The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Leo Tolstoy
The Death of Ivan Ilych Mortality Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph). We used Alymer Maude's translation.
But then, when he was moving something himself, his wife would say: "Let the servants do it. You will hurt yourself again." And suddenly It would flash through the screen and he would see it. It was just a flash, and he hoped it would disappear, but he would involuntarily pay attention to his side. "It sits there as before, gnawing just the same!" And he could no longer forget It, but could distinctly see it looking at him from behind the flowers. "What is it all for?"
"It really is so! I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort. Is that possible? How terrible and how stupid. It can't be true! It can't, but it is." (6.10-11)
Ivan's confrontation with death forces him for the first time to think about whether his death will have a meaning. And that in turn is starting to change his attitude toward life. Before, he just wanted life to be enjoyable. But now that it's going to end, he wants to know why. What has his life meant, and why is he dying?
"Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done," it suddenly occurred to him. "But how could that be, when I did everything properly?" he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible. (9.25)
Ivan's death has brought out the fact that his whole life seems to have no purpose, and he's been wondering for a while now how his life could be so meaningless and unhappy. This is the first moment when it occurs to him that perhaps his life is only meaningless and unhappy because he didn't live the right way. What would the right way mean? That's not clear, but presumably if he had he wouldn't be in the horrible state he is now.
Another fortnight passed. Ivan Ilych now no longer left his sofa. He would not lie in bed but lay on the sofa, facing the wall nearly all the time. He suffered ever the same unceasing agonies and in his loneliness pondered always on the same insoluble question: "What is this? Can it be that it is Death?" And the inner voice answered: "Yes, it is Death."
When Ivan asks "What is this?" and gets the answer "Yes, it is Death," what does it mean? Does it mean that he is dying, and approaching his death quickly? Or does it mean instead that he is already dead? His body isn't dead, of course, but his spirit – his soul – is, and his life is a kind of living death. This at least suggests that there might be more meanings to death than bodily death. Perhaps we should read the ending in that light too.