They know they won’t live forever. Yet they spend their days as if they are never going to die.

via Daily Prompt: Puzzled

Leo Tolstoy’s novella “The Death of Ivan Ilych” explores the inevitable occurrence of demise.  It is one of the human concerns, which crosses cultures and historic ages.  Tolstoy asks his readers to experience the process of dying and examining life with his protagonist Ivan Ilych.  The author is convinced that without death, life loses its meaning.  He compels Ivan Ilych to examine his life before he dies.  Olney (1972) writes that Tolstoy does not mean to frighten his readers with death, but rather to cause them to reflect on how they live.  Most do not live as if they will live forever.  Yet they spend their days as if they are not going to die.  At the end of his life, Ivan Ilych realizes that he spent his life chasing a social deception, which left him with nothing to show for.  Therefore, each must strive to live beyond the expected social conformity and aspire to love authentically.

Stages of Death

Tolstoy’s famous novella introduces the reader to a simple character of Ivan Ilych: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore, most terrible.”  He comes from a family of three siblings and is the most successful out of the three.  Ivan follows in his father’s footsteps and works his way up the Court of Justice.  The story begins with his widow, Praskovya Fedorovna, giving an account of Ivan’s death to his friend Peter Ivanovich.  While she calls Peter his closest acquaintance, there is no evidence throughout the story that he ever visited Ivan during his sickness.  This short introduction gives the reader a sense of the social conformity that Ivan spent his life on; working his way up the social ladder yet not developing a single authentic friendship.

Napier (1983) explores Kubler-Ross’ description of the stages of death and adapts Ivan Ilych’s physical and emotional phases to them.  The first stage involves denial and isolation.  While Ivan’s symptoms become alarming by the day, he turns them into scenes with his wife and fails to address the real issue.  “And his irritability became worse and worse …”  Such behavior creates the first phase of isolation between him and his family.  In his isolation, Ivan realizes that just as he senselessly judged his victims in the court, the doctors treat him the same – as someone without a fate.  The next stage involves anger with envy and resentment.  One of the causes for his anger is the denial by the doctors and his own family that his health issues are serious.  “He saw that his household, especially his wife and daughter, who were in a perfect whirl of visiting, did not understand anything of it and were annoyed that he was so depressed and so exacting as if he were to blame for it.”  The third stage comes with bargaining.  Ivan endeavors to manipulate his physical well-being by consistently keeping up with the doctor’s orders and by mentally imagining the healing of his organs.  “And by an effort of imagination, he tried to catch that kidney and arrest it and support it.”

The fourth stage of dying involves depression.  For Ivan Ilych, it comes with an ongoing discord between despair and hope.  His mental anguish increases with his physical symptoms.  The true despair comes, when Ivan realizes that he is not sad over the loss of his family or career; for he attained everything, which was expected of him by the society.  Rather, he is sorrowful that as he looks back, he sees his childhood alone as something good in life and having more of life itself.  Finally, Ivan arrives at the stage of acceptance.  Acceptance, however, should not be mistaken for a happy place.  Acceptance is a state of taking in the circumstances of life for what they truly are.  Not only does Ivan Ilych accept the approach of his death, but also the wrongness of his life.  Ivan realizes that while he blames his family for denying the serious situation of his sickness, he himself avoided the important matters in life such as truth, love, and authentic relationships.

Psychoanalytic Study of Ivan Ilych’s Moral Character

Feldman (2004) seeks to apply the concepts of the superego and the ego ideal to the character of Ivan Ilych.  Ivan becomes confronted with death at the peak of his professional career.  The concept of ego ideal shines on Ivan’s situation when he becomes unable to comprehend his own death.  Ivan Ilych is not the only one with such pattern of thinking.  His entire professional group thinks the same way.  The notion of the superego explores the relationship between conformity, self-interest, and hierarchy.  Ivan’s co-workers build their lives around professional career opportunities, only form relationships that help enhance those possibilities, and pursue pleasures that come with such prospects.  “Little moral development is seen beyond the organizational conformity needed to pursue their self-interest.”

The idea of primary narcissism as developed by Sigmund Freud explains the relation of infants to their caretakers and can be applied to Ivan Ilych’s view of his authorities.  When infants look upon their caretakers, they idealize them and take on their views of reality as their own.  Ivan Ilych appears to see his superiors in the same light and develops his values based on theirs.  His professional conscience does not seem to be developed beyond the state of primary narcissism.  Ivan chooses his ideal objects based on his self-interest.  Additionally, Ivan fails to show signs of independent moral decision-making.  “It all was done with clean hands, in clean linen, with French phrases, and above all of the people of the best society and consequently with the approval of people of rank.”

It seems important for Ivan to appear in the society of the “best people.”  His ego ideal is directed towards external appearance and is lacking internal content. Ivan was focused on social adaptability while maintaining the approval of those above him and pursuing pleasures within the socially-acceptable boundaries.  His self-esteem was dependent on the external factors and his gratification on the availability of his cohorts.  Additionally, Tolstoy endeavors to show the reader that Ivan fails to differentiate between the ego and the ego ideal.  Ivan Ilych becomes like a child, who finds easy ways to keep his parents happy while getting the things that he wants.  “He only required of it those conveniences – dinner at home, housewife, and bed, – which it could give him and, above all propriety of external forms required by public opinion.  For the rest, he looked for lighthearted pleasure and propriety and was very thankful when he found them, but if he met with antagonism and querulousness he at once retired into his separate fenced-off world of official duties, where he found satisfaction.”

Ivan’s philosophy of life was aimed at meeting the standards of social conformity.  Such positioning toward social status could not provide him with an orientation toward life.  One of the false beliefs that the society attempts to make people believe is that socially-promoted behavior and pursuits guarantee an easy, comfortable, and even pleasurable life.  Kamm (2003) also claims that one of Ivan’s mistakes was believing that he was immune to unfortunate circumstances.  People like Ivan Ilych, who live with such expectations of life, fail to build up internal resources to provide the necessary support when external resources collapse.  Thus, when struck with a deadly ailment, Ivan Ilych was not prepared to have a moral conversation with himself.

How One Lives May Determine How One Dies

Most readers would agree that Ivan Ilych did not live how he should have.  The question is, how did it affect his death?  Kamm (2003) theorizes that if Ivan had lived differently, perhaps, his experience of death would have been different as well.  First, Ivan does not believe that something bad could possibly happen to him.  It could happen to other people, but he is the exception.  “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore, Caius is mortal.  It had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself.  That Caius – a man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from others.” Ivan Ilych sees himself as a man of particular characteristics and someone who has an active subjective life.  He fails to realize that the rule of syllogism applies to him just as much as it applies to others.  The protagonist of the novella separates himself as a judge from the victims that he judges.  Because of such separated view of others, Ivan fails to build an accurate view of himself, and thus, fails to build meaningful relationships, which could provide him with support later in life.

Another sad truth is that the society in which Ivan lives in has the exact same view on life as he does.  Thus, he receives no compassion from those that he had surrounded himself with.  “He only had official relations with people only on official grounds … as soon as the official relations ended, so did everything else.  He let himself do this just because he felt that he could at any time resume the strictly official attitude again and drop the human relation.  And he did it all easily, pleasantly, correctly, and even artistically.”  If Ivan Ilych realizes that other people such as his family and those that he judged were just like him – people with special characteristics and a special reality to themselves, he would have treated them with more consideration.  Ivan’s experience of death would have been different because those people would have been there, relating to his special reality of death and displaying compassion.

It is sad to read that Ivan Ilych receives the first taste of a genuine relationship with his servant Gerasim on his deathbed.  Tolstoy contrasts Ivan Ilych’s ignorance of the reality of death with Gerasim’s simple acceptance of it.  Common folk like him do not suppress the actuality of life and accept things as they are.  Ivan Ilych finds it relieving and comforting to have Gerasim at his side, as everyone else around him pretends and avoids facing the fact that he is dying.  Gerasim’s simplicity shows that people like him know that they will die and find no reason to deny the truth in life.  They do not put themselves above others.  Nor do they see themselves as remarkable exceptions as does Ivan Ilych.  There is much to be learned from Ivan’s ignorance and Gerasim’s authenticity.

Meaning and Metaphors

Tolstoy does not seek to present death as a mere slayer of life, but as a reorganizer of the things of life.  Humans make the mistake of not taking the death of others seriously.  If life had no end, one would only pursue endless pleasure.  Tolstoy encourages his readers to look death in the eye through Ivan Ilych and to find their own meaning in it.  Ivan asks himself a question as to “why” and “what for” he experiences such suffering.  Olney (1973) claims that the meaning is not in the end, but the presence of meaning is expressed by an end.  Meaning, however, cannot be found in the beginning alone or in the end alone, but in the complete configuration.  Ivan Ilych realizes this truth as he reflects on his own life.  The main hero looks back on his life and sees his childhood alone as something good in life and having more of life itself.  As his symptoms become worse, the memories of his adult life offer nothing but emptiness and pointlessness.  He realizes that social conformity and selfish pursuits determined the meaning of his adult life.  Now that those ambitions have collapsed, Ivan is left with nothing.

One metaphor that Olney (1973) proposes is to see death as the ultimate conversion.  Conversion usually affects the perceptive self on a personal level rather than the perceived world.  The story focuses on Ivan Ilych as the subject of such transformation.  Ivan’s condition forces him to expose every moment of his life from past to present and evaluate it in terms of meaning.  He struggles, yet in the end, he realizes the wrongness of his life.  While a compassionate reader would want Ivan Ilych to revive, Tolstoy introduces another aspect of conversion; that is, in order to transform, one must die.  Just as the Apostle Paul says, “I have been crucified with Christ.  It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me” (Galatians 2:20, ESV).  Ivan Ilych must experience death in order to experience the ultimate conversion and then, life.  Finally, after he realizes the wrongness of his life, he sees light.  “At that moment, Ivan Ilych fell through, and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.”  Olney (1973) interprets this as the rebirth that Christ talks about when Nicodemus comes to him for answers to his questions.  Jesus says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again …” (John 3:3).  While we do not know, what happens to the protagonist after he dies, the reader sees a clue that upon Ivan’s realization that he should have lived differently, he receives peace.

Structure of the Chapters and Themes

The structure of the chapters, roughly speaking, shortens as Ivan approaches his death.  The decreasing size of the chapters is matched by a parallel decrease in their time frame.  The story of Ivan’s life is told in years, then months, weeks, days, and finally hours.  Eventually, the flow of time stops completely and Ivan faces his death following by the light – a glimmer of hope.  The relation between time and space is also interesting in Tolstoy’s chapters.  Ivan’s physical space becomes limited by the sofa on which he faces his death.  Tolstoy’s character experiences a slow shrinkage of time around him, which leads to the final time-zero dimension.  Finally, mentally he becomes confined to the limits of the “black sack,” which intensifies its darkness as his pain becomes worse.  Just when the reader prepares to accept time-zero and space-zero as the fate for Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy unexpectedly introduces a new beginning.  Ivan Ilych receives relief from his pain, overcomes time, and escapes the black sack.  He becomes introduced to a new form, which contains no time or space, but only light.

Critics disapprove of Tolstoy’s last-minute reversal from Ivan Ilych’s miserable death to sudden relief and light at the end.  Jahn (1982) argues that the writer is not pursuing a religious concept but rather artistic consistency.  The entire story is filled with sudden reversals such as (1) Ivan’s change from success to disappointment in his career; (2) transition from health to illness; (3) a shift from blissful marriage to constant disagreements with his wife; (4) a switch from having the freedom to come and go between work and home to being limited to a horizontal position; and finally, (5) a transition from shallow relationships to a genuine one with Gerasim.  The main character shows signs of the realization of these ironic reversals as he reflects on his life.  A thought occurs to Ivan Ilych: “It is just as though I have been going downhill while imagining that I was going up.”  He realizes the true direction of his life and regrets chasing trivial pursuits.  Another sub-text pointing to reversals is Ivan’s changing moods.  On a regular day, he experiences hope in the daylight and feels despair in the night.  However, when Gerasim assists Ivan in the evening, his spirits rise.  Ivan realizes what is important in life and that is living authentically.

Since the first six chapters prepare the reader for a gradual decline of Ivan’s quality of life, Tolstoy artistically designs the last six chapters to lead up to a creative and almost miraculous reversal.  First, the author provides Ivan with the caring Gerasim, whom he does not deserve, because he never showed care for anyone else other than himself.  Next, while his journey toward death is rather torturous, it offers relief and releases to him in the end.  Ivan gets to escape the consequences of his life’s choices and the contraction of time and space around him.  Finally, in mentally returning to his past, Ivan makes time turn backward and thus, annuls the direction in which he is going.  “Thus, while the text is the vehicle of Ivan’s temporal, spatial, and physiological movement from birth to death, its sub-text is the vehicle of his spiritual, non-spatial, and atemporal progress from death to rebirth.”


While Ivan Ilych is the focus of the story, Tolstoy writes in his My Confession that Ivan is the embodiment of his own spiritual realization.  Even though the story was written in the cultural setting of the 1800’s, there are many lessons that the modern readers can take to heart.  One of the lessons that Tolstoy compels his readers to conclude are ways in which Ivan makes his decisions.  He follows the way of life of the bourgeois society in which he lives.  Thus, to avoid repeating his mistakes, one should question the ways of culture, judge the morality of the popular movements, and stand firm on one’s convictions.  Second, his friendships and marriage with Praskovya Fyodorovna become pursued for selfish reasons: “Ivan was doing what was agreeable to himself in securing such a wife, and at the same time doing what persons of higher standing looked upon as correct.”  Therefore, to avoid the pretense and loneliness at the end of life, one should build authentic relationships for unselfish reasons with those around him.  Third, in regards to his work, Ivan fulfills his duties but with the expectation to continue raising his rank and pursuing more money; yet, he is never fully content: “With their new income, which was always only a little – some five hundred rubles – too little.”  Ivan’s career success becomes his idol.  To avoid great disappointment when it becomes impossible to do one’s job, it is important that it does not become an obsession and one’s only source of fulfillment.  Finally, Ivan’s biggest mistake was that the above-mentioned factors were merely external moving parts that he set in place to conform to the societal expectations.  Since he is so concerned with the external, he completely neglects the internal and is completely unprepared to have a moral conversation with himself.  Thus, while the world says that the physical reality is all there is to life, Ivan’s example shows that emptiness on the inside can be even more terrifying than the brokenness on the outside.

Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych addresses a common human concern of demise in a fascinating fashion.  Tolstoy creates the conditions in which Ivan’s physical ailment reveals his spiritual disease.  He uses the disorder of the physical nature to root out the disarray of the soul.  Such tactic makes the reader wonder, what ailments of the soul are hiding within his or her own depths.  As the reader participates in Ivan Ilych’s transition from life to an important realization, and then toward death, one grasps the fact that this could happen to anyone.  Thus, it is critical that those who care about how they live and how they die, examine their present pursuits and the authenticity of their relationships.  Death comes upon everyone.   Perhaps, Ivan Ilych had a little more power over “how” he died than he thought.  Thankfully, he realized the wrongness of his life and had just enough time to tell the reader about what matters in life.


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