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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 6 | Summary



In his heart, Ivan Ilych knows he's dying but can't truly grasp the reality of death. He had learned the logic that all men are mortal, but he finds it impossible to apply that logic to himself and his own death. Death may apply to men in general, but Ivan can't grasp how it can apply to him as an individual. He recalls his childhood and all the things that make him a unique human being. Because of his uniqueness, dying for him "would be too terrible."

Nothing has prepared Ivan for death, which had been acceptable in the abstract but unthinkable—and perhaps irrelevant—in a personal sense. Ivan cannot understand how such a thing can happen to him, so he tries to drive all thoughts of death from his mind. Of course, the thoughts—and the reality—of death keep intruding. Ivan strives mightily to erect the mental screens that had previously served to block unpleasant thoughts from his mind. Yet they are incapable of screening out his thoughts about death. As his thought screens no longer shield him from thoughts of his mortality, Ivan Ilych thinks maybe he'll go back to work. He hopes that the law courts will occupy his mind and distract him from the idea of mortality that haunts him.

Ivan Ilych imagines how it would be back at work. He envisions himself conversing casually with his colleagues and speaking during court proceedings. But then his imagination shows him how, in the midst of the proceedings, the pain in his side would return. The pain would be so acute that Ivan Ilych would lose track of the proceedings altogether. He would make mistakes in court and the pain and his illness would be clear to his colleagues. The pain would block out everything else and "stand before him and look at him" and force him to confront it. Ivan would return home defeated, understanding that work, too, could no longer act a screen to keep out the pain. Even worse, it would force him to accept that it was part of him and he would "suffer inexpressibly."

Ivan Ilych looks for new screens to wall off his suffering. Putting the house in order sometimes served to distract him from his suffering. Ivan prowls the house, setting objects that had been disturbed in their rightful place. Sometimes he rearranges the furniture. Praskovya and he occasionally fight over these rearrangements. However, Ivan welcomes these arguments because they distract him from his pain, or from his impending death, for a few minutes.

When his wife says, "Let the servants do it. You will hurt yourself again," Ivan sees a sudden flash of his pain and death. Then he is no longer distracted and his mind becomes focused on his side, which invariably was terribly painful. Again, Ivan is forced to stare his pain in the face. Ivan is confronted by reality and thinks, "It really is so ... It can't be true, It can't, but it is." He then goes into his study to lie down and to face his pain and mortality head on.


Ivan Ilych can no longer ignore his suffering. He cannot stop being aware of his pain or his mortality. To keep these thoughts at bay, he seeks to erect screens to block them from his mind. Ivan seeks a method that will keep him in denial about his impending death. None of the screens is able to maintain him in a state of denial. As each screen crumbles, Ivan comes face to face with his pain, death, and fear. The narrator says, "It would ... stand before him and look at him ... and he would again begin asking himself whether It alone was true."

The reader should note that in this chapter the author uses the word "It" to refer to either or both pain and death, in this way not confusing the two but melding them. For Ivan Ilych, both pain and death are now inevitable—both are the "It" that he must face. Ivan "should look at It, look It straight in the face: look at It and without doing anything suffer inexpressibly." In this, as in similar sentences, the "It" can be replaced with either the word "pain" or the word "death." If "It" refers to pain, it associates the pain with death, so the two are inextricably linked.

At the beginning of the chapter Ivan Ilych tries to use schoolboy logic to argue his way out of his fate. Logic is an acceptable and proper way to approach problems for educated, upwardly mobile, middle-class men like Ivan Ilych. Ivan cannot force the logical argument that in the abstract all men die to the particular logic that he, as an individual, should not die. Logic does not help him devise an orderly argument that exempts him from mortality.

Logic fails to free Ivan Ilych from his fate. Therefore, he falls back on distractions sanctioned by the propriety of his class—on the artificiality of objects. He fusses about the house, looking for trivial untidiness that he can correct. Or he rearranges objects in the drawing room for no apparent reason. These actions hearken back to the supposedly happy, materialistic time when Ivan first bought and decorated the house. Perhaps he hopes that fussing with objects and trivial disarray will distract him now as it did then. But these pursuits are artificial and have no lasting effect on the morbid thoughts that haunt his mind.

Ivan's arguments with his wife sometimes distract him from his morbid thoughts. She points out that by moving furniture, Ivan may "hurt [him]self again." Her comment sharply reminds Ivan of the accident that led to his illness and pain. Ivan ponders the absurdity of his fate: "I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort. Is that possible? How terrible and how stupid." Ivan's life was destroyed while he was decorating his house in the style that was considered proper for a man of his standing. Ivan now sees how ridiculous that fate is. Ivan's life had been based on a propriety and decorum in which everything had to be proper and in place. Even now he hopes occupying himself with artificial decorum will protect him. But, of course, it cannot and does not. Despite his efforts at losing himself in restoring an orderly life, he ends up isolated and alone "with It: face to face with It. And nothing could be done with It except to look at it and shudder."

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