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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Themes



The novella is a story about mortality—the inevitability of death—and how people deal with it. The heart of the novella explores people's denial and fear of death. The story explores the ways in which people go out of their way to deny it and refuse to deal with it. They ignore death and distract themselves from the fact that death is a natural part of life.

Immersing oneself in the artificiality and distractions of everyday life is one way that people deny, or refuse to think about, their own (or others') mortality. In the novella, the people at Ivan Ilych's wake think and talk about anything, no matter how trivial, to distract themselves from death. The guests at the wake even surreptitiously make plans to slip away for a game of cards. They will think of and do everything they can to avoid acknowledging the fact that death comes to everyone.

Fear is a primary motivating factor in the characters' denial of death. For the characters in the story, death is something that may happen to strangers. It is inconceivable that it can and will happen to them. The social identity of the people of this time, place, and class is rigid and prescriptive. Without a spiritual awakening, it is impossible for them to free themselves from it so that they can access their inner being, or soul, which accepts and has no fear of death.

Artificiality and Authenticity

The lives of the upper-middle-class characters in the novella are bound by the expectations of others of their class. It has become second (or perhaps even first) nature for them to pursue the ambitions and trappings acceptable for people of their social standing. Their lives are, therefore, artificial because they are wholly defined and circumscribed by the dictates of others in their social class. Everyone feels forced to live according to these strict but accepted social norms. No one feels inclined to or able to break free from these societal expectations. For this reason, no one is attuned to their inner, rather than their false exterior, being.

Ivan Ilych finally breaks through the psychological prison of societal expectations that he has allowed to define his life. Therefore, for the first time, he touches his deep and authentic inner being. This inner self, or soul, is authentic because it is beyond the reach of social norms and artificiality. Its essence is truth and acceptance of every aspect of life. In releasing his inner being, Ivan Ilych frees himself from the soulless straitjacket of society's demands and dictates. When he lets go of these, he can find peace and acceptance.

Bourgeois Acceptability

Ivan Ilych and others in the story accept and live by the dictates of their social class. They are upwardly striving bourgeois and accept all the modes of behavior, of thought and opinion, of dress and decoration that their social class prescribes. Like many bourgeois, they are addicted to materialism and acquisitiveness. These become for Ivan (and his wife) a distraction from what is happening to them in the real world, particularly Ivan's illness. They accept without question the rightness of the values imposed on them by others in the upper-middle class.

The author frequently uses the words "propriety" and "decorum" to describe Ivan and his cohorts. What matters most to people of this class is that they look and act in a way that is considered proper—that is, having propriety—to other bourgeoisie they know. They must behave with decorum, with a reserve and a style of appearance, thought, and action that others of their class recognize as acceptable.

In his work, as Ivan Ilych advances up the career ladder he also enjoys exerting the power of his office over others who are beneath him in status or class. He tries to exert his power gently and congratulates himself for this, but he does get satisfaction from knowing or thinking he knows he is better and more powerful than others.

Acceptance and Redemption

Before he becomes mortally ill, Ivan Ilych denies death as vehemently as others do. Yet as he comes to realize that his illness will be fatal, he slowly comes to accept the fact that he is dying. The process is long and psychically painful, but it begins to free him from his fear and agony.

Once Ivan Ilych has accepted his mortality, he is able to let go of the artificial trappings that had constituted and defined his life. By the end of the novella, Ivan has freed himself from the falseness that has characterized his life. As society's illusions fall away from him he finds redemption in his death. The joy Ivan Ilych experiences in death reflects Tolstoy's religious idea of living an authentic life, which allows one to die with joy when life is over.

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