Symbolism in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych”

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In The Death of Ivan Ilych, the author Leo Tolstoy uses a variety of symbols to amplify Ivan Ilych’s life. The writer perfectly captures death, materialism, corruption, greed, and illness through this symbolization. Ivan desires to attain a happy life through materialism; he moves to a new home and is injured when hanging curtains. The psychological depression of the protagonist, thinking to have wasted his life, captures him. He develops an illness that the physicians find hard to diagnose and finally succumbs to it. Leo Tolstoy’s symbols in the text were the bruise, black sack, and whist, which all signified issues that pertained to Ivan’s life and finally addressed significant thematic concerns in the book.

Black sack to symbolize fear of death

Leo Tolstoy uses the black sack symbol to portray the struggle to live that Ivan Ilych was undergoing. It appeared twice in his life: firstly after being given opium and secondly before his death through a dream at the end of three days of screaming. “He thought in some way they were pushing him and his pain into a narrow, deep lack sac” (Tolstoy 185). The black sack symbolizes death and the protagonist’s feelings toward the sack are hesitant. Despite wanting to plunge into it, he fights back and does not want to land into it. He listens to his soul and considers the probability that his life has been lived in the wrong way. The hesitance signifies the battle between Ivan’s acceptance and fear of death.

Black sack to symbolize the escape from reality

The black sack can also symbolize Ivan Ilych’s escape from reality. The protagonist had grown up living a false life that he thought could grant him the happiness he had wished for. At around 13 years, Ivan attended the School of Law, where he copied the values and behaviors of those of higher social status. He becomes a magistrate and marries Praskovya, who disrupted socially accepted Ivan’s cherished lifestyle, becoming distant from his family. “He has a wife and two children, but he does not seem very interested in them” (Cowley 200). He became concerned that his salary could not cover his family’s expenses, Ivan decided to go to St. Petersburg to find higher-paying work. He finds it in the city and buys a furnished house in preparation for his family’s arrival. Ivan wanted to be superior and different but kept imitating the life of other people. “His house was so like the others…but to him, it all seemed quite exceptional” (Tolstoy 185). Falling into the sac symbolized Ivan’s escape from the harsh realities that the protagonist faced.

New home to symbolize regrets

Falling into the black sack becomes evident in Ivan’s new home. One day as Ivan was mounting a step-ladder, the protagonist slips and bangs against the window frame. The injury is not severe, and he is pleased with the new appearance of his house. “The bruised place was painful, but the pain soon passed (Tolstoy 185).” He assumed the fall was “only a bruise,” not knowing what was to follow. He became ill-tempered in his recent home as the arrangement of things bothered him. It may be assumed that the fall caused his final death. The reality is that his new home and furniture made his life worse. Doctors argued about Ivan’s illness as they could not identify Ivan’s disease.

The first assumed it was appendicitis, floating kidney, or severe catarrh. Another thought it was a vermiform appendix; the subsequent doctors could not ascertain the cause of Ivans’ suffering. “Ivan‘s suffering is an interrogation of his life rather than the pain he feels in his body” (Efendioğlu). The author portrays a connection between the fall and Ivan’s death, as the unknown illness began after the fall. Ivans’s aspirations to have a good home and life were perhaps the source of predicaments he was to experience.

New home to symbolize the onset of the problem

After settling in his new home, Ivan’s life took a different course, and he finally regretted the life he had been living. “A queer taste in his mouth and felt some discomfort in his left side” (Tolstoy 187). The discomfort progressively increases, and Ivan becomes irritable to withstand it. His physical health deteriorated, and he became depressed and fearful; he knew death would soon befall him. The dream of the black sack significantly terrifies Ivan, and he realizes that his illness is not a question of surviving but dying. Gerasim, Ivan’s peasant farmer, helps take care of Ivan in his final days before death swallows him. “Ilych comes to a full realization of his self-deception during the last days of his illness” (Ramal 385).

Ivan regretted the life he had been living and thought he could have lived a better life. “Through his denial of illness, suffering, self-realization of what he could have done better in life and with relationships, acceptance of his fate” (Papadimos and Stawicki 126). Ivan finally dies from the unknown and undiagnosed ailment doctors had tried to find.

The bruise symbolizes the effects of worldly desires

Another symbol used by the author is Ivan’s bruise while hanging curtains in his new home. It is a representation that obsession with status was dangerous for his lifestyle. Ivan continued to deny the severity of the injury, but Tolstoy suggests in his writing that it was one of the significant events that led to the road toward his death (Tolstoy 182). Ivan cursed that he had messed up and lost his life because of a curtain. Even though the protagonist is physically alive throughout the story, he is not mentally and spiritually alive until the final days of his life. “Ivan experiences a sudden inner quietness as he acknowledges the many self-deceptions in his life and his personal failings” (Hibbs and Hallam). The bruise symbolizes that the protagonist had wasted his whole life chasing unimportant things that were meant to assist him in attaining true contentment. Instead, the things he had struggled to get ended up harming him.

The whist symbolizes worldly distractions

Tolstoy used the whist symbol to show people’s shallow, materialistic desires that distract them from attaining proper containment. Whist was a card game that Ivan and his friends played to serve as a distraction to help Ivan forget his illness briefly. Ivan was greedy and thought happiness was through materialism and competing with colleagues. “Materialistic life without any belief in God and true meaning of life make confrontation with death a very horrible thing (Zohouri et al. 76)”. Even after Ivan gets sick, he continues to play the game treating it as his routine. “Ivan’s death will not keep him from organizing the routine game of whist” ( Tolstoy 178). The card game symbolized denial of the condition that Ivan was undergoing.


In conclusion, some of the author’s symbols in The Death of Ivan Ilych were a black sack, whist, and bruise. The black sack meant Ivan’s death and his escape from the realities of the world. The bruise symbolized that the worldly desires of the protagonist had brought damage to himself. After the scrape, Ivan started experiencing a strange disease that the doctors found complicated to diagnose. The whist signified Ivan’s distractions that caused him not to attain the true meaning of containment.

Works Cited

Cowley, Christopher. “Ivan Ilych and Autobiographical Despair”. Philosophy and Literature, vol. 45, no. 1, 2021, pp. 199–210. Web.

Efendioğlu, Büşra. “Tolstoy’s Deathless Piece; the Death of Ivan Ilyich”. academia. Web.

Hibbs, Stephen, and Simon Hallam. “In Search of Gerasim Moments (the Death of Ivan Ilyich)”. HemaSphere, vol. 4, no. 6. 2020, p. e476. Web.

Papadimos, ThomasJ, and StanislawPA Stawicki. “The Death of Ivan Ilych: A Blueprint for Intervention at the End of Life”. International Journal of Critical Illness and Injury Science, vol. 1, no. 2, 2011, pp. 125–29. Web.

Ramal, Randy. “Love, Self-Deception, and the Moral ‘Must’”. Philosophy and Literature, vol. 29, no. 2, 2005, pp. 379–93. Web.

Tolstoy, L. (1886). The Death of Ivan Ilych. (trans. Louise and Aylmer Maude). In S. Barnet (Ed.), The Harper Anthology of Fiction (pp. 172-210). New York: HarperCollins Publishers.

Zohouri, Mahshid, et al. “Fourth Year Medical Students’ Reflective Writing on “Death of Ivan Ilych: A Qualitative Study”. Journal of Advances in Medical Education & Professionalism, vol. 5, no. 2. 2017, pp. 73–77. Web.