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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 7 | Summary



Ivan is three months into his illness. He and everyone else realize that the main consideration is "whether he would vacate his place" and how everyone would be affected by that. Others may long for Ivan to die so they no longer have to deal with the unpleasantness of sickness and death.

The painkillers Ivan is given barely alleviate his suffering. They just make him more depressed. A new diet leaves Ivan without any appetite. Ivan needs help with his bodily functions, and this is an undignified torment to him. When Gerasim, his young assistant and servant, takes on the role of helper, although Ivan is still somewhat embarrassed he also feels better. Gerasim is a "clean, fresh peasant lad" who is not at all discomfited by handling Ivan's bedpan. No matter what he's doing, Gerasim is "cheerful and bright." When Ivan is too weak to rise from the commode and pull up his pants, Gerasim helps him. Gerasim "refrains from looking at his master out of consideration for his feelings." However, he still projects the "joy of life" that infuses his whole being.

Ivan Ilych asks Gerasim if these tasks aren't "very unpleasant for you." Ivan then asks for Gerasim's forgiveness for making him undertake them. But Gerasim smiles and assures Ivan Ilych that "it's a case of illness with you, sir" so no apology is necessary.

Ivan Ilych asks Gerasim to help him move to the sofa, and Gerasim lifts him gently and settles him there. Gerasim turns to leave, but Ivan asks him to stay and place a chair nearby on which Ivan can rest his feet. Gerasim places the chair near Ivan and lifts his feet onto it. Ivan notices that he feels better when Gerasim is holding his legs higher in the air before he settled them on the chair. So Ivan asks him if he would mind holding his legs up higher than the height of the chair. Gerasim does so gladly. Ivan invites him to sit down while he rests Ivan's legs on his shoulders, a position that definitely makes him feel better.

Thereafter, Ivan often calls Gerasim in to hold his legs on his shoulders. The two men talk together. Ivan is drawn to the willingness to help and the simplicity of his servant. Somehow Gerasim's brimming health and energy do not offend Ivan but actually soothe him.

It seems that what bothers Ivan Ilych the most is the lie everyone is determined to believe about him—that he is not dying. Others try to convince themselves (and Ivan) that he is just a bit ill and will soon recover. Ivan Ilych knows that's not true—in fact, "the deception tortured him." He can't bear being "forced to participate in that lie." Only Gerasim did not participate in that lie, and this comforts Ivan. Gerasim even speaks to Ivan directly about his impending death. Gerasim says "he was [helping] a dying man and hoped someone would do the same for him when his time came."

The lies others believe about his condition further upset Ivan. He wants them to pity him—as a parent would pity a sick and suffering child. Ivan is ashamed of feeling this way and knows he cannot ask for pity from anyone, especially his family. Only Gerasim acts in a way that is "something akin to what he wished for." Gerasim naturally treats Ivan in a way that comforts him. Ivan feels that if he could get the pity he wants, he would then be able to draw on reserves of strength. He could rely on that strength if he was visited by one of his colleagues from work. As it is, the lie that surrounds him is leaving him weaker than ever.


For nearly all of the people surrounding Ivan Ilych, his illness and impending death are an unpleasantness they refuse to think about. If they think about Ivan's death at all, it is in terms of how they can benefit from it. The people around Ivan are in denial about his terminal condition. "What tormented Ivan Ilych most was the deception, the lie, which for some reason they all accepted, that he was not dying but was simply ill, and the only need [was] to keep quiet and undergo a treatment and then something very good would result." Their denial of mortality is based on a social construct that rejects unpleasantness and all things indecorous and improper to upper-class society. His family, acquaintances, and colleagues long to be "released ... from the discomfort caused by his presence." Of course, their attitude leaves Ivan Ilych in greater isolation. He has no one to turn to for comfort or to discuss honestly his impending death.

Gerasim, the servant, is the only person who accepts death as a natural part of life. He says, "What's a little trouble? It's a case of illness with you, sir," as he helps Ivan on the commode and with his bedpan. The "undignified" bodily functions that cause Ivan torments of embarrassed helplessness are accepted by Gerasim as just another part of life. Ivan comments on "how easily and well you do it all." He recognizes that none of this personal, even intimate, assistance bothers Gerasim in any way. Ivan Ilych does not even resent Gerasim's vitality. The young man's good nature actually soothes him. Gerasim does not deem it a sacrifice to spend hours each day holding Ivan's legs on his shoulders. Without saying it, Gerasim shows through his "easy, willing, and simple" actions that he is happy to help Ivan Ilych. Gerasim acknowledges the true nature of Ivan's condition. Gerasim knows what everyone else around Ivan denies: that death is a natural part of life.

To maintain their denial of Ivan Ilych's dire situation, all of the people around him (except Gerasim) have fabricated a lie about his condition. This "deception tortured [Ivan]." Worse, in dealing with him they force Ivan to participate in the lie that bolsters their denial. Ivan correctly sees their lie as something "to degrade ... (dying) to the level of their visitings ... a terrible agony for Ivan Ilych." The lie so infuriates Ivan he sometimes wants to shout at them, "You know and I know that I am dying. Then at least stop lying about it!" But Ivan never has the courage to confront them. What torments Ivan further is that this is "the very decorum which he had served his whole life long."

For the first time in this chapter, Ivan Ilych begins to recognize the artificiality of his former life of decorum. Similarly, he is just starting to open to his authentic inner self (the self that knows he's dying; that seeks comfort). This self had been buried under the propriety of exterior trivialities. Ivan rejects the falsity of the life he led prior to his illness. He used to ignore or deny anything unpleasant or indecorous. Now "no one felt for him because no one even wished to grasp his position." The falsity that isolates Ivan and denies his reality—and prevents any real human connection with his family—is, he says, "poisoning his last days."

Only Gerasim "did not lie ... he alone ... simply felt sorry for his emaciated and enfeebled master." In his isolation, Ivan is heartened to hear Gerasim say, "We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?"

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