Tolstoy: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

Leo Tolstoy’s short novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, provides a great introduction to understanding the connection between death and the meaning of life. It tells the story of a forty-five-year-old lawyer who is self-interested, opportunistic, and busy with mundane affairs. He has never considered his own death until disease strikes. Now, as he confronts his mortality, he wonders what his life has meant, whether he has made the right choices, and what will become of him. For the first time, he is becoming … conscious.

The novel begins a few moments after Ivan’s death, as family members and acquaintances have gathered to mark his passing. These people don’t understand death, because they cannot really comprehend their own deaths. For them, death is something objective that is not happening to them. They see death as Ivan did all his life, as an objective event rather than a subjective existential experience. “Well isn’t that something—he’s dead, but I’m not, was what each of them thought or felt.”[i] They only praise God that they are not dying, and immediately consider how his death might be to their advantage in terms of money or position.

The novel then takes us back thirty years to the prime of Ivan’s life. He lives a life of mediocrity, studies law, and becomes a judge. Along the way he expels all personal emotions from his life, doing his work objectively and coldly. He is a strict disciplinarian and father figure, the quintessential Russian head of the household. Jealous and obsessed with social status, he is happy to get a job in the city where he buys and decorates a large house. While decorating he falls and hits his side, an accident that will facilitate the illness that eventually kills him. He becomes bad-tempered and bitter, refusing to come to terms with his own death. As his illness progresses a peasant named Gerasim stays by his bedside, becoming his friend and confidant.

Only Gerasim shows sympathy for Ivan’s torment—offering him kindness and honesty—while his family thinks that Ivan is a bitter old man. Through his friendship with Gerasim Ivan begins to look at his life anew, realizing that the more successful he became, the less happy he was. He wonders whether he has done the right thing, and comprehends that by living as others expected him to, he may not have lived as he should. His reflection brings agony. He cannot escape the belief that the kind of man he became was not the kind of man he should have been. He is finally experiencing the existential phenomenon of death.

Gradually he becomes more contented and begins to feel sorry for those around him, realizing that they are too involved in the life he is leaving to understand that it is artificial and ephemeral. He dies in a moment of exquisite happiness. On his deathbed: “ It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false.”[ii]

Tolstoy’s story forces us to consider how painful it is to reflect on a life lived without meaning, and how the finality of death seals any possibility of future meaning. If, when we approach the end of our lives, we find that they were not meaningful—and there will be nothing we can do to rectify the situation. What an awful realization that must be. It was as if Kierkegaard had Ilyich in mind when he said:

This is what is sad when one contemplates human life, that so many live out their lives in quiet lostness … they live, as it were, away from themselves and vanish like shadows. Their immortal souls are blown away, and they are not disquieted by the question of its immortality, because they are already disintegrated before they die.[iii]

Now consider an even more chilling question. What difference would it make even if a life had been meaningful? Wouldn’t death erase most, if not all, of its meaning anyway? Wouldn’t it be even more painful to leave a life of meaningful work and family? Perhaps we should live a meaningless life to reduce the pain we will feel when leaving it? But then that doesn’t seem right either.

Summary – Confronting the reality of death forces us to reflect on the meaning of life.


[i] Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich (New York: Bantam Books, 1981), 37.
[ii] Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Chapter XI.
[iii] Soren Kierkegaard, “Balance between Esthetic and Ethical,” in Either/Or, vol. II, Walter Lowrie, trans., (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1944).

Liked it? Take a second to support Dr John Messerly on Patreon!
Become a patron at Patreon!

10 thoughts on “Tolstoy: “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”

  1. Excellent summary of one of my favorite Tolstoy works. One thing only I would add. That to read “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is to know what it is like to die. Tolstoy’s description of Ivan’s final hours, in agony yet eventually breaking through that into a mystical calm, proved prescient, remarkably like the descriptions of those who have returned from near death experiences.

  2. Wow extremely deep article, reminds me of Thoreau.
    “Most men live lives of quiet desperation ”
    “Make this your business in life, learn how to feel Joy ” Seneca

  3. Ivan Ilyich, has never considered his own death until disease struck. Now, as he confronts his mortality, he wonders what his life has meant, whether he has made the right choices, and what will become of him. For the first time he is becoming , not conscious, he has always been conscious… but worried, what is he so worried about and why now?
    As we look in on the scene from our perch as a fly on the wall, we see his family and friends gathered and talking, perhaps not quite so grief stricken as Ivan might have thought he wished, but respectful and thoughtful as they consider how his passing will affect their lives and fortune! This is normal human behaviour, when we attend funerals we are all glad it was them and not us!
    In his final days Ivan had a friend, an impromptu friend, a man, who, because he was from a much different class with much different concerns, could look at Ivan and see him objectively and could detect and sympathize with his pain as he would have with any creature in pain, ideas of self importance or the meaning of life were far from his thoughts, but like all good people He tried to help any creature that He found suffering, without any need for self examination he felt he was a Good man, and that was all he needed to feel to claim his place among the Righteous here on Earth! and the place that surely awaited him in the hereafter!
    Did Gerasim (the friend’s) life have meaning? He was unimportant, and uncelebrated, can unimportant, uncelebrated people live meaningful lives? He was a blessing for Ivan Ilyich who surely appreciated him and has kind ministrations, but did anyone else note his presence or absence when he was gone? Possibly he didn’t have to worry about these things, his internal reverie protected him from such concerns.
    Perhaps the question is; to live meaningful lives do we have to be acclaimed by others as being meaningful and important, or can we accept that life is a lottery and what ever role turns up for you, you can be a good person and do what you can to make the World a better place!
    It probably is good to be regarded as important, a useful tool in your tool box, as long as you don’t start to think that you really are important, we live in an ephemeral ever-changing World where Death always awaits as it always has. The consequence of being born is that we have to die, once you are dead you will have no regrets!

    Thank you Dr. M. and all the other posters.

  4. My thoughts at 76 years of age: I neither confirm, nor deny the existence of God, or an afterlife. But the mere fact that I don’t know gives me, if not faith, at least a tiny hope that I might have another chance at achieving meaning.

  5. I have heard commentators say that a key part of the philosophical method employed by Socrates in every matter was to insist that his interlocuters state precise definitions of key terms before proceeding logically toward any moral judgment or conclusion on a matter.

    So, for example, in this instance, Socrates might push us to arrive at precise-as-possible definitions of “death” and “meaning.”

    But does this “philosophical method” really lead us to satisfying results? Does it just lead to endless discussion, arguing, theorizing, rationalizing, and nitpicking?

    I wish there was a philosophical method or approach that could be used for all matters in life; a trustworthy, valid, convincing method.

    Take for example this: Lately in the news we hear a lot about “Critical Race Theory.” I heard someone talking about Critical Race Theory on TV, and she used these phrases and terms:

    “unconditional love”
    “Black Lives Matter”
    “White Supremacy”

    I believe that this person had, operating in her mind (almost like a computer Operating System), philosophical system (complete with views on metaphysics, epistemology, ethics, politics, and aesthetics), whether she fully realized it or not. Mostly, I think she really did not have much of a perspective on her own mind, on how it works, on what it’s innate biological and psychological needs and limits are, and so forth.

    The question is: How should I (or you) evaluate that person’s philosophical system?

    There are all those Conservatives saying that Critical Race Theory is just warmed over, recycled, or revived Communism or Marxism. Is there ANY merit to that judgment? I think there is some degree of legitimacy to that view. Some people do get excited by Utopian visions (of the Left or of the Right), and so fail to exercise critical thinking on what excites them, much as a person who is in the throes of Romantic Love is often not a good judge of the character of the person they love.

    But, to many in the Right Wing, everything that is not Right Wing is Communism or Marxism, and to many in the Left Wing, everything that is not Left Wing is Fascism or Nazism.

    My point is this: Is there some non-arbitrary way to reason through cases like this and arrive at something like what Plato called the True, the Good, the Beautiful?

    That’s what Western Philosophy seems to have been promising us for about 2,500 years now. But has Western Philosophy delivered on that promise?

    I’m no one to judge, really, but I will anyway: NO, it has not delivered on that promise. We’ve been left hugely disappointed. Each year I imagine that many people take philosophy classes in our universities, and I suspect that somewhere between 99% and 100% of them end up disappointed with what they get out of it.

    Stephen Hawking, the genius of physics, wrote that “Philosophy is dead.” Nietzsche said the same thing, in essence. Wittgenstein, too, I think. And others.

    So, what then are we do to?

    In the final analysis, must we just arbitrarily choose to follow our whim or best guess? Be a Trump zealot, or be a Black Lives Matter zealot, or be an Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez zealot, or be a Scientology zealot, or be an Ayn Rand zealot, or be a Mormon zealot, or be a Roman Catholic zealot, or be like a despairing nihilist like the character Rust Cohle in season 1 of the “True Detective” TV series?

    I like interacting with the minds of reasonable, thoughtful, serious, sincere, prudent, responsible, conscientious, benevolent, philosophical people. I like Socrates, Bertrand Russell, Will Durant, Cicero, Boethius, Miguel de Unamuno, John Messerly, Woody Allen, Karl Marx, Ayn Rand (yes, both Marx and Rand—both are philosophical, serious, and both make SOME good points). In Huxley’s “Brave New World,” I sympathized with the emotional John Savage, but I thought calm, benevolent, philosophical Mustapha Mond was the hero. But I wonder: to where or to what does all this contemplativeness lead? To anything good?

    In the end, is everything just arbitrary? Is everything just biological, pecuniary, and transient? “Out, out brief candle!” When our sun goes supernova, and no mind in the universe recalls that any of us ever existed, will any of this even matter?

    Is philosophy and philosophizing just a form of palliative care?

  6. A fine death bed redemption story. Personally, I liked how Socrates left us, not by drinking poison, but fulfilling a dying obligation–reminding a friend to pay back a chicken he owed to a friend. Then he was gone…but not forgotten.

  7. Question-Do we really need to be able to define death to live an elevated existence ?
    Is Death really Death ?
    Is it Death or the approaching of Death that distresses us ?

    “If you would be Happy you must think on Death ” Seneca

  8. I just don’t like Tolstoy’s Christian slop. The Abrahamic faiths attempt to put out fire with gasoline.
    Tolstoy wrote a long time ago, and back then one had to pay respect to Christianity for appearances’ sake. But that gives me to wonder: why read all this high flown prose? Because it is expected of a scholar? As with Solzhenitsyn? The more angst, the holier thou art? The holier thine artistry?

  9. “In the end, is everything just arbitrary? Is everything just biological, pecuniary, and transient? ‘Out, out brief candle!’ When our sun goes supernova, and no mind in the universe recalls that any of us ever existed, will any of this even matter?” I completely hear you, Tom (above)! Part of me says that it’s like you took the words right out of my mouth, and I’m sure many others’ who come across your insightful comment. Your final paragraph, (I just had to quote that), reminds me of the final line in T. S. Elliot’s ‘Hollow Men’: “This is the way the world ends, not with a bang, but a whimper.” And part of me says that the fact that you expressed yourself so eloquently in philosophical terms is the living proof that we (you) need philosophy. Any attempt in questioning ‘it’, or denying ‘it’, or escaping ‘it’, only results in further utilizing ‘it.’ 

    You started by asking ‘What Is Good Philosophy?’ and then made a transition to another question, ‘What Good Is Philosophy?’ My gut reaction is that every philosopher (of the last 2500 years, as you mentioned), including Nietzsche and Wittgenstein, would have something profound to say, to answer those essential questions. Something that will just make us hang in there a bit longer. Who knows, maybe we won’t let go at all; of philosophy, I mean. Coincidentally I came upon the following by Wittgenstein the other day. “Philosophy hasn’t made any progress? — If somebody scratches the spot where he has an itch, do we have to see some progress? Isn’t it genuine scratching otherwise, or genuine itching? And can’t this reaction to an irritation continue in the same way for a long time before a cure for the itching is discovered?”

    I’m a newbie to all this, so forgive me if my comment lacks coherence. Your observations resonate deeply in me and I just had to express my appreciation for your unreserved, sincere expression. But, dear Tom, is it possible that you’re seeking the wrong thing from philosophy? “It is through art, and through art only that we can realize our perfection; through art, and art only that we can shield ourselves from the sordid perils of actual existence.” Oscar Wilde.   

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.