The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Plot Summary

See Plot Diagram


The Funeral

The novel begins in the Law Courts with Peter Ivanovich telling his fellow lawyers that he just read that Ivan Ilych has died. Some of the men read Ivan Ilych's obituary, which has just been published in the local paper. The powerful and self-important lawyers think only about how Ilych's death will affect their chances of getting a promotion at work. Not one thinks about Ivan or about death.

The scene then shifts to Ivan Ilych's house where he is laid out and where a funeral will be held for him. All of Ivan's colleagues have assembled for the funeral. Yet, again, none of them thinks of Ivan or of his death. They are intent on finding ways to amuse or distract themselves so they don't have to think about the inevitability of death. The talk at the funeral is trivial. Men wink at each other in an effort to get a game of bridge going. Peter Ivanovich does gaze at Ivan's corpse but is put off by its expression of seeming disapproval. A while later Peter is drawn aside by Ivan's wife, whose crocodile tears hide her true interest: can Peter manage to get more money for her from Ivan's pension fund? Peter says he doubts he can manage that. Later in the evening, Peter meets Gerasim, the servant. When Peter says it's sad that Ivan has died, Gerasim says simply that sooner or later everyone dies. Peter finds this disconcerting. He feels "a certain discomfort" and thinks that "[inevitable death was] not applicable to him."

A Proper, Promising Life

Then the story shifts to 30 years earlier. The reader learns that Ivan had a normal childhood. He decided to study law in his early teens and excelled at his studies. It is in law school that Ivan internalizes the values and mores of the upper-middle class that he will be part of as a practicing lawyer. After getting his law degree, Ivan works as an examining magistrate in an unidentified Russian province. He gets married and his wife gets pregnant. Her pregnancy alters his wife's behavior and the acceptable decorum of the household that Ivan values so much. Ivan tries as much as possible to avoid being with his wife. He works late. He stays out with his friends. Ivan succeeds in establishing a distant attitude toward his family that he will maintain for many years.

When Ivan is passed over for a promotion at work, he's furious. He takes a leave from work and moves his family to his brother-in-law's house in a rural area. There he broods and determines to take no position that pays him less than 5,000 rubles per year. Ivan travels to St. Petersburg to find a good-paying job. While in St. Petersburg, by good luck Ivan learns that a friend of his has gotten a high-power job. The friend obtains a well-paying job for Ivan in St. Petersburg. Ivan is ecstatic and prepares his family for the move to the great city. Ivan finds a house for his family and then he throws himself into buying the best, or most fashionable, furniture and other household necessities for his new home. As he's putting up drapes, Ivan has a mishap on the ladder. He bangs his side against the window frame and is slightly bruised. The bruise hurts a bit but Ivan thinks nothing of it because he's so wrapped up in preparing his new home. Ivan's family moves into the new house, and they all seem quite happy with their new life. Ivan still likes escaping from his family and develops a liking for playing bridge.

Hints of Mortality

After a while, Ivan notices a disturbing pain in his left side—the side of his body that crashed against the window frame. He tries to ignore it, but the pain gets continually worse. The incessant pain makes Ivan irritable. He sees several doctors about the pain, but none of them can diagnose the cause, let alone cure it. Ivan takes the various medicines he's prescribed but none has any effect on his pain. Eventually, Ivan becomes depressed. One night he realizes his condition may not be an illness that can be cured but a matter of life and death. Ivan is terrified of dying and finds no solace in his wife or colleagues who themselves avoid thinking about or discussing mortality. Ivan feels totally isolated and becomes increasingly desperate as his incessant pain gets worse.

In a short time Ivan can no longer work because the pain keeps him from paying attention to the cases he's working on. He stops working and takes to spending his time lying on the sofa at home. The pain increases and he can find no position that alleviates it, though having his legs raised slightly helps a bit. One day Ivan asks Gerasim if he would hold his legs up higher. Gerasim is more than willing to help and he spends hours with Ivan's legs resting on his shoulders. Ivan feels at ease with Gerasim because the man is accepting of death. In addition, he thinks nothing of helping Ivan with those physical needs that others would find unbearably unpleasant. Ivan takes great comfort in Gerasim's help and his authenticity and lack of pretense.

Everyone else around him refuses to acknowledge, let alone talk about, Ivan's impending death. Only Gerasim accepts death as a natural part of life and so sees Ivan's situation as it truly is. Ivan's family, friends, and doctors all deny Ivan's clearly impending death because acknowledging death is just not considered proper for people of their class. Ivan feels increasingly isolated from everyone except Gerasim, whose presence he finds comforting.

Facing Life, Facing Death

One night Ivan has a dream in which he's being pushed into a black sack. In the dream Ivan wants to fall into the sack and yet is terrified of it. When he awakes, Ivan hears for the first time his inner voice speaking to him about his life and his impending death. Ivan can no longer leave the sofa, but he spends his time thinking about and analyzing the life he has led. He comes close to accepting that his life has been a fraud, something inauthentic that did not come from his innermost and truest self. Ivan is tormented, too, as he tries to figure out a reason for his terrible suffering. Why must he suffer? Why should he be the one dying? Whenever he comes close to true understanding, Ivan's mind withdraws from the truth about his life. He thinks his life was good because it was proper since he did everything right according to society's dictums.

At the insistence of his wife, Ivan sees a priest and takes Holy Communion. One night Ivan is with Gerasim when he suddenly has serious doubts about whether he's lived the life he should have lived. He thinks again of the black sack. He thinks about the terrible pain that comes from both being pushed into it and not being able to just fall in himself. Ivan starts to understand that the artificial and trivial life he's lived is preventing him from entering the black sack and whatever relief he might find there. Then an unnameable force strikes Ivan in the chest and side and pushes him into it. Once inside, Ivan experiences an intense light. While Ivan is experiencing this, his son has approached the sofa and knelt beside his father. Ivan's hand touches his son's head. Ivan feels sad for the boy and for his wife as she approaches her dying husband. In dying Ivan realizes that every aspect of his life—his family life, his working life—has been totally artificial and inauthentic and apart from all those around him as they have been from him. As he dies, Ivan lets go of all the artificiality that had in a way imprisoned him in a life that was not truly correct at all. Ivan experiences intense joy, sighs, and dies.

The Death of Ivan Ilych Plot Diagram

Climax123456789Rising ActionFalling ActionResolutionIntroduction


1 Ivan Ilych becomes a lawyer, a husband, and a father.

Rising Action

2 Ivan's life is dedicated to propriety and pleasure.

3 Ivan gets a top job through an acquaintance's referral.

4 Ivan is injured decorating his fancy new house.

5 Ivan's injury causes him to become gravely, fatally ill.

6 Ivan finds peace when he sees the artificiality of his life.


7 Ivan Ilych falls through the black sack and into the light.

Falling Action

8 Ivan Ilych realizes there is no such thing as death.


9 Family and colleagues gather at Ivan Ilych's funeral.

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