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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 5 | Summary



It's just before New Year's, and Ivan Ilych's brother-in-law has come to visit. Ivan greets him when he gets home from work, but Praskovya is out shopping. The brother-in-law is shocked by how gaunt and ill Ivan looks. He and Ivan agree that Ivan has changed. Later, Ivan Ilych tries to get his brother-in-law to talk about his looks, but he refuses to be engaged. When Praskovya comes home and while she welcomes her brother, Ivan looks at himself in a mirror. He's horrified by how much he's changed. Even his arms are thin as sticks.

Ivan tries to distract himself by sitting down and reading some law papers, but he can't concentrate. He tiptoes out to where his wife and brother-in-law are talking. Ivan overhears his wife tell her brother that "he's exaggerating" the terrible change in Ivan's appearance. But her brother insists Ivan "looks like a dead man." Praskovya tries to contradict him by saying that some doctors say "quite the contrary." Ivan Ilych has heard enough. He goes into his own room and lies down, thinking about the doctors he's seen and the floating kidney they think he has. Then he decides to go immediately to see his friend Peter Ivanovich. With Peter Ivanovich, Ivan goes to see a doctor.

The doctor reviews his case and tells Ivan Ilych that his trouble is only with his vermiform (meaning "wormlike") appendix. The doctor says it is a small thing that's easily fixed. Ivan Ilych feels confident that all will be well. He is even cheerful when he gets home and eats dinner. After dinner, he tries to work but can't concentrate. He spends some time with guests, having tea in the drawing room. Yet he knows he must think about the "intimate matter ... [of his] appendix." He thinks that it should not be a serious matter to have the offending appendix absorbed into his body or evacuated from it. He's feeling so optimistic, he gets up and takes another dose of medicine, thinking "I'm feeling better, much better."

He lies down to go to sleep, imagining his appendix being absorbed. But then the old familiar pain gnaws at his insides. The terrible taste returns to his mouth. He is distraught, muttering, "My God ... it will never cease." Suddenly it strikes Ivan Ilych that the situation is not one of a diseased appendix or kidney, it's a matter of "life and ... death." He realizes he's been deceiving himself—he may die at any time.

Ivan Ilych begins to contemplate death. "When I am not, what will there be?" he thinks. Then his being rebels and he thinks, "No, I don't want to [die]!" He hears the gaiety in the drawing room and ponders the indifference of the healthy to those facing their mortality. They have no pity for him. But Ivan understands that they, too, will die one day.

Ivan is choked with anger at his fate. He refuses to believe that all people are condemned to die. After a while, he understands he must calm himself. He reviews the progress of his illness from the beginning when he knocked his side against the window jamb, then contemplates all the time spent with all the doctors, to no avail. "Can it really be death?" he wonders.

In his rage, Ivan knocks over an end table. He hears the guests leaving. His wife comes into his room to find out about the crash she heard. Ivan tells her he knocked the table over by accident. Praskovya says they should have another specialist come and diagnose Ivan's condition. He refuses. As his wife kisses his forehead, Ivan feels only hatred for her.


Ivan Ilych has always lived according to how others see him. Ironically, it is when his brother-in-law looks shocked at how ill Ivan looks that Ivan seems finally to realize the gravity of his illness. He sees it in his brother-in-law's face. The narrator says, "That stare told [him] everything." Only after this does Ivan go to take a long look at himself in the mirror. He, too, is shocked by how gaunt and sick he looks.

Before his brother-in-law opened Ivan's eyes to the seriousness of his condition, Ivan had avoided truly looking at himself in the mirror. His avoidance was his denial of mortality and likely his refusal to confront his fear. Ivan hears his brother-in-law say, "Why, he's a dead man. Look at his eyes—there's no life in them." Then Ivan begins to accept how seriously ill he is. All the energy he put into denial seems to fall away from him. Yet he has not yet given up hope but goes with Peter Ivanovich to see yet another specialist. The author skewers doctors again here. The doctor's explanation is absurd (the appendix cannot be absorbed into or evacuated from the body), but Ivan Ilych takes comfort from it. In a last-ditch effort to do the proper thing, Ivan downs some more prescribed medicine. He's so deluded, he thinks he can feel his appendix shrinking and his pain abating. But quickly the pain returns.

At this point, the voice in the story shifts somewhat, as the reader hears Ivan Ilych's inner voice and thoughts. (The narrator is no longer the only or primary voice telling the story.) From this point in the novella, Ivan's inner life becomes more important and is revealed more often through his own words and thoughts. The reader can better identify with Ivan Ilych via his own voice as he faces death.

Ivan Ilych is terrified. "I am going ... Where? A chill came over him, his breathing ceased, and he felt only the throbbing of his heart." He stops breathing. He tries but fails to light a candle. Ivan Ilych is, in a way, mimicking death—as the cessation of breathing and losing the light of life when entering the darkness of death. As will happen in succeeding chapters, Ivan Ilych struggles to understand death: "Then where shall I be when I am no more?" He resents the fun the guests are having but he understands. "Fools! I first, and they later, but it will be the same for them" as it is now for me. Ivan still finds it "impossible that all men have been doomed to suffer this awful horror."

Praskovya is likely either indifferent to or in denial about her husband's death when she suggests he see yet another doctor. Her reliance on and faith in yet another doctor is not only a result of her indifference and denial—it's also an expression of her slavish attitude toward propriety. But Ivan refuses. Note at the end of the chapter (and occasionally in subsequent chapters) Praskovya refers to Ivan as Jean, the French name for Ivan (or John). Using a French name for Ivan is just another example of falsity and pretentiousness. Calling Ivan Jean underlines the Westernization and affectation she assumes is the proper way for a woman of her class to act in this situation. It's no wonder Ivan "hates her from the bottom of his soul" when she puts a condescending but proper kiss on his forehead. (Note that for upper-class Russians, French had long been the preferred language. But for upwardly striving middle-class people such as the Golovin family, it is an affectation intended to make them seem more upper class than they really are.)

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