Study Guide

The Death of Ivan Ilych Mortality

By Leo Tolstoy


Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych's death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that, "it is he who is dead and not I." (1.17)

The reaction to Ivan's death on the part of his friends and acquaintances is completely superficial. They just don't get that they will in fact die too. It's impossible for any one of them to understand what dying really means; they can't envision themselves as dying one day. Instead, they take a perverse sort of glee in knowing that someone else died but life goes on for them. Because they don't understand their own deaths, they also can't really sympathize with Ivan. None of Ivan's friends can understand how he experienced the process of dying. Tolstoy will contrast their attitude towards death as something others do with Ivan's experience of confronting his own death.

The dead man lay, as dead men always lie, in a specially heavy way, his rigid limbs sunk in the soft cushions of the coffin, with the head forever bowed on the pillow. His yellow waxen brow with bald patches over his sunken temples was thrust up in the way peculiar to the dead, the protruding nose seeming to press on the upper lip. He was much changed and grown even thinner since Peter Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than when he was alive. The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly. Besides this there was in that expression a reproach and a warning to the living. This warning seemed to Peter Ivanovich out of place, or at least not applicable to him. He felt a certain discomfort and so he hurriedly crossed himself once more and turned and went out of the door – too hurriedly and too regardless of propriety, as he himself was aware. (1.27)

Earlier, when he first heard the news, Peter Ivanovich seemed untroubled by Ivan's death. Now, confronted with the actual corpse of someone he knew well (and someone his own age) it's much harder for him not to feel a little bit of fear. He's not used to coping with that feeling, which is why he leaves as soon as he starts to feel it. The description of Ivan's expression is also notable. It's the first hint that Ivan will actually find some kind of redemption or fulfillment in death, and it offers a contrast to Peter Ivanovich's fearful state of mind.

From the time of his visit to the doctor, Ivan Ilych's chief occupation was the exact fulfillment of the doctor's instructions regarding hygiene and the taking of medicine, and the observation of his pain and his excretions. His chief interest came to be people's ailments and people's health. When sickness, deaths, or recoveries were mentioned in his presence, especially when the illness resembled his own, he listened with agitation which he tried to hide, asked questions, and applied what he heard to his own case. (4.15)

Ivan is by no means sure he's going to die at this point, but death is definitely starting to appear as a possibility. He's afraid of it, in a way he hasn't been afraid before. Now he can also relate to all of the other people who are ill, dying, or dead in a new way, because death no longer seems like something only other people do. It's also noticeable how quickly Ivan's fear of death takes over everything else in his life. His possible death is the most important thing in his life now.

"My God! My God!" he muttered. "Again, again! And it will never cease." And suddenly the matter presented itself in a quite different aspect. "Vermiform appendix! Kidney!" he said to himself. "It's not a question of appendix or kidney, but of life and...death. Yes, life was there and now it is going, going and I cannot stop it. Yes. Why deceive myself? Isn't it obvious to everyone but me that I'm dying, and that it's only a question of weeks, may happen this moment. There was light and now there is darkness. I was here and now I'm going there! Where?" A chill came over him, his breathing ceased, and he felt only the throbbing of his heart. (5.15)

This is the moment where it first hits Ivan fully that he is going to die. Death no longer seems like a mere possibility; it's something that's going to happen to him. Now he's forced to come to terms with what it means. What will become of him? Will he really just cease to be? It's also worth noting that this is the moment when Ivan stops thinking primarily in medical terms.

In the depth of his heart he knew he was dying, but not only was he not accustomed to the thought, he simply did not and could not grasp it.

The syllogism he had learnt from Kiesewetter's Logic: "Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal," had always seemed to him correct as applied to Caius, but certainly not as applied to himself. That Caius – man in the abstract – was mortal, was perfectly correct, but he was not Caius, not an abstract man, but a creature quite, quite separate from all others. He had been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a nurse, afterwards with Katenka and will all the joys, griefs, and delights of childhood, boyhood, and youth. What did Caius know of the smell of that striped leather ball Vanya had been so fond of? Had Caius kissed his mother's hand like that, and did the silk of her dress rustle so for Caius? Had he rioted like that at school when the pastry was bad? Had Caius been in love like that? Could Caius preside at a session as he did? "Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it's altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible." (6.2-3)

This brings out the difference between understanding intellectually that people die, and understanding what death means. Ivan has known that everybody dies since he was a kid, but it's never sunk in that he, Ivan Ilych, with all of his memories, joys, and loves will completely cease to exist at some point. It's significant that he thinks back to his "Vanya" days. This is the first time we get a suggestion that Ivan was once happy as a child. Perhaps he was happy because he was loved by his parents. Their care and love gave him a sense of himself as something unique, important, and valuable. But nothing can save him now from dying.

But suddenly in the midst of those proceedings the pain in his side, regardless of the stage the proceedings had reached, would begin its own gnawing work. Ivan Ilych would turn his attention to it and try to drive the thought of it away, but without success. It would come and stand before him and look at him, and he would be petrified and the light would die out of his eyes, and he would again begin asking himself whether It alone was true. And his colleagues and subordinates would see with surprise and distress that he, the brilliant and subtle judge, was becoming confused and making mistakes. He would shake himself, try to pull himself together, manage somehow to bring the sitting to a close, and return home with the sorrowful consciousness that his judicial labours could not as formerly hide from him what he wanted them to hide, and could not deliver him from It. And what was worst of all was that It drew his attention to itself not in order to make him take some action but only that he should look at It, look it straight in the face: look at it and without doing anything, suffer inexpressibly. (6.7)

Ivan's death is personified here – and capitalized too – as It. It feels like some kind of active force that follows him wherever he goes. It's also inescapable; nothing Ivan does can make him stop thinking about the fact he's going to die. But what's particularly awful is that even though Ivan is forced to think about it, Ivan can't accomplish anything by thinking about it. He's powerless. All he can do, as the narrator tells us, is suffer.

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.

He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death.

In place of death there was light. (12.13-14)

Even though Ivan is just about to die, we are told that "there is no death." What could this mean? It doesn't just mean that Ivan's no longer afraid of death. It is because there is no death that Ivan is no longer afraid of death. Does he mean that he's no longer spiritually dead, because he's found meaning and happiness in his life? Does this mean that he's somehow aware that he'll keep on living in an afterlife, or at least has faith that he will? Perhaps the two of them together. His soul is alive – he's happy and fulfilled – as it has never been before, and its life is only just beginning.