The Death of Ivan Ilych

By Leo Tolstoy (1828–1910); @ 46 pages.

The Death of Ivan Ilych describes a death.

The story begins as Ivan Ilych’s friends/associates learn of his death. They remember that he was a friendly guy liked by all, but really their immediate reaction was what effect Ivan’s death would have on them. What kind of promotion would they get now that Ivan Ilych’s position had been vacated? Then we are transported into a review of Ivan Ilych’s life, his major decisions, profession, and character.

One thing I think is so interesting about reading Tolstoy is how observant he is of human nature and social interactions. Although Tolstoy lived more than 100 years ago, it makes no difference; his observations and insights into human relationships remain fresh and contemporary.

Tolstoy himself was an interesting man. He fathered 13 children, became something of a religious fanatic, and according to my short story anthology, had a most annoying habit of running away from home. On one such adventure, he died in a railway station.

Ah, great artists.

One of my big complaints about my own culture is the seeming denial of the reality of death. When my family members started dropping off, I was woefully unprepared for the logistics. When my grandmother was on her death bed and I left work to be at her side for her final days, I was overwhelmed by the whole experience. We had been very close. She had spent more time with me growing up than perhaps anyone else, and I was beside myself with grief.

I witnessed the deathbed experience again with my mother, this time for several months leading up to the event. It was a grueling ordeal, and I came away from both experiences with the idea that death happens when the body becomes so uninhabitable that the soul is forced out. Perhaps those who can let go of life easily have the easiest time with death, and perhaps those who are determined to live have the most pain. These are my impressions from direct experience.

There are lots of religious ideas around death too, many of which I find very difficult to deal with during the event. My husband’s family views grief as a kind of heresy, a viewpoint I find incredibly inhumane.

The short story, The Death of Ivan Ilych, leads us through these experiences and related happenings in great detail, physical, psychological, and social. Ivan Ilych did not marry the love of his life, we are not sure if he ever had one; instead, he married a woman who later became a shrew and failed to understand him, pity him, or even face his imminent death directly.

I think I must seem preoccupied with death. And perhaps. A friend of mine passed away a couple of years ago. She had contracted a rare virus that attacks the heart and actually had a heart transplant. Her body rejected the transplant and a terrible skin irritation developed. Medicines then destroyed her liver and eventually she died. It was all quite gruesome.

Ivan Ilych:

“Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,” it suddenly occurred to him. “But how could that be, when I did everything properly?”

I can’t claim that I have done everything properly by any means. I reflect now and find so many errors and only hope to not make more. It seems to me as I reflect on my life at this point that things are of little value. My family put such a high value on collecting things, and I feel not a small amount of guilt for wanting to be rid of them and considering what experiences and travels their “worth” could bring. I’ve been obsessed for nearly two years with unburdening myself of things, and it seems that I am never happier than when I am traveling. These desires to see the world are in constant conflict with my desire to build a home, so that I have populated my backyard with lavender, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, raspberries, spinach, mint, and arugula. I am fascinated with gardening even though gardening and traveling are forever at odds with each other.

Tolstoy raises an interesting idea of correctness in living one’s life. Who decides what is correct? You? Someone else?

At some point, I came to the conclusion that I wanted to live correctly—by my own definition. And this meant tearing down everything I had built up. What had been my dreams back when I dared to dream? And could I still accomplish them? Could I detach myself from all my self-created prisons and live? And what does living now mean to me? And is living worth anything without love?

Ivan Ilych:

“What if my whole life has really been wrong?”

A horrible question and then:

“He felt that his agony was due to his being thrust into a black hole and still more to his not being able to get right into it.”

Finally Ivan Ilych has a realization that helps him die. It seems that Tolstoy touches all the bases surrounding death that I myself have experienced as a witness, all except one. Both my mother and grandmother hallucinated about people who were dead being in the room with them. I have read that others have had the same sorts of hallucinations.

As for my poor dog who recently died, I could not bear to have her suffer in these ways. Maybe I did the wrong thing. There are some who believe the process of death is valuable and not to be denied. Her euthanasia was my selfishness. And what would I want for myself?

I want not to lie on my deathbed and realize I got it all wrong. I would like to look back and think I that when I saw two paths that converged in the woods that I took the one less traveled. Finding that path and getting onto it is the trick. It’s around here somewhere. I know it is. I can almost see it.

2 thoughts on “The Death of Ivan Ilych”

  1. Wow! that’s heavy reading! First of all – Hugss!!
    Death in India is certainly a huge thing – the rites, the rituals that continue for years afterwards, sometimes it seems as if it is too much. But perhaps since we cremate our dead and therefore don’t have a marker to visit, these yearly rituals are a way to remember and reflect. We even have a day where the family pays tribute to its ancestors.
    And of course, till you have witnessed death you are incapable of understanding someone else’s pain. My mother’s younger sister passed away almost 3 years ago in an accident and the biggest question for everyone was ‘why?’ She didn’t even wake up before succumbing to her injuries 9 days later, without a single bruise on her body, with just a small clot at the base of her brain stem. When I go to her house I still expect her to walk in from school and do all the silly things she used to do so seriously. Her husband and son have found their own ways of dealing with it and I find myself wanting to somehow shield them from all harm. Her hubby especially seems so fragile at times.
    And yes, I questioned my own life too after that. Most of all I realized the importance of telling those around me that I loved them, since we tend not to say such stuff here. Also, I took time to reconnect with friends that I had let go in the few years since I moved away and joined the book club here to make new friends in the new place. And yes, I did wonder about what I was doing with my life in general and I too have doubts and confusion with decisions, but then it simmer’s down as I realize that’s alrite as long as I am happy, alive and kicking and have the power to make decisions – whether right or wrong time will tell.
    I just picked up Anna Karenina btw- did I already tell you that?
    Sorry for the long rant… some topics call for unburdening of hearts 🙂 That was a lovely write -up by the way and I hope it helps as sort of catharsis, because writing about it does seem to ease the helplessness of loss a little for me.


    1. Good advice! Thank you for your comment. I love your rants. 🙂

      When reading Anna Karenina, remember that this was published as a serial. I pictured Russian readers bundled up against the cold waiting impatiently for the next installment. What will happen next?

      I got out my copy of War and Peace and it’s sitting on my coffee table. I’m hoping to dig in this weekend.

      take care!


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