In 1886, the Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy, famous for such masterpieces as Anna Karenina and War and Peace, penned a short novella: The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The title character is a 19th century Russian businessman who seems to have everything one could want from life: a family and a successful career. However, when he accidently falls off a ladder while hanging curtains, he suffers a fatal injury and must face the inescapability of his own mortality. On his deathbed, he finally accepts the truth that he has led a selfish and meaningless life. However, he also comes to the realization that he can find redemption by asking for the forgiveness of God. Ultimately, The Death of Ivan Ilyich portrays Ilyich’s spiritual journey from anguish to peace, from the fear of death to hope in a future afterlife, from secular humanism to faith in an all-wise and merciful God.
Before Ivan suffers his fatal injury, he leads what seems a satisfactory life. However, in reality it is a meaningless one. Throughout the story, Tolstoy shows that all of Ivan’s decisions are made out of self-interest with no concern for others. For example, when speaking of Ilyich’s marriage to Praskovya Fyodorovna, Tolstoy observes, “Ivan Ilyich married for both reasons: in acquiring such a wife he did something that gave him pleasure and, at the same time, did what people of the highest standing considered correct” (56). In other words, Ivan did not marry his wife because he was smitten with love. He married because he wanted to enjoy the benefits of marriage and because society thought it to be respectable. As the years drag on, Ivan and his wife continually fight and grow unhappy together.Ivan thinks only of himself and not of his wife’s feelings.
Indeed, Tolstoy describes Ivan as a man who lacks a moral compass. He writes,
As a student he had done things which, at the time, seemed to him extremely vile and made him feel disgusted with himself; but later, seeing that people of high standing had no qualms about doing these things, he was not quite able to consider them good but managed to dismiss them and not feel the least perturbed when he recalled them (50 – 51).
Ivan continues to drift peacefully through his self-centered egotistic life, except in those moments when his wife berates him over his drinking habits or over his social outings with his friends. However, he doesn’t face any true troubles, until one day when he is hanging curtains in his house. He loses his footing and falls off of the ladder. However, he tries to ignore the accident and carries on in his usual manner. Yet, unknown to Ivan, this fall has severely injured his internal organs, causing a fatal disease. Due to the ill effects of his disease, Ivan’s already selfish nature radically worsens. Tolstoy writes:
He invariably began caviling when he sat down to dinner – often just as he was starting on his soup. Either he noticed that a dish was chipped, or the food was not good, or his son had put his elbow on the table, or his daughter had not combed her hair properly. And for all this he blamed Praskovya Fyodorovna (73-74).
Ultimately, Ivan is continuing to look for ways to point out the faults of others without evaluating his own character. He is hypocritical, commenting on the specks in other people’s eyes while ignoring the log in his own.
It soon becomes clear to Ivan that he is dying from his disease. The thought of death is so horrifying that Ivan tries as hard as he can to blot it out of his mind. However, try as he might, he cannot get Kiezewetter’s syllogism out of his head: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal” (93). Ivan has no choice but to apply this syllogism to himself. With the passing of every day, his condition worsens. He becomes even more miserable and depressed. Due to the advanced stages of his disease, he can no longer take care of himself. However, a servant boy named Gerasim performs this task without complaint and with the greatest of ease. Ivan soon becomes friends with Gerasim, because he is amazed at his unconditional brotherly love. When Ivan asks Gerasim why he helps him, Gerasim replies, “Why shouldn’t I help you? You’re a sick man (100).” Gerasim shows that he is willing to give up his time to help someone simply because it is the right thing to do. He puts the emotions of others above his own, a trait Ivan significantly lacks. Ivan slowly begins to realize that Gerasim is a better person than he is. In fact, he begins to see he is not a good person at all. Now Ivan wonders if the life that he has lived has been truly meaningful or purposeless and empty.
Although Gerasim provides Ivan with enough inspiration to make him ponder his own worldview, he keeps fighting the fact that his own death is awfully near. For if he is dying, what will happen to him when he dies? What lies beyond the grave? Is there a God? And if there is, will He judge him? Has Ivan led a good enough life to earn God’s favor? Ivan fears these questions because he has no answer to them. One night, as he is pressured by his wife to take opium to ease the pain, he has a strange dream. Tolstoy writes:
It seemed to him that he and his pain were being thrust into a narrow black sack—a deep one—were thrust farther and farther in but could not be pushed to the bottom. And this dreadful business was causing him suffering. He was afraid of that sack, yet wanted to fall through; struggled, yet cooperated. And then suddenly he lost his grip and fell—and regained consciousness (117).
Tolstoy makes it very clear here that the black sack is a symbol of death. Because Ivan is falling through the sack but has not reached the bottom, Tolstoy shows that he is dying, but he is not dead yet. The reason why Ivan simultaneously fights and cooperates with the sack is because his life is to him a living death due to his pain. Therefore, Ivan wishes to stay alive because he values his life; however, his life is a sorrowful one, and thus he also wishes to end it.
When he awakes, he begins to blame God for his miserable deteriorating life. Tolstoy writes:
He cried about his helplessness, about his terrible loneliness, about the cruelty of people, about the cruelty of God, about the absence of God. “Why hast Thou done all this? Why hast Thou brought me to this? Why dost Thou torture me so? For what?” He did not expect an answer, and he cried because there was no answer and there could be none. The pain started up again, but he did not stir, did not call out. He said to himself: “Go on then! Hit me again! But what for? What for? What have I done to Thee (118)?”
Here Ivan is now blaming God for his condition. He is so naive he fails to see his error in that God is the only being with the power to save him both physically and spiritually. Ivan asks God what he has done for God to punish him. Indeed, Ivan keeps feeding himself the lie that his life has been meaningful and true and that he has done nothing that he needs to repent of. However, as he sets his gaze on Gerasim, he begins to see his life in an entirely new light.
He tried to come up with a defense of these things and suddenly became aware of the insubstantiality of them all. And there was nothing left to defend. “But if that is the case,” he asked himself, “and I am taking leave of life with the awareness that I squandered all I was given and have no possibility of rectifying matters—what then?” He lay on his back and began to review his whole life in an entirely different light (126).
However, just minutes before his death, Ivan’s pride finally crumbles. He sees his son and his wife in tears over his tragic fate. Tolstoy writes:
“Yes, I’m torturing them,” he thought. “They fell sorry for me, but it will be better for them when I die.” He wanted to tell them this but lacked the strength to speak. “But why speak—I must do something,” he thought. He looked at his wife and, indicating his son with a glance, said: “Take him away…sorry for him…and you.” He wanted to add: “Forgive” but instead “Forget,” and too feeble to correct himself, dismissed it, knowing that He who needed to understand would understand (132-133).
In his last moments living on this earth, Ivan finally expresses care towards others like Gerasim had expressed to him. However, this cannot save him. Only God can save him if he truly repents. All he can do is to ask forgiveness of his family and of God. Doing this, he dies in peace.
Ultimately, the Death of Ivan Ilyich is the story of a man’s spiritual journey towards redemption and salvation. It doesn’t matter that Ivan only repented in the very last seconds before he died. Even if he had had a lifetime of good works, that would not have made him righteous in the eyes of God. No one deserves or can earn God’s forgiveness for their sins. And that is the point of Tolstoy’s story: no matter who you are or what you have done in your life, you are a sinner and only God can save you. Ivan eventually realized that because he had not had faith in God, he had led a mostly worthless life. However, once he repented and was reborn in Christ, he now can live a new full life with Jesus in heaven. Ivan’s life on earth was a living death, but his death becomes a new life.
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. New York: Bantam Books, 1981. Print.