could not recover. Ivan’s physical problems—which began when he fell from a ladder while obsessing over draperies—provoked the spiritual crisis that caused his anguish and eventually led to his death.
Ivan’s suffering, however, prompts a self-examination that leads ultimately to his redemption. That self-examination begins when Ivan asks God why he is allowing Ivan, who believes he has led a pleasant and proper life, to suffer. An inner voice questions whether Ivan has lived a good life, provoking Ivan to review his entire life, from his childhood to the time of his illness. This self-examination results in an epiphany for Ivan, as he realizes the sterility of a life of materialism and meaningless work, a life without love and human contact. On his deathbed, Ivan asks his son’s—and God’s—forgiveness for his errors and accepts his own death. His admission of guilt and acceptance of death relieves his suffering, allowing him to see light before he closes his eyes for the final time.
Ivan’s redemption, however, is private, recognized by no one else in Tolstoy’s tale. In the novella’s opening frame, Ivan’s colleagues go about their business, obsessing over their positions in the Russian law court bureaucracy; some are too busy to attend Ivan’s wake and funeral. After Ivan’s death, his widow, having learned nothing from her husband’s sufferings, is mainly concerned with receiving Ivan’s pension so that she can continue living a life devoted to material possessions.
The publication of The Death of Ivan Ilyich occurred during a period in Tolstoy’s life in which he became increasingly concerned with religious issues and closely studied the Gospels of the New Testament. Following a personal religious crisis during the late 1870’s, Tolstoy embraced a radical form of Christianity that is expressed in The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other works published during the 1880’s.
Themes and Meanings
As the title indicates, Leo Tolstoy’s story concentrates on the death of a very ordinary middle-class person. The second chapter opens with the sentence, “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible,” which has been called one of the most frightening sentences in all literature. Ivan’s life has been lived according to those middle-class values set by his society. Ivan has always done the correct thing to achieve success; while in school, he did things that disgusted him until he noticed that those in good positions did the same things and did not consider them wrong.
In working at his career, he is punctilious, reserved, completely honest; when he has affairs, they are with women of the best society. He marries, not really for love but because this is what society expects him to do. Everything Ivan does is according to what one should do to rise in society; his values are material values, exemplified by his remodeling his house to look exactly like the homes of others in his social position. His relations with people have the semblance of friendliness, but he never develops any close or deep relationships.
It is not until he experiences his fatal illness that Ivan ever questions his values and his life. Even the cause of his illness—a freak accident that occurred as he was hanging curtains—is insignificant. Ivan comes to the realization that his life has been wasted. It is...
(The entire section is 1,545 words.)