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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 9 | Summary



When Praskovya returns from the theater, she wants to send Gerasim away and sit with Ivan Ilych by herself. But Ivan says, "No, go away." Ivan takes some painkillers and falls into a kind of vision or dream.

In it, Ivan and his pain are being pushed into a "narrow, deep black sack." They are pushed ever deeper into the sack but never seem to reach its bottom. Ivan becomes increasingly frightened, even though at the same time he truly wants to fall through the sack. He is ambivalent about what to do because he struggles at the same time as he wants to cooperate with falling into whatever it is. Suddenly in his dream, Ivan Ilych breaks through and comes to wake up. Gerasim is sitting with him quietly, Ivan's legs resting on his shoulders. Ivan quietly asks him to leave. Once Gerasim is gone, Ivan Ilych begins to weep because he is so helpless and lonely. He feels that God is cruel and that God is absent. He asks God why He's afflicted him in this terrible way. Ivan does not expect and does not get an answer to this question. His pain gets worse.

After a while, Ivan stops crying and becomes quiet. His attention becomes acute, and he feels as if he is attuned to the inner voice of his soul. He repeatedly asks his soul, "What do you want?" When his soul seems to reply that what he wants is to live, Ivan asks his inner voice, "To live? How?" Ivan Ilych tells his inner voice/soul that he wants to live as he'd done before, "well and pleasantly." The voice repeats this statement but casts it as a question.

Ivan Ilych then imagines the best moments of his pleasant life. He's somewhat nonplussed to realize that—except for some memories of early childhood—none of the pleasant moments seem pleasant anymore. What he had regarded as pleasant experiences as he grew up now seem joyless, even nasty to him now. Ivan sees that the older he got, the less his pleasant memories were actually joyful. Rather, they became increasingly worthless as he aged. Ivan recalls a few fleeting moments of pleasure at law school and in his early legal career. Finally, he understands that his marriage and his mature career as an official were plagued by disappointment, greed, and acquisitiveness. He realizes that what he had viewed as rising in life had actually been "going downhill" in life. His reliance on others' opinion of him made him think he was rising when he was actually declining in his life. Ivan Ilych sees that he must face death after living such a trivial, meaningless life. He wonders what it all means. It occurs to him that maybe he has not lived life as he should have, if he really could be said to have lived at all.

Ivan is somewhat confused by this thought because, after all, he lived his life properly and with requisite decorum. He cannot imagine that a life based on propriety could be senseless and trivial. He ponders how his life may have been different. However, he still rejects the notion that he should have ignored propriety as the guiding principle of it.


When Ivan Ilych rudely dismisses his wife, telling her to go away, he is rejecting the artificial life she represents. In rejecting her, Ivan has prepared himself for opening to his inner, authentic self.

Ivan breaks through his total absorption with his physical self to make contact with his authentic, inner self—his inner voice, or as the story says, his soul. This is the first time he has done this. The breakthrough allows Ivan to begin to question the authenticity of the life he has lived. His dialogue with his inner voice revolves around what he now wants. What might be called his ego-mind tells his inner voice that he wants to live. It is not just to live but to live "well and pleasantly," as he says he has done his whole life. Ivan's soul wonders at this choice, repeating his ego's answer in the form of a question: "As you lived before, well and pleasantly?" Ivan's authentic inner voice is trying to lead him to see how artificial and inauthentic this so-called pleasant life really was.

Ivan comes to realize that, except for a few events during childhood, pleasant experiences were in reality "worthless and doubtful," without joy. The older he got and the more he relied on propriety and the approval of others, the more joyless his life became. Ivan sees his adult life as a series of "disenchantments ... hypocrisy ... [and] deadly preoccupations about money." He thought his life was rising when it was actually declining. Only after this realization does Ivan for the first time entertain the notion that "maybe I did not live as I ought to have done." Ivan has seen in his mind the artificiality and inauthenticity of the life he's led, yet he can't quite yet bring himself to renounce it. Ivan is not yet ready to jettison propriety as the pillar of the good life and the guiding principle of a life well lived.

Ivan Ilych dreams of the black sack, which symbolizes several aspects of dying. On the most basic level, the black sack symbolizes death. This is why in his dream Ivan fears being pulled into it. He's frightened of the process (of dying), yet "wants to fall through," and suddenly he does. The black sack represents only death, which is why Ivan is fearful of it. It may also represent liberation from suffering, which is why Ivan is also attracted to it. When Ivan dreams that he breaks through the sack, it may mean that he has conquered his fear of death and now may begin to die peacefully.

The black sack may also in a sense represent rebirth. It is described as "narrow and deep," which may liken it to a birth canal. Ivan may want to fall through the bottom of the black sack so he may find rebirth in a new, and hopefully more authentic, life.

The black sack and its various representations may be germane to Ivan Ilych's current predicament. He has been afraid of dying. But he starts to understand that his life has been to now a kind of spiritual death because it was so inauthentic. That inauthenticity caused Ivan's soul to atrophy and nearly die. Yet when Ivan moves through the black sack, he may die physically but be reborn spiritually.

After he awakes from his dream, Ivan feels helpless and lonely. He feels that God has treated him cruelly. He asks God, "Why hast Thou done all this? ... Why dost Thou torment me so terribly?" This quote is reminiscent of the question Christ asked God as He was being crucified: "Why hast thou forsaken me?" It's not clear if the author means to draw parallels between Ivan Ilych and Jesus Christ, or if he sees Ivan Ilych as a Christ-like figure. It's up to the reader to decide if this is what Leo Tolstoy meant and how it fits into the story.

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