The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 8 | Summary



Ivan Ilych is in unremitting pain, and he knows his life is "inexorably waning." As he's offered his morning tea, Ivan Ilych realizes those around him "want things to be regular." He rejects the tea and asks to be left alone. Then, Ivan doesn't want to be left alone. He asks Peter, the footman, for his medicine, though he knows it won't help. Peter returns with tea and helps Ivan Ilych wash and put on a clean shirt. While washing, Ivan avoids looking at his emaciated body. Drinking the tea brings back the pain, but Ivan sends Peter away.

Ivan Ilych is in a state of conflict with himself. He sometimes feels hope but often feels despair. Always, he feels pain. When he's alone, he wants to call someone to be with him, but when they're with him they perpetuate the lie about his condition.

After an hour or so, Ivan hears the doctor enter the house. The doctor is falsely hearty and cheerful as he enters Ivan's room. On some level the doctor knows his cheerfulness is phony, but he can't stop himself from acting this way. The doctor talks about the weather before asking Ivan how he feels. He knows the doctor doesn't really care, but he says, "The pain never leaves me and never subsides. If only something ...." The doctor replies that yes, "you sick people" always talk like that. The doctor examines Ivan Ilych, though both of them know it's "nonsense and pure deception."

Praskovya enters his room. Ivan Ilych "hates her with his whole soul" for her insisting on the lie she tells herself and forces Ivan to (supposedly) accept. Praskovya's attitude is that his illness is Ivan's own fault. She thinks he's "not doing something he ought to do and was [therefore] himself to blame." She explains Ivan's faults to the doctor, ending by saying that Gerasim holding his legs up must be bad for Ivan. The doctor says he is amused by "sick people's ... fantasies."

Praskovya then tells Ivan that another doctor will be coming to see him later that day. She pretends she's doing this for Ivan's sake, but he knows that's a lie. The "celebrated specialist" arrives, and Ivan submits to yet another examination. Again, there's talk of Ivan's kidneys and appendix. It is as if there is still a chance that they can be fixed and save his life. Ivan knows better. He wonders why no one can speak to him about the real topic of concern—the question of life and death that he is facing. Yet in the doctor's presence, Ivan Ilych shows that he has still not given up hope. He asks the doctor "whether there was a chance of recovery." The doctor implies that "he could not vouch for it but there was a possibility."

The glimmer of hope the doctor offered is soon dissipated. Ivan Ilych descends once again into depression and his pain returns. After dinner, which Ivan could barely nibble at, his wife walks into his room dressed in her finest clothes. She and Lisa (and Lisa's fiancé) are going to the theater to see the famous Sarah Bernhardt in a play. She lies that she'd prefer to stay home with Ivan, but the box at the theater is already paid for. Lisa and her fiancé enter Ivan's room. Lisa looks lovely but reveals that she's "impatient with [Ivan's] illness and suffering." Fedor Petrovich, Lisa's fiancé, is dressed to the nines and has his hair done a la Capoul. Finally, Ivan's son, Vladimir, comes in. The dark rings under his eyes seem to indicate that he may have been crying or that he's losing sleep worrying about his father.

The group sits and tries to make conversation, but it's awkward. Lisa asks if her mother has brought the opera glasses. They talk about the famed Sarah Bernhardt and whether or not she is a great actor. Ivan Ilych starts staring straight ahead "with glittering eyes ... evidently indignant with them." The conversation ceases and a long, awkward silence ensues. No one is willing to break the silence by saying anything about Ivan's true condition. Finally, the awkwardness is broken by Lisa, who says it's time for them to leave. They all rise, no doubt in relief, and leave for the theater.

After they're gone, Ivan feels better because "the falsity had gone with them." Despite this, Ivan is still in pain, is still wracked with fear, and is still ground down by the monotony of his dying. The minutes tick by toward Ivan's death. Ivan Ilych asks that Gerasim be brought to him.

(Note: Victor Capoul (1839–1924) was a French operatic tenor known not only for his good looks but also for the masses of wavy hair on his head.)


Ivan Ilych's suffering never ceases and even gets worse. His only relief from this suffering—from this reality—would be death. Adding to Ivan's suffering is his isolation. When Gerasim is not around, Ivan is caught between two conflicting desires: the need for company and the desire to be alone. Both needs are compromised by the falsity and deceptiveness of those around him—they deny the true severity of his condition and that he's dying.

Ivan is torn between his conflicting desires, between his authentic understanding of what is happening to him and his fear of it coming to pass. On one hand he yearns for death as a welcome end to his suffering. On the other hand he is still terrified of dying. In his mind: "If only it would come quicker! If only what would come quicker? Death, darkness? ... No, no! anything rather than death!"

The same ambivalence is revealed in his attitude toward his doctors. In a sense, Ivan despises the false heartiness and misplaced confidence of the doctors who come to see him. He understands how little they know and how false their promises of recovery actually are. The author even adds a touch of humor to mock doctors' misplaced overconfidence and showmanship. Leo Tolstoy describes one doctor's "gymnastic movements" during his examination, exertions no doubt performed to cover up his ignorance. Ivan's ambivalence, or his continued fear of death, becomes sadly clear. Despite his doubts about the efficacy of medical treatment, he still experiences a flicker of hope. The doctor encourages Ivan's hope. Of course, Ivan's sliver of hope quickly disappears as his pain returns with full force.

Ivan's doctors are as false and deceptive as his family, who persist in lying about his condition. Both are creatures of propriety. The doctors cannot let down the mask of certainty and optimism with which they approach every patient. In fact, it becomes clear that his doctors hardly know who Ivan Ilych is. Like many doctors, they refuse to refer to him as an individual. "Yes, you sick people are always like that," the doctor says. For them, Ivan is one of a huge class of malfunctioning bodies, not an individual. When Praskovya mocks her husband, the doctor smiles and says, "These sick people do have foolish fantasies." The doctor's attitude deepens Ivan's sense of isolation. It's a violation of propriety for him to mention that he's dying or for them to confirm his terminal condition.

Praskovya enlists the doctors' approval in her continued propagation of lies about Ivan's condition. She tries to assert her reliance on propriety by showing how improper Ivan's behavior is. His wife dismisses Ivan's experience of relief when Gerasim rests Ivan's legs on his shoulders. She blames Ivan for his own illness because he does such silly things. It's clear she has no idea who Ivan is or what he is experiencing, and never has. Further, she does not want to know, because illness, suffering, and death are indecorous and must not be given reality. It's no wonder that upon seeing his wife, Ivan "hates her with his whole soul."

The family gathering prior to their departure for the theater reveals the unbridgeable distance between them and Ivan. It makes painfully clear how isolated Ivan truly is. His wife chatters about Sarah Bernhardt's talent. His daughter is clearly "impatient with illness, suffering, and death because they interfered with her happiness." Only his son, Vladimir, seems to be emotionally distressed by his father's condition. The others limit the conversation to trivialities and, tellingly, to the performance they're about to see that night. The irony is they are all performing for each other and for Ivan. They're using artificiality, as in a performance, to avoid acknowledging reality. Ivan's reality opens an awkward silence that demolishes the family's pretense and trivial conversation. When they leave, Ivan is relieved that "the falsity had gone with them."

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