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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Symbols


Black Sack

When he's dying, Ivan Ilych dreams of falling into a black sack, a symbol that primarily represents death. His feelings toward the black sack are ambivalent; although he feels like he wants to fall into its depths, he also fights against being pushed in.

His resistance to entering the black sack reveals the battle between his fear of death and his acceptance of it. Yet once he breaks into it, Ivan experiences a light and the fear of death no longer has power over him. It may also be that the black sack symbolizes rebirth in its likeness to a womb. The pain that Ivan feels as he falls into the black sack may be akin to the suffering of birth. The light he sees may be his entry into a new incarnation or perhaps his spiritual rebirth after death. The two were linked in the beliefs of the author in his spiritual conversion.


Ivan Ilych is said to be le phénix de la famille, or "the phoenix of his family." In mythology, the phoenix is a long-lived, high-flying bird who dies and then rises again from the ashes of its former self. The phoenix is associated with the sun and thus also symbolizes renewal, as the sun renews itself when it rises every morning. In many ancient mythologies, the phoenix represents immortality. In the Christian tradition, the phoenix sometimes symbolizes resurrection. In a literal sense, the above French expression reveals the family's confidence in Ivan's rise to great heights within society.

Referring to Ivan Ilych as a phoenix may also represent Ivan's ultimate rising above his physical death and emerging as a spiritual being who is beyond death. Ivan is said to be a phoenix to show that there is really no such thing as death. Death is simply a step toward spiritual rebirth and nothing one should fear.


Ivan Ilych has no use for his doctors, who try to act as if they know what ails him and how to cure it but who are totally incapable of diagnosing or treating it. Doctors, and medicine in general represent the author's—and Ivan Ilych's—disdain for and distrust of modern science and technology, especially as it is venerated by the rational egoists. Neither has the ability, knowledge, or understanding to help Ivan Ilych. Yet like him and others of his class, the doctors play their roles to the hilt.

Doctors and medicine are also denigrated as Ivan Ilych comes to understand that his illness may, perhaps, be worsened by the false life he has led, something the doctors cannot be expected to diagnose or treat. Ivan's experience of dying is an experience of opening to his inner spirituality, which doctors cannot understand. Thus, doctors also represent a secular hindrance to their patient's acceptance of the inevitability of death.

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