“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” by Tolstoy
The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Tolstoy is a novella presenting a chronicle of the illness and death of a judicial official Ivan Ilyich, preceded by his life story. Through the description of how Ivan Ilyich experiences the approaching end, Tolstoy conveys the message of spiritual salvation. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the rebirth is associated with the awakening of consciousness; Ivan Ilyich realizes that his entire former life was meaningless right before his final hour. The all-encompassing moral message of the story is that living unconsciously is akin to not having lived at all.
The basis of the plot is the epiphany of Ivan Ilyich. Tolstoy suggests that one must mercilessly condemn the past to overcome it; abandon selfishness, the “pleasant life,” to serve others; expose lies to find the truth (Tolstoy 153). The Death of Ivan Ilyich differs from Tolstoy’s usual style because the descriptions do not explicitly reveal the underlying meaning, which conveys a moral purpose more powerfully (Carr-Phillips). The Death of Ivan Ilyich is endowed with a creative task: to reveal how to value every moment of life (Afandiyeva). Tolstoy establishes moral guidelines by which a person ought to live but does so implicitly by bringing examples of role models or little honorable deeds.
One example of establishing a role model conveys Tolstoy’s sympathy for the working class by describing Ivan Ilyich’s servant, Gerasim. Gerasim embodies the best qualities of the peasant class: industriousness, simplicity, and being “always cheerful and bright” (Tolstoy 141). Additionally, the young peasant was the only one who cared attentively for Ivan Ilyich throughout his struggles. Gerasim’s way of life and his moral spirit is shown to be a model of the true meaning of life (Duns). Gerasim’s example plays a key role in the plot development, pushing Ivan Ilyich to compare and evaluate his own life.
Shown as a shallow character, Ivan Ilyich only begins to reflect on the past in the days of his illness. At first, he is not able to comprehend that his existence is coming to an end: “At the bottom of his heart Ivan Ilyich knew that he was dying; but so far from growing used to this idea, he simply did not grasp it—he was utterly unable to grasp it.” (Tolstoy 138). As his sickness progresses, he begins to achieve enlightenment, pushed by his fear of death. Instead of hiding or avoiding the contemplation of his past, Ivan Ilyich finally faces it.
The key scene in the plot is a deep reflection and an insight that Ivan Ilyich ponders just two hours before his death. One night, when Ivan Ilyich investigates the good-natured face of Gerasim, it suddenly occurs to him: “What if in reality all my life, my conscious life, has been not the right thing?” (Tolstoy 160). He reflects on his little attempts to wrestle against the conventional ideas of the higher class, thinking that these could be the real ones, while everything else may not be (Tolstoy). Ivan Ilyich’s service, his devices of life, his family, and societal interests – it could all be: “not the right thing” (Tolstoy 160). Ivan Ilyich then muses that he still could make the right life choices if he only knew how: “‘What is the right thing?’ he asked himself, and suddenly he became quiet” (Tolstoy 160). In this scene, Tolstoy shows how utterly lost and hopeless one can be at the life’s end if their whole prior life lacked meaning.
In his life’s last moments, Ivan Ilyich realized that his past was full of mistakes with a few truly real moments. Much of his time has been preoccupied with meaningless chatter of high society and pointless tasks (Ndirangu). Death brings a welcome relief: “There was no terror because death was not either. In the place of death there was light” (Tolstoy 161). Loss of life frees the protagonist from physical pain and the lies and delusions of a considered ‘decent’ yet empty living (Duns). The description of light in place of death’s horrors points to the semi-religious motif of the story.
The author’s portrayal of Ivan Ilyich’s life reflects the spiritual crisis and spiritual trials of humanity. Only death shines a light on the deeper, profound meaning of existence; Tolstoy warns the readers against sharing Ivan Ilyich’s fate. At the same time, Tolstoy expresses his idea of spiritual salvation in this story (Afandiyeva). Ivan Ilyich believes that, in a sense, death is another kind of rebirth (Duns). Although Tolstoy avoids making an explicit homage to conventional Christianity, the story nonetheless conveys quasi-religious overtones (Duns). For Ivan Ilyich, finding peace after his demise brought him the highest meaning of life.
To conclude, The Death of Ivan Ilyich presents the reflection on what it means to live one’s life meaningfully and fully. Through showing the progression of Ivan Ilyich’s thoughts as he nears the end of his days, Tolstoy critically examines the hypothetical scenario that could become anyone’s end. The story reveals the implicit message that calls for truly thinking about one’s life choices to avoid the regretful end. However, at the very end, Tolstoy gives the readers hope by hinting at the possibility of spiritual redemption. The overall moral message of The Death of Ivan Ilyich is that people must live consciously and choose meaningfully to achieve true peace at the end of their existence.
Afandiyeva, Ayten Arif. “The Influence of Leo Tolstoy on the Work of European Writers from the Standpoint of Developing Family Themes.” Laplage Em Revista, vol. 7, no. 3A. 2021, pp. 682–95. Web.
Carr-Phillips, Jacqueline. “A Comparative Study of the Elements of Narrative Technique in the English Translation of Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Chekhov’s The Grasshopper”. Athens Journal of Philology, vol. 5, no. 3. 2018, pp. 163–78. Web.
Duns, Ryan Gerard. “Desire and Conversion in The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. Contagion: Journal of Violence Mimesis and Culture, vol. 27, 2020, pp. 215–38. Silverchair. Web.
Ndirangu, Tania W. “On Speech and Silence in Dostoyevsky’s The Grand Inquisitor and Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. Emory Journal of Asian Studies, 2020, pp. 1–13. Web.
Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories, edited by David A. Goldfarb, translated by Constance Garnett, EBook, Barnes & Noble, 2004, pp. 104–60. Open WorldCat. Web.