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Themes

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy uses death to explore the question of what makes for a happy life. Ivan Ilych, the main character, has lived his whole life with the aim of enjoying himself: winning power at work, spending money, buying things to impress his friends, throwing parties, and playing bridge (his favorite thing of all). He seeks only what is pleasant, and deliberately avoids whatever is unpleasant. All of his friends are basically the same way. Yet once Ivan falls ill and is faced with the prospect of dying, almost all of his old joys lose their charm. His suffering brings him to recognize that his whole life has actually been a very unhappy one, though he didn't know it. But then what does happiness mean?

Questions About Happiness

  1. Before his sickness, what does Ivan Ilych think happiness is? What are the things that make him happy?
  2. Why is it that Ivan Ilych's former joys appear false to him once he becomes ill? Does the fact that they do not console him while he is dying mean that he wasn't really happy earlier in life?
  3. Why does Ivan Ilych find the only happiness of his life in his childhood?
  4. Tolstoy seems to tell us much more about false happiness than about real, genuine happiness? Does he give any indications as to what genuine happiness is?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Before his illness, Ivan Ilych believes happiness is the same as pleasantness.

Ivan Ilych's childhood is the only happy part of his life because it is the only point at which he had any real connections to other people.

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