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”The Death of Ivan Illych” by Leo Tolstoy is one of the most significant works in Russian literature. The author wrote this novella in the period between 1882 and 1886, and this masterpiece is a good reflection of morals of 19th century Russia. The novel describes the death of a 45-year-old high-court judge Ivan Illych, and the events that appeared around his death. Tolstoy shows how people around the main hero reacted on his death with no regret or compassion but only with insincerity and fake support. The main hero dedicated his life to this society and understood the emptiness and senseless of his life only on the eve of his death. Tolstoy successfully reflected the time he lived in and ”The Death of Ivan Illych” has become a famous masterpiece that still proves its actuality even in the modern world.

“The Death of Ivan Illych” by Tolstoy

The main problems of the novel circulate around the Ivan Illych’s understanding the main purpose of life. The novel begins with the meeting where his colleagues discovered about his death from the newspaper. After that, the author gives a flashback to the life of the main character. In this novella, Tolstoy provides the reader with the opportunity to read behind the lines and fulfill the story with appropriate symbols, one of which is ‘the symbol of faith’.

The story begins from the news of Ivan’s death. We can see the members of Trial chamber reading the newspaper with the information about Ivan Ilyich Golovin’s death on February 4, 1882, after several weeks of an incurable illness. His colleagues do not show embarrassment or disturbance and each involuntarily measures the possibilities for his future promotion. It looks like everyone thinks, “Well, he is dead; whereas I am here in the present and alive”.

During the funeral of Ivan Illych all his friends, colleagues, and relatives had an awkward feeling caused by the understanding that their grief is artificial. Only the face of Ivan Ilych was considerable, on which there was ” the expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly. Besides this there was in that expression a reproach and a warning to the living” (Tolstoy, 18). His widow Prask?vya F?dorovna tries to know from Peter Ivanovich who thought of himself as of “Ivan Ilych true friend”, whether it is possible to obtain a higher pension from treasury. Peter Ivanovich says that she cannot get more than she has and retreats. It appeared pleasant for him to inhale clean air in the street after an incense and corpse smell. Then, he hurries to his friend Fedor Vasilievich as he afraid to be late to gambling. In this scene, Tolstoy clearly demonstrates the real purposes of people through variety of symbols. We can observe two sides of this scene. On the surface, there is a pretense to show the regret and compassion, but beneath there is just a cold-hearted intention to get some profit from hero’s death.

The author’s main purpose is to show the morals of that time, when people lived for making the profit and dedicated their life to the opinion of the society. Tolstoy explains the meaning of his novella and the main character as the last story of life of Ivan Ilych, which was simple, ordinary, and thus awful. Ivan Illych’s father was the privy councilor and had three sons. The senior son, who was cold and accurate, made the same career as his father; the younger one was a loser. Therefore, relatives did not want to meet Ivan and even had not remembered him without any reason.

Ivan Ilych was the middle of the brothers not only by his age, but also by everything that makes and directs his life. Ivan Ilych was clever, capable, vibrant, and sociable person by nature who is strictly executing vital rules, accepted superiors. When he broke these rules, he acquitted himself that similar acts were made by people from the ‘upper class’ and thus it was not something bad. These thoughts calmed him down. Ivan Ilych Golovin, have been married in due time without love, but according to the society’s opinion. Despite the fact that his life was quite joyful, his family and he considered the conditions of their life as inappropriate. Respectively he did all his best to occupy the higher position in St. Petersburg, and so he and his family moved to more worthy and prestigious apartment.

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While decorating the new dwelling, Ivan Ilych was hanging a fashionable picture and fell down the staircase. He assured that he felt good though only damaged his ribs a little. The main hero laughs light-heartedly, but a terrible foresight of the death has already reached the reader. The life of Ivan can be compared with stairway, as his main purpose was the ascension on a career ladder. The symbolism of this scene was that Ivan falls from this stairway and starts his new journey to his death. This accident began to remind itself from time to time. Soon even the tasty food ceased to please Ivan. Then he began to feel an awful pain. He complaints all the time, and it terribly irritated Prask?vya Fedorovna. His wife did not feel any compassion to him as well as she did not feel love. However, after this accident she started to feel pity to herself only. She felt that only her noble heart helps her to supports all foolish whims of the spoiled husband, and her keenness allows her to constrain irritation and favorably answer on his silly moaning. She sees each reserved reproach as a huge feat and self-sacrifice. The author is willing to show the consequences of life without love and that materialism cannot bring the happiness. Without seeing caress, Ivan tried not to lead conversation on his illness. He could not work anymore, became thin, and felt with constant pains. Various dull doctors appointed to him the poultices, but all his surrounding has already started understanding that his illness is serious. Moreover, there is a suffocating atmosphere in his family, as the still alive conscience does not allow her and her children to have a good time, as it was earlier (Charlton). Children, inwardly offended with their father, hypocritically ask him about health, and his wife feels the duty to show interest. The only person who really feels the compassion to the main hero is their servant Gerasim. He becomes also a nurse as well as a friend. The ridiculous request of the ‘barin’ to hold his feet neither surprised him, nor irritated. He does not see the master, but first of all the dying person, so he is glad to care about him. In this scene, Tolstoy wanted to show the differences among upper class and people from lower class. He wanted to prove that lower class representatives are closer to God as they were less materialized and were more openhearted and honest (Tolstoy).

At the end of the story, anticipating his end, Ivan Illych was even more irritated and was capricious. After a long agony, like a sudden miracle, Ivan Illych, who has never reflected on the life meaning, felt an unknown feeling of comprehensive love and happiness. He did not feel offence any more toward his rude relatives, on the contrary, he felt to them tenderness and with pleasure said goodbye to them. Calmed, he went to the wonderful, sparkling world where, he knew, he will meet love and happiness. At last, he found the freedom (Charlton).

The story provides critical characteristic of the formal and hypocrisy morals, of emptiness of “easy” and “pleasant” existence of the “average” person, as well as the analysis of a psychological state of the dying. In one of the books read it is said that the process in this story is an illness and dying of a negative hero. Its true subject is not this process. The novel tells about other aspects of social and private life of a person in a bourgeois society. , It depicts poor and the perverted relations inside this society, the formalism, hypocrisy, emptiness of high-class lives, humiliation of the soul, exaltation of things, and fear of death. All the above thoughts of the story get the sense and raise the art value only owing to their inevitable associativity based on the deep natural communication among themselves (James).

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The thorough study of inevitable regularity of relations, links, and interconnections of various senses in “The Death of Ivan Illych ” also creates the main objective of the story. As the narrator says, the labyrinth of relations is infinite. Therefore, it will be limited to consideration of the main elements of an artistic task of the story, connected with the analysis of the bourgeois consciousness and creating its ethic and informative tension. At the same time, to the novel shows obvious correlation between material progress and moral decline in ideological and emotional context.

The prototype of the main character, despite his basic generalization, is Ivan Illych Mechnikov, the Tula prosecutor whom Tolstoy considered an outstanding person. Mechnikov, who was seriously ill, tired the others with conversations on futility of the life and its emptiness. The contemporaries believe that Leo Tolstoy gave the best description of the fear of death in this novel. The time when Tolstoy was writing this novella was full of prejudices. The society was managed by materialism, where marriages were without love, and main purpose for people was society’s opinion. During that time, Tolstoy lived in Yasnaya Polyana but also visited Moscow and St. Petersburg. That time was significant to him as he was trying to understand the spiritual meaning of life as well as meaning of religion, so this novella reflects the author’s search (Maude).


In conclusion, “The Death of Ivan Illych” by Leo Tolstoy is one of the most significant works in Russian literature. The author wrote this novella between 1882 and 1886, and this masterpiece is a good reflection of morals of 19th century Russia. The main purpose of this story is to show the morals the Russian high class, as well as the prejudices of the upper class and the emptiness of their life. The story emphasizes on formalism and hypocrisy of morals, on emptiness of easy and pleasant existence of the average person, as well as the psychological state of the dying.

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