Study Guide

The Death of Ivan Ilych Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

By Leo Tolstoy

Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory

Space and Time Running Amok

So what's up with Tolstoy starting the story with Ivan's funeral? If you think about it, that's only one respect in which the pacing of this novella is strange. We start the story after the main character has already died, we spend the next two chapters flying through 44 years of his life, and then we spend the remaining nine chapters on his last months. Sometimes the narrator will focus on a particular day, other times he'll just describe "the way Ivan was" for some period (days, weeks, months) during his illness.

There is something of a method to this madness, though. If you think about it, excluding the first introductory chapter, time in the book continuously shrinks. Chapter 2 covers more than 40 years, the following chapter deals with three and a half years, the next chapter addresses several months or so, and the last five chapters cover a matter of weeks. The narrator tells us near the end of the last chapter that Ivan experiences all of his revelation "in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change" (12.15-16). To the people watching Ivan, that moment would have occurred over several hours. So, if we want to take Ivan's time as our base, time in the novella contracts from a long span of years at its beginning to a single instant at its end.

Not only that, space shrinks too. Since Chapter 2 covers as much time as it does, its physical setting is huge; Ivan travels to several different provinces in the course of it. The setting for Chapter 3 is "St. Petersburg," in which Ivan finds his house. For the next few chapters, much of the action takes place in the house, but Ivan is still traveling around the city (to see doctors, to go to work, etc.). After a certain point he becomes homebound, until by Chapter 10 he no longer leaves his sofa, on which he presumably dies. More and more of the narrative also moves to Ivan's head as the story progresses, culminating in his experience of the light. His experience of time and his state of mind at that point are different from what everyone else sees. It's as if Ivan's world has contracted spatially until it's finally shrinks even beyond his body to his soul.

It's a nifty effect, but why does Tolstoy do this? What do you think about it? We think that one possible explanation is that it focuses the story in a very noticeable way on Ivan, and more specifically, on Ivan's soul. To be saved from his false life, Ivan has to leave the entirety of his past and all of the false outside world behind. It is only within his own soul that Ivan is able to find real life.

That Ivan's last moments are wholly internal and somehow frozen in time suggest that he has finally entered the spiritual world. The whole narrative – and his whole life – can then be seen as leading him to that point.

It's interesting to note, though, that Ivan reaches that point at the same moment that he's touched by someone from the outside – by his son. He's also able to reach out to his family in compassion for the first time at that moment, and think beyond his own selfishness. But this comes only after he's retreated all the way inside himself.

Now, how about that first chapter? We don't really have a suggestion for how you can fit it into the overall construct of the story. Wouldn't it have been strange if Tolstoy had just started at Chapter 2, with that very condensed version of Ivan's life story? It feels more natural to begin with some kind of prelude, and if the story ends with Ivan's death, it's got to be either before his birth or after his death. Ivan's death frames the rest of the story and puts into context the rest of his life. We know that we are looking back on a life already lived.

The Black Sack

That mysterious long, narrow, deep black sack makes two appearances in the novella. The first time it shows up is right after Ivan's been given some opium in Chapter 9. While in the opium haze he feels as if he's going through a long, narrow, deep black sack. Falling through is slow and painful, and he wants to reach the bottom, but is also afraid of what's there. He can't seem to reach it. And then, suddenly…through the bottom he goes. Ivan wakes up and comes back to his senses. He starts listening to his soul and first considers the possibility that his life has been lived wrongly.

The second time the sack shows up is right at the end, during Ivan's three days of screaming. It's a similar experience, although this time we get many more specifics:

For three whole days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible, resistless force. He struggled as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself. And every moment he felt that despite all his efforts he was drawing nearer and nearer to what terrified him. He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into that black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it. He was hindered from getting into it by his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life held him fast and prevented his moving forward, and it caused him most torment of all. (12.3)

We know there's a mysterious force, which is thrusting Ivan through the sack. We also know that at the bottom of the sack lies something that terrifies him, to which he's drawing closer and closer. We learn that Ivan's justification of his life is preventing him from going through the sack, and that's what torturing him most. When Ivan falls through the sack this second time he sees the light.

What is the deal with the long black sack? To us it sounds like it represents Ivan's own life – his false life, which is to say his whole life up to that climactic final realization. The sack is long, dark and torturous to go through, like Ivan's life has been. At the bottom is an escape, which Ivan is afraid of even as he desires it. But we would say that the death at the end of the sack isn't really total death, but the death of Ivan's false life. If it were just death, period, there probably wouldn't be light there. But the death of Ivan's false life means a new beginning. It's the beginning of a life for Ivan's soul. To arrive at that beginning, though, Ivan has to stop clinging to his false.

You might also see the black sack as representing Ivan's sickness. It's painful to go through his illness, and the escape is death. Bodily death certainly would put an end to Ivan's illness, and it's obvious why he would want it even as he's afraid of it. But then, as we just asked, how would there be light at the bottom?

Finally, why does Ivan see the sack twice? We can't say for sure. But the first sack does seem to prefigure the second. It's after falling through the first one that Ivan first realizes both that his life was unhappy and that it might have been wrong. That's the point when his life actually starts looking to him like a long, narrow black sack. Falling through the first sack is a step towards the genuine light that Ivan finds at the bottom of the second sack. What's revealed to him after going through the first sack – that his life might have been a mistake – is what he has to accept to fall through the second.