Leo Tolstoy’s story The Death of Ivan Ilyich is one of the most significant works in the genre of psychological prose. This story is a chronicle of the illness and death of a judicial official, which is preceded by the story of his life. This is a one-of-a-kind piece that describes in detail how the man experiences the approach of his end and how he finally realizes that death is the most important thing in life. Tracing the thoughts and feelings of a terminally ill man, the writer shows how he runs away from death and how it leads him to understand the true essence of life (Tolstoj 28). For the writer, the diversity of individual manifestations of death is important. Thoughts about death are generated not only by biological feelings but by religious and spiritual searches. The character passes through all the stages of dying, from fear, pain, and denial to relief and awakening of consciousness, which helps him understand that death is an unsolvable question and at the same time, a source of answers to all questions.
First of all, death is mentioned in the story in the form of fear and resentment. The terrible horror of dying passes through the painful stages so that all kinds of consolation become useless. Ivan Ilyich understands the inevitability of death, which makes him powerless. With the course of his illness, the appearance of death becomes more material, physical, causing both transcendent horror and loathing. His feelings towards death are expressed in the phrases such as “the dirtiness, indecency, and smell, “powerless naked thighs”, and “pale forehead” (Tolstoj 20). For this reason, when he looks at his wife, he hates “the gloss of her hair” and “the sparkle of her vivacious eyes” (Tolstoj 21). The hero’s gaze captures the signs of physical health of his relatives, and his own disappearing body looks weak and frightening. Due to these physiological details, death looks even more close and incomprehensible.
The author shows the perception of death by the dying person himself, which is completely different than a look at a dying person from the outside. Ivan Ilyich does not want to agree with his departure from life, but each pain attack reminds him of imminent demise. It is difficult to accept the death at a relatively young age, being completely healthy (Duns 222). Ivan Ilyich cannot imagine that after his death, people will live without him, love, hate, suffer, immerse themselves in their daily concerns (Traylor 82). He becomes suspicious and feels that he has already been deleted from this world, although he is still alive. The main character finds consolation only in communication with the simple peasant Gerasim, who takes care of him.
While everyone is trying to show formal sympathy and get rid of the sufferings of the character, Gerasim shows simple human participation. As Ivan Ilyich becomes more helpless, Gerasim gradually assumes responsibilities that he cannot cope with, including the dirtiest work. Tolstoy emphasizes the difference between Ivan Ilyich’s skinny thighs and Gerasim’s strong legs (Tolstoj 27). By putting Ivan Ilyich’s legs on his shoulders, Gerasim takes on his pain, being the only one who simply pities the dying (Tolstoj 27). After much suffering, the character wants someone to feel sorry for him. Similar to a helpless child, he wants to be cuddled, kissed, and cried over. Only relations with Gerasim comfort him and show Ivan Ilyich how important simple human feelings are, which he used to avoid in his life.
Ivan Ilyich continues to cling to the illusion of the correctness of his life, even in a three-day agony, when his existence is reduced to a sensation of physical pain. Only at the threshold of death, he understands that he has lived not a proper life, being distant from his family, fully absorbed by the service and earning money. The fear confronts him with the need to assess the result of his life’s journey (Alves 385). At this stage, Ivan Ilyich is afraid not of the death itself but an aimlessly lived life. A person often postpones the implementation of plans and everyday life is filled with useless actions that bring neither joy nor moral satisfaction (Alves 385). However, few people remember that tomorrow may not come. In the end, Ivan Ilyich understands that his service, his structure of life, and the communication with family could be different.
From this point, death is represented as an awakening of consciousness since the character has realized that he could have lived a better life. During the whole life, his wife was always interested in his money and service, children had their interests, while he found joy in a delicious dinner and success at work (Tolstoj 15). Realizing the uselessness of his life and the importance of simple communication with family, Ivan Ilyich tries to correct his attitude to life at the last moment, opening his heart to people around him. He feels sorry for his family, trying to say “I’m sorry” with chilling lips (Tolstoj 30). Ivan Ilyich finally redeems his attitude towards family, merges with his fear, and gets rid of it.
Tolstoy does not write about some random family, but rather shows the generations of such people. The desire to be like everyone else in society is the main principle of the character’s behavior. He was an average person, with an average character, social behavior, and a scrupulous attitude to his official duties, but distant from relationships with his children and wife. However, a terminal disease made him rethinking the past and a new outlook on life (Alves 384). Deprived of any significant interests, sincere affection, and real purpose in life, Ivan Ilyich has realized the emptiness of his former existence, the deceit of life, and the people around him. His ideal of life has crumbled under the influence of a painful illness and misunderstanding of the loved ones.
Leo Tolstoy is extremely attentive to the process of dying, a slow change in feelings, reassessment of values, rebuilding the picture of the world. The approach of death tears a person out of the semi-automatic existence. Approaching death is understood as a kind of awakening from the sleep of life. It is impossible to reconcile with the thought of death since the human self is not able to accept the need to destroy itself. At the same time, the thought of death wrests a person from the cycle of everyday life and returns to the main questions about the essence of existence. The reflection on death is most capable of igniting a person’s metaphysical passion, awakening genuine philosophical burning, and therefore making the human being spiritual.
Alves, Paulo Cesar. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Multiple Dimensions of Illness.” Ciência & Saúde Coletiva, vol. 23, no. 2, 2018, pp. 381-388.
Duns, Ryan Gerard. “Desire and Conversion in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Contagion: Journal of Violence, Mimesis, and Culture, vol. 27, 2020, pp. 215-238.
Tolstoj, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyitch. Lindhardt og Ringhof, 2017.
Traylor, S. “Living with the Dying, Being With the Dead.” Stance: An International Undergraduate Philosophy Journal, vol. 11, pp. 81-90.