"The Death of Ivan Ilych" is widely regarded as one of the most powerful meditations on death and dying in world literature, at least in part because it anticipates modern psychological discussions of the stages of dying. Written in 1886, the novella was the Russian novelist and moral philosopher Leo Tolstoy's first major work of fiction completed after his existential crisis of the late 1870s—a crisis that initiated the search for a new understanding of Christianity that was to preoccupy him for the remainder of his life. The story is a fictional adaptation of Tolstoy's autobiographical work "The Confession" (1879–1880), which recounts his personal struggle for meaning in the face of the terrifying inevitability of death. It is a classic literary case study of how awareness and acceptance of human mortality can and should change how people live their lives.
On the surface, "Ivan Ilych" is a simple story: A conventional family man and a successful judge, who is a member in good standing in high society, suddenly develops a mysterious illness that causes him agonizing pain and eventually kills him. Structurally, the story privileges Ivan's death over his life. It begins with his funeral, thus introducing him as a character who has already died, and only then chronicles his life from childhood to the onset of his illness. The story increases in speed and intensity after Ivan becomes sick: The chapters shorten and the time period depicted in each decreases dramatically from a few weeks to, in the final chapter, just a few hours. In structuring the story in this way, Tolstoy suggests that Ivan is not really alive until he begins to die.
Ivan is depicted as Everyman. Explicit details link Ivan's fate with the fate of all the characters in the story. The reader of the story is intended to learn the lesson that Tolstoy himself learned as a result of his spiritual crisis and that Ivan learns as the story unfolds: Death is an inevitable part of life, and active acceptance of this simple fact is a necessary precondition for leading a meaningful life. None of the characters in the story, with one exception, seem to understand this lesson; all treat the dying Ivan as an unpleasant and foreign intrusion into their comfortable world. The exception to this rule is Gerasim, the story's energetic peasanthero, who comforts his dying master and who says of death: "It's God's will. We shall all come to it some day" (Katz 1991, p. 129).
Tolstoy maps out Ivan's struggle to accept death through a series of subtexts that run counter to the surface plot. The subtexts tell the story of a nineteenth-century man with all the traits of the modern, twenty-first-century self: one with no spiritual life, one alienated from others, and one compelled by his illness to seek and find true meaning. When well, Ivan could avoid the "unpleasant" and believe that death is something that happens only to other people. When dying, he is forced to confront life's unpleasantness (physical discomfort, which comes to symbolize a lack of spiritual meaning) and question the rightness of how he lived his life.
Ivan's reconsideration of his life is ironically facilitated by the intense pain he experiences as his illness progresses. The pain, the most unpleasant of all circumstances Ivan has ever endured, dismantles his comfortable world and turns his pleasant and decorous life into something horribly unpleasant and false, something that Ivan must struggle against in his quest for meaning. Ivan faces his mortality both figuratively and literally because the pain is personified as a gleaming light that peeks out at him from behind houseplants and shines through all the screens that he puts up in vain attempts to block it off.
By the end of the story, Ivan's pain has become not only the central fact of his existence but the vehicle of his salvation. The pain resurrects him by sharpening or heightening all of his senses. Ivan discovers that the pain that accompanies his death is a catalyst for self-knowledge and spiritual renewal: "His ache, that gnawing ache that never ceased for a moment, seemed to have acquired a new and more serious significance" (p. 143). In accepting the pain accompanying death, Ivan symbolically rediscovers life.
Ivan suffers not because he is being punished but because Tolstoy needs a vehicle for dramatically depicting the significance of death for life.
Ivan's fate, which is everyone's fate, suggests that the inevitability of death ought to have consequences for how one's life is lived. Tolstoy delivers this seemingly simple message in a story whose haunting symbolic power survives translation across both time and culture.
Danaher, David. "The Function of Pain in Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Il'ich.'" The Tolstoy Studies Journal 10 (1998):20–28.
Dayananda, Y. J. "'The Death of Ivan Ilych': A Psychological Study on Death and Dying." Literature and Psychology 22 (1972):191–198.
Jahn, Gary, ed. Tolstoy's 'The Death of Ivan Ilych': A Critical Companion. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1999.
Jahn, Gary. The Death of Ivan Il'ich: An Interpretation. New York: Twayne, 1993.
Katz, Michael, ed. Tolstoy's Short Fiction, translated by Louise Maude and Aylmer Maude. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991.
DAVID S. DANAHER