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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 12 | Summary



From the time at the end of the last chapter when Ivan Ilych sent his wife away, he begins incessant screaming that continues for three days. The narrator tells the reader that his screaming resulted from Ivan's realization "that he was lost ... [and] that the end had come."

The extreme brevity of this chapter reinforces the fact that "time did not exist for him" anymore. Ivan Ilych is struggling against being pulled into the black sack, or toward death, which is dragging him in against his will. Ivan knows "that he cannot save himself ... [and] every moment he felt ... he was drawing nearer and nearer to what terrified him." Ivan's terror and his struggles against death are desperate because of his belief that "his life had been a good one."

Ivan suddenly feels "some force [strike] him in the chest and side." Then he "fell through the [black] hole (in the black sack) and there at the bottom was a light." Leo Tolstoy likens this sensation to the feeling of moving backward in a train when it's really moving forward. In this instance, Ivan "becomes aware of the real direction." When Vladimir, Ivan's son, comes up to his father's bed weeping, Ivan's flailing hand brushes against his son's head. Vladimir takes his father's hand and kisses it. The narrator relates that "at that moment Ivan Ilych fell through (the black sack) and caught sight of the light." Ivan wonders, "What is the right thing?"

In the two hours before his death, he remains aware of those around him. He feels pity for his weeping son and wife. He tries to ask for forgiveness but cannot speak coherently. Then he feels all his attachments falling away from him. He is almost unaware of his pain, which seems weak and remote. He wonders where death is, but then realizes death is the light. He is no longer afraid of death. He exclaims, "What joy!"

For his assembled family, all this took place in the two hours before Ivan died. To them, he still seems to be suffering terribly. But Ivan is free of suffering—he experienced all this in a single instant. His family hears Ivan Ilych's death rattle, and they know it is over. As Ivan Ilych draws his final breath, he understands that "death ... is no more."


Ivan Ilych suffers torments of fear as his death nears. He screams because in death "there was no return, that the end had come ... and his doubts were still unsolved and remained doubts." In his mind, Ivan Ilych "struggled in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible, irresistible force." He struggles "knowing that he cannot save himself ... [and] despite all his efforts he was drawing nearer and nearer to what terrified him."

Ivan's awful suffering is caused by being forcefully thrust into the symbolic black sack and by "his not being able to get right into it." Clearly, Ivan is ambivalent about the process of dying that's gripping him. He has a last-ditch effort at self-justification for his inauthentic and artificial life. Ivan understands that "he was hindered from getting into [the black sack] by his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life held him fast and prevented his moving forward, and it caused him the most torment of all."

Time then becomes extremely compressed. What his family experiences as two hours during which Ivan dies, he experiences his death as a mere instant.

Suddenly a force hits him, and he plunges through the bottom of the black sack. There he sees a light and experiences an epiphany. By falling through the imagined sack, his attachment to his life of propriety is ripped away. Similarly, the metaphor of the moving train explains Ivan's epiphany. Ivan had always felt his life of propriety was propelling him forward. In fact, it was moving him in a backward direction that deadened his spirit. He realizes now that his life of decorum and propriety was all misdirected. Ivan falls through the black sack into the light. He's freed from the artificial life that had killed his soul and moves into the light in which he is reborn as a joyful, spiritual being.

The train metaphor encompasses both acceptance and redemption. Before he fell through the black sack Ivan Ilych had struggled against death. Once he falls through it, he finds acceptance of death in a space of blissful light. Ivan then wonders, "What is the right thing?" Falling into the light has already revealed to Ivan the falsity of the life he has lived. The question remains, as Ivan touches his son's head with his hand and his weeping son kisses that hand. It then becomes clear to Ivan that "the right thing" is to open his heart, his inner being, to feel compassion for his family. Ivan feels pity for his son, and even his wife. He pities them because they are still trapped in an artificial life and because he sees their suffering. He feels the pity for them that they had been incapable of or unwilling to give him when he so desperately needed it. Their distress impels Ivan to want to beg their forgiveness for all the suffering he has caused them. Ivan cannot say the words coherently, but the simple impulse to seek forgiveness and feel compassion for his family redeems Ivan Ilych's misguided life. His redemption comes from opening his heart to them through his newborn, light-infused soul.

Ivan's flailing hand touches his son's forehead and his son kisses that hand. At the same time, Ivan Ilych is also connecting physically and lovingly with another human—for the first time in the story. This human connection further opens Ivan Ilych's heart and redeems him.

The black sack is a symbol of rebirth, eventually, after death. It channels him into a new and joyous life. Ivan falls through the sack into the light. He feels "what had been oppressing him ... was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides." His old life and its barriers to authentic experience fall away from him. He thinks, "How good. How simple" death is. After his transformation and rebirth, he understands that "in place of death there was light," which enraptures his reborn spirit. When Ivan says, "So that's what it is," he is referring to death as a process of being reborn in the light. As a new being of light, Ivan Ilych understands that "death is finished ... It is no more." Ivan Ilych is not speaking of this particular personal death but of death in general. Death is no longer a terrible and fearsome thing but rather a liberation into joy. Ivan Ilych's joy evokes Leo Tolstoy's religious belief that living an authentic life allows a person to die a peaceful and joyous death.

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