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Tolstoy’s short story “The Death of Ivan Ilych” focuses primarily on terminal illness of the main character Ivan Ilych.  It begins by discussing the effects of his passing on his co-workers and his family, who are primarily concerned with the ways in which they stand to individually benefit from his death.  This sets the scene for the rest of the story, which elucidates the details of Ivan’s personal and professional life and the prolonged period of suffering leading up to his death.  During this period he confronts his own mortality and the nature of suffering more generally, in the process attempting to furnish answers to the question of why he has been doomed to this fate.  Over the course of his downward spiral he is forced to confront both the shame of being incapacitated and in failing health, and ultimately the shame of having lived a life that was based on lies and deception.  The other characters in the story push his suffering to the side in order to avoid confronting their own feelings of guilt and shame, but Ivan finds himself unable to continue ignoring these major themes due to the isolation induced by his illness.[“Write my essay for me?” Get help here.]

The motif of shame and how it colors social interactions first comes up when Ivan begins to experience difficulty performing his normal professional and social functions.  At first his colleagues and supposed friends continue to visit him at his home and he is able to maintain the facade of continuing a normal social life.  However after they leave he is “left alone with the consciousness that his life was poisoned and was poisoning the lives of others” (Tolstoy, P31).  Although he has not yet accepted that his illness is terminal, he does recognize that it is dramatically affecting his state of mind in addition to his body and that his previously lighthearted and frivolous mental state is deteriorating along with his internal organs.  This impacts both his social and professional life by instilling in him feelings of inferiority and shame at his own deteriorating state.  Before he withdraws from his judicial work he finds that he is unable to concentrate on the professional tasks that had formerly distracted him from other serious deficits in his life, leaving his work “with the sorrowful consciousness that his judicial labours could not as formerly hide from him what he wanted them to hide” (Tolstoy, P37).  Not only is he ashamed of his diminishing professional and social capacities, but he is also becoming unable to continue using them as a means of distracting himself from the unfulfilling nature of the rest of his life.[Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]

Ivan is able to put off any confrontation with the underlying problems his lifestyle has posed for most of the duration of his illness.  The sources of his shame up until the very end are more immediate and tangible.  When he first becomes incontinent and requires the help of his servants even to relieve himself he “look[s] with horror at his bare, enfeebled thighs with the muscles so sharply marked on them” (Tolstoy, P39) and feels embarrassed by the need for help engaging in “that disgusting task” (Tolstoy, P39).  He comes to terms relatively quickly with the effects on his mental institution of his physical deterioration and is primarily bothered by how those around him are responding to it.  He sees how “The awful, terrible act of his dying was…reduced by those about him to the level of a casual, unpleasant, and almost indecorous incident” (Tolstoy, P41).  He notes that the mechanism for other people’s denial of his suffering is “that very decorum which he had served all his life long” (Tolstoy, P41), implying that he is beginning to understand that his life may not have been as perfect as he had thought it to be.  At this point in his illness he is still able to ignore the true nature of the life he had built for himself, shifting the blame for his feelings of guilt and inadequacy onto his physical deterioration and the responses of those around him to seeing his suffering.

It is not until he realizes that he will not be recovering that he must come to terms with the meaninglessness of the life that he had lived.  As he begins to evaluate his past, “all that had then seemed joys now melted before his sight and turned into something trivial and often nasty” (Tolstoy, P50).  In fact what he had interpreted as his life’s greatest accomplishments and joyous occasions seem nasty to him now because they were so trivial.  Ivan still has not accepted full responsibility for the path his life has taken, but he is beginning to question at least whether or not he has reason to believe that the decisions he made in alienating friends and relatives that were not of his social position and fixating on portraying himself and his family as being more affluent than they were should be cause for feelings of guilt.  Even his illness itself can be attributed to his frivolous materialism.  When he realizes that his pain began when he injured himself hanging a fancy curtain rod that he could not actually afford, he admits to himself, “I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort…How terrible and how stupid. It can’t be true! It can’t, but it is” (Tolstoy, P38).  Like his life, the circumstances of his death are nasty in their triviality.  Along with the recognition that those around him are denying the validity of his suffering due to the sense of decorum that is the driving force behind all of their lives, this realization helps to propel Ivan toward his ultimately being forced to take responsibility for the path his life has taken.  In so doing he rejects the initial sources of his shame and discomfort, which he had identified as his physical infirmity and the discomfort it elicits in those around him, and acknowledges its underlying source: that he has not lived as he ought to have lived.[Need an essay writing service? Find help here.]

This is an extremely difficult and hard won realization for Ivan, who had spent his entire life creating the elaborate illusion of affluence and satisfaction.  He repeatedly comes to the conclusion that the only possible reason for someone to be suffering as he is would be that they had not lived life as they should have, and repeatedly rejects it.  He asks himself, “how could that be when I did everything so properly?” (Tolstoy, P51) and “recalled the correctness of his whole life” (Tolstoy, P51).  It is important to note that as he convinces himself that he has lived a good life his qualifiers for deserving not to suffer are “correctness” and “proper” living, rather than being a good person, caring about or trying to help others, or even seeking out personal satisfaction.  He recalls “all the legality, correctitude, and propriety of his life” (53) and uses these ideas to support his refusal of the possibility that the true source of his suffering and his shame is, in fact, the prioritizing of these supposed virtues over what really matters.  The same sense of decorum that causes all of Ivan’s friends, family, and even doctors to refuse to acknowledge that he is dying is what led him to make life choices that precluded true satisfaction in favor of appearance.

Finally, after weeks of extreme suffering, Ivan is able to come to terms with the question that he has been so carefully avoiding: “What if my whole life has been wrong?” (Tolstoy, P54).  It is looking at the “sleepy, good-natured face” (Tolstoy, P54) of his servant Gerasim, who is the only person willing to acknowledge Ivan’s suffering and impending death, that prompts him to sincerely evaluate this question.  In comparison with his family and colleagues of much higher social status, Gerasim is sincere and selfless, going out of his way not only to help Ivan but to make him feel less ashamed of his condition.  When he compares this to his own personality and accomplishments, he is able to see more clearly that his priorities had been wrong from the beginning.  Tolstoy points out that “It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing and the rest false” (Tolstoy, P55).  He realizes finally that retreating into his professional duties instead of spending time with his family, always seeking more money and prestige in his work rather than work that was satisfying in its own right, and placing his own frivolous desires above the needs of others has caused him to live a life that was built on deception and keeping up appearances rather than genuine interaction and personal satisfaction.  Although he tries to defend these priorities to himself, he realizes in the end that “There was nothing to defend” (Tolstoy, P55).  It had seemed to him that he should feel ashamed of his inability to perform professional functions and keep up appearances for those around him, when in the end his shame is more rightfully rooted in the very desire to do perform those actions.[Click Essay Writer to order your essay]

Possibly the most depressing aspect of Ivan’s changing relationship with pride and shame in “The Death of Ivan Ilych” is his inability to share his revelations with the many other characters living the same lifestyle and guilty of keeping the same priorities.  By the time he has come to an accurate understanding of his own life and what is really important, he doesn’t even have the strength to speak.  As is evidenced throughout the story from his funeral in the opening scene through his interactions with his doctors and his family and avoidant friends, all of the aristocratic characters in the story prioritize appearance and decorum over genuine relationships and personal satisfaction.  Perhaps in coming to terms with the deeply flawed way of viewing life that he and everyone around him had created, Ivan as a character has helped readers of Tolstoy’s story to recognize similarities in their own lives and that is what provides redemption.


Tolstoy, Lev Nikolayevich. (2013). “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” (Maude, Louise & Aylmer,
Trans.). Electronic Classics Series. (Original work published 1886)

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By Hanna Robinson

Hanna has won numerous writing awards. She specializes in academic writing, copywriting, business plans and resumes. After graduating from the Comosun College's journalism program, she went on to work at community newspapers throughout Atlantic Canada, before embarking on her freelancing journey.

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