Notes & Quotes: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Leo Tolstoy is a gargantuan literary figure.

He’s one of the most prominent writer’s of modern times.

After years of hearing about his greatness, I have finally experienced his writing, not with the epics War and Peace or Anna Karenina, but with the short story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a simple tale about the life and death of a simple man.

The story is less than 70 pages.

But within these pages Tolstoy puts you into Ivan’s shoes, and you experience Ivan’s regret for an unfulfilling life and his agony over an early death.


Latterly during the loneliness in which he found himself as he lay facing the back of the sofa, a loneliness in the midst of a populous town and surrounded by numerous acquaintances and relations but that yet could not have been more complete anywhere—either at the bottom of the sea or under the earth— during that terrible loneliness Ivan Ilyich had lived only in memories of the past. Pictures of his past rose before him one after another. They always began with what was nearest in time and then went back to what was most remote—to his childhood—and rested there.

The story begins in the courthouse where Ivan worked in the latter years of his life. One of his former colleagues announces that Ivan has died.

You first meet Ivan not as a warm blooded human, but as a lifeless body laying in a funeral casket. Tolstoy introduces you to Ivan’s family through the eyes of Ivan’s friend and colleague, who reluctantly visits Ivan’s funeral in order to pay his respects.

From there, Tolstoy brings you to the beginning of Ivan’s life with the wonderful line that foreshadows the entire story:

Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.

We quickly move through his childhood, his boyhood, and even his early years in the School of Law.

Even when he was at the School of Law he was just what he remained for the rest of this life: a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man, though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered to be his duty: and he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority.

Neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them.

All the enthusiasm of childhood and youth passed without leaving much trace on him; he succumbed to sensuality, to vanity, and laterally among the highest class to liberalism, but always within limits which his instinct unfailingly indicated to him as correct.

The story then slows down as Ivan meets the women whom he marries, not due to a deeply held value system or connection, but because it’s the convenient choice: She fell in love with him.

Ivan Ilyichh had at first no definite intention of marrying, but when the girl feel in love with him he said to himself: “Really, why shouldn’t I marry?

Praskovya Fedorovna came of a good family, was not bad looking, and had some little property. Ivan Ilyich might have aspired to a more brilliant match, but even this was good. He had his salary, and she, he hoped, would have an equal income. She was well connected, and as a sweet, pretty, and thoroughly correct young woman. To say that Ivan Ilyich married because he fell in love with Praskovya Fedorovna and found that she sympathized with his views of life would be as incorrect as to say that he married because his social circle approved of the match. He was swayed by both these considerations: the marriage gave him personal satisfaction, and at the same time it was considered the right thing by the most highly places of his associates.

So Ivan Illyich got married.

And that’s Ivan’s problem throughout his life.

The Life of Ivan Ilyich resonates with readers due to the universality of his decisions. He constantly chooses pleasure, comfort, and social approval over purpose, values, or meaning. Not because he’s scared, but because he never took the time to reflect and figure out his purpose or values. He defers to authority his whole life.

And so his life goes…

His life drifts by:

So they lived, and all went well, without change, and life flowed pleasantly.

He hides from his problems. He doesn’t ever make a choice for himself, instead following the well-worn path that society laid for him.

In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes—all the things people of certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class.

His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.

Yes, Ivan had all the trappings of a socially approved life, but he never chose them for himself. He wasted his gifts by always following authority.

The second half of the story shows the degeneration of Ivan Ilyich body and mind. He hurts himself while fixing something in the house. That small bump causes the illness that would eventually kill him.

He sees the Doctor for his pain. He refuses to accept that he’s sick or dying for weeks. But slowly, as his vitality slips away, he begins to accept that there’s no way to cure this illness.

He will die.

There was no deceiving himself: something terrible, new, and more important than anything before in his life, was taking place within him of which he alone was aware. Those about him did not understand or would not understand it, but thought everything in the world was going on as usual. That tormented Ivan Ilyich more than anything. He saw that his household, especially his wife and daughter who were in a perfect whirl of visiting, did not understand anything of it and were annoyed that he was so depressed and so exacting, as if he were to blame for it.

That leads to some of the most powerful and painful prose I’ve ever read on dying, regret, nostalgia, and loss.

Ivan Ilyich goes through the full range of emotions and experiences as he’s dying.

Tolstoy brings you into Ivan’s mind in those final weeks as he refuses to accept that he lived life the “wrong way.

Ivan Ilyich saw that he was dying, and he was in continual despair.

In the depths 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 has been little Vanya, with a mamma and a papa, with Mitya and Volodya, with the toys, a coachman and a curse, afterwards with Katenka and with 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 kisses 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 Illyich, 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.”

Such was his feeling.


“If I had to die like Caius I would have known it was so. An inner voice would have told me so, but there was nothing of the sort in me and I and all my friends felt that our case was quite different form that of Caius, and now here it is!” he said to himself. “It can’t be. It’s impossible! But here it is. How is this? How is one to understand it?

He scours his memories as he begins to evaluate the way he lived his life, and the moments which brought him pleasure and meaning surprise him:

And in imagination he began to recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed— none of them except the first recollection of childhood. There, in childhood, there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live if it could return. But the child who experienced that happiness existed no longer, it was like a reminiscence of somebody else.

As soon as the period began which had produced the present Ivan Ilyich, all that had then seemed joys now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial and often nasty.

And the further he departed from childhood and the nearer he came to the present the more worthless and doubtful were the joys.
This began with the School of Law. A little that was really good was still found there— there was light-heartedness, friendship, and hope. But in the upper classes there had already been fewer of such good moments. Then during the first years of his official career, when he was in the service of the governor, some pleasant moments again occurred: they were memories of love for a woman. Then all became confused and there was still less of what was good; later on again there was still less that was good, and the further he went the less there was. His marriage, a mere accident, then the disenchantment that followed it, his wife’s bad breath and the sensuality and hypocrisy: then that deadly official life and those preoccupations about money, a year of it, and two, and ten, and twenty, and always the same thing. And the longer it lasted the more deadly it became. “It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagines I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.”

And as death approaches, time ceases to have any meaning as pain and despair engulf him:

But the pain remained–the same pain and that same fear that made everything monotonously alike, nothing harder and nothing easier.

Everything was worse. Again minute followed minute and hour followed hour. Everything remained the same and there was no cessation. And the inevitable end of it all became more and more terrible.

Shortly before his death, Ivan comes close to accepting that he hadn’t lived the life he should have:

It occurred to him that what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true. 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. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.

“But if that is so,” he said to himself, “and I am leaving this life with the consciousness that I have lost all that was given me and it is impossible to rectify it— what then?”

Only in the moments before his death, when his small Son walks up to him and holds his hand, does Ivan finally admit that he lived life the wrong way.

He asks, “How can I fix this?”

And he sees there’s a way to fix it by accepting his past, accepting his regret, accepting his death, and going into the Light.

At that very moment Ivan Ilyich fell through and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified. He asked himself, “What is the right thing?” and grew still, listening. Then he felt that someone was kissing his hand. He opened his eyes, looked at this son, and felt sorry for him . . .

And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, from all sides. He was sorry for them, he must act so as not to hurt them: release them and free himself from these sufferings. “How good and how simple?” he thought. “And the pain?” he asked himself. “What has become of it? Where are you, pain?”

He turned his attention to it.

“Yes, here it is. Well, what of it? Let the pain be.”

“And death . . . where is it?”

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.

“So that’s what it is!” he suddenly exclaimed aloud. “What joy!”

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