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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Motifs



In his dying, Ivan Ilych suffers unimaginable and unbearable pain. Yet it has many dimensions. He does not only suffer physically but also spiritually as he tries to find meaning in his death.

The author explores the many types of suffering that an inauthentic life may inflict on people. Ivan Ilych suffers from emotional isolation (from his family and colleagues), indignity (in the helplessness his illness forces on him), fear, and doubt. The modes of pain that can beset a person in extremis who has lived an inauthentic life are manifold.

Selfishness, Pleasure, and Isolation

Ivan Ilych's way of life, as prescribed by his time and class, instill in him the drive to be selfish. He seeks always to maximize his own interest and his own pleasure, even at the expense of the feelings and experiences of others. For some middle-class Russians of that age, selfishness might lead to advancement and so serves the ambition that is so highly valued by the bourgeoisie.

These motifs are found throughout the novella. At Ivan's wake, his colleagues think mainly of escaping the presence of death into one form of pleasure or another. Throughout Ivan Ilych's life, he seeks pleasure as often as he can. His pursuit of it isolates him from his family, which, in the end, leaves him alone on his deathbed. His family, too, seeks pleasure, and they are only too eager to get away from the dying man to pursue it.

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