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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 10 | Summary



Two weeks later and Ivan Ilych is so ill and weak he can no longer leave the sofa. His pain increases, and he thinks about what is really happening to him, tossed between two conflicting moods. Sometimes he experiences despair and the fearsome anticipation of his own death. At other times, he feels hopeful and he attends to the state of his body, looking for signs of improvement. Before, he had experienced these mood swings—dread and hope—since he first became ill, but now they are more intense. Sometimes Ivan is transfixed by the state of his kidney or by the terror of his impending death since he cannot deny that his physical condition has been deteriorating for months.

Even though he lives in town and is surrounded by his family, Ivan Ilych feels more alone and isolated than ever before. It is as if he were "at the bottom of the sea or under the earth." Ivan can think only of his past, beginning with memories of his early childhood and moving forward toward his present situation. Sometimes the beautiful simplicity of his childhood memories pains him and he wrenches his mind forward to his current situation. He preoccupies himself with minute examinations of the sofa he lies on. However, he finds doing that again leads his mind back to his childhood. Ivan tries to bury these thoughts, but he's unable to do so.

The "chain of memories" from his childhood to his adulthood brings Ivan to thoughts of the progression of his illness. He realizes that earlier in it "there had been more life" and more goodness in it. Over time his illness has grown worse. Ivan realizes that during this period, both his life and his illness had merged. He realizes "the pain went on getting worse and worse, so my life grew worse and worse." His childhood had been a time of joy. Yet everything after that became "blacker and blacker and proceeded more rapidly—in inverse ratio to the square of the distance from death." (The closer he was to death, the worse his life became, and the more quickly it became worse.) Ivan feels like he's falling ever more quickly toward his end.

His suffering and yearning to understand might be eased if there was some way or something he could do to gain understanding. He wants to find an explanation for what's happening to him. Here again, he thinks that maybe if he'd lived a better life an explanation would come to him. But once more, he rejects that his life should have or could have been different.


Ivan Ilych's life is contracting, and the brevity of this chapter reflects that. He is stranded on the sofa he can no longer leave. His thinking is limited to memories or to noticing minute and pointless details of his immediate material surroundings, such as the sofa he's lying on.

Time is contracting for Ivan. His happiest memories are of his childhood, but he tries to banish these memories to concentrate on his current experience. Perhaps by doing this, he thinks he may postpone the moment of his death by making each present minute and second last longer. Perhaps he's trying to find where in his childhood or youth his life went wrong. He's looking for what caused the spiritual disease that has turned into the illness now killing him. Occasionally, Ivan finds that he can rest in happy childhood memories, and this slows time down for him. But when these memories become too vivid, Ivan finds them too painful for him to recall, and he forces his mind back to the present.

He continues to dialogue with his authentic inner voice. It answers his question, "What is this? Can it be that it is Death?" by telling him, "Yes, it is Death." Ivan's inner voice, his authentic self or soul, does answer the questions Ivan keeps asking. But it seems that Ivan Ilych is not yet ready to accept his soul's answer. When he asks "Why these sufferings?" his soul wisely replies "For no reason—they just are so." Yet this truthful answer does not stop Ivan from seesawing from deep despair to fervent hope that he might still recover. When he's in his hopeful "physical body" mood, he attends to his organs to determine if they are healing. It seems he cannot accept the pointless randomness of his death.

When Ivan feels oppressed by his loneliness and isolation, he describes it as like being "at the bottom of the sea or under the earth." Both are places where dead bodies are buried. The implication is that perhaps in some way Ivan is already somehow dead. He may be dead perhaps spiritually or in terms of his existence in the material world. He may always have been dead and not alive in terms of his essence.

Ivan Ilych reflects on the beginning of his life as "one bright spot." It becomes "blacker and blacker as he ages and proceeds more and more rapidly" as he nears death. The growing blackness may indicate that his (spiritual) illness (his inauthenticity) has been growing worse since his childhood. The blackness may also link this image to the black sack. The author may be intimating that as Ivan goes through life, he's entering further and further into the black sack of death. He may experience the light of rebirth when he comes out the other side.

The author uses the metaphor of a falling stone to reflect the "falling downwards with increasing velocity" toward death. Ivan thinks, "Life ... flies further and further towards its end ... resistance was impossible. He stared at the back of the sofa and waited—awaiting that dreadful fall and shock and destruction." Ivan ignores the wisdom imparted to him earlier by his inner voice. He again thinks, "If I could only understand what it is all for! But that is impossible." He cannot accept that death may be random or that it's trying to teach him something about a life he thought was well lived.

At the end of this chapter, Ivan Ilych is still not ready to accept that the life of propriety he's lived has been trivial and inauthentic. "An explanation would be possible if it could be said that I have not lived as I ought to. But it is impossible to say that." Ivan "remembers all the ... correctitude and propriety of his life." He once more rejects the possibility that living for propriety may be "inauthentic and artificial." He thinks "that, at any rate, [it] can certainly not be admitted." Yet immediately he yearns for an explanation for his "agony ... [and] death."

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