The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich: Chapter 12 Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
After Ivan yells at Praskovya, he falls into a constant scream, one that lasts for the final three days of his life. As he shouts, he knows that he’s doomed, and he tries to keep himself from falling through to the other side, which he knows is death. Fighting hard, he resists death with all his strength. And yet, he also understands that he’s stuck between life and death, and that this is in many ways even worse than embracing his demise. What’s keeping him from breaking through, he suddenly understands, is his inability to admit that he led a bad life. As soon as he realizes this, though, a shock strikes him in his chest and in the side of his body, making it hard to breathe. Finally, he knows, he is in the “hole” that leads to death, and there’s a “light” shining at the other end.
Once more, Tolstoy draws attention to light, this time offering up what has now become a trope about the transition from life to death—namely, he presents Ivan’s death as a progression toward a light at the end of a long tunnel, thereby indicating that his struggle will soon be over. Of course, what’s most significant about this specific moment isn’t necessarily that Ivan is about to die, but that he lets go of any reservations he has about honestly assessing his life. Finally, he’s willing to admit that he led a wrongheaded life, and this realization helps him let go of that life.
Themes
Meaning and Mortality Theme Icon
Greed, Purity, and Corruption Theme Icon
Illness and Control Theme Icon
As Ivan continues to yell, he swings his arms around and accidentally brushes Vasya, who has snuck into his room. Vasya catches Ivan’s hand, holds it to his mouth, kisses his fingers, and begins to cry. Just as he does this, Ivan falls all the way through the “hole” and sees a light, finally admitting to himself that everything in his life has been wrong. However, he tells himself that this doesn’t matter because it’s still possible for him to “do the right thing,” though he doesn’t know what, exactly, that is. As he thinks about this, he feels Vasya kissing his hand. When he opens his eyes, he sees his son and pities him, at which point Praskovya approaches with tears on her face, and he feels sorry for her, too.
The realization that Ivan has about living improperly—which takes place at the very beginning of this section—is apparently brought on by this interaction with Vasya. That Ivan’s transformation is linked to his son’s unbridled love is significant, since the boy’s empathy helps him see that the only things that truly matter in life are love, kindness, and affection. Everything else—power, wealth, status—is meaningless. Having finally seen this, Ivan finds himself capable of letting go of his resentment for Praskovya.
Themes
Meaning and Mortality Theme Icon
Empathy vs. Resentment Theme Icon
Greed, Purity, and Corruption Theme Icon
Illness and Control Theme Icon
Ivan recognizes that his family members pity him and that they’re hurt by his suffering. However, he also sees that they will be better when he dies. First, though, he tells Praskovya to send Vasya out of the room, saying that he’s sorry for him and for Praskovya herself. Finally, he tries to say, “Forgive me,” but because he’s so weak, the words sound like, “For goodness.” Nonetheless, he decides that “he who need[s] to” will understand what he means. 
In this moment, Ivan sees that he is putting his family members through unnecessary hardship and that his death will relieve them. Instead of resenting his loved ones for seeing him as a burden, he understands that he should be kind to them. Accordingly, he tries to apologize, though he’s unable to articulate the words. Interestingly enough, though, he decides that “he who need[s] to” will understand—an ambiguous notion. After all, it’s unclear whether the “he” in this sentence refers to Ivan himself or to God. And yet, this ambiguity aligns with the fact that Ivan’s most religious or spiritual moments have taken place when he’s talking to an unidentified voice within his own soul, thereby suggesting that he is perhaps asking for forgiveness from himself and God at the same time.
Themes
Meaning and Mortality Theme Icon
Empathy vs. Resentment Theme Icon
Illness and Control Theme Icon
Related Quotes
All of a sudden, Ivan finds clarity, realizing that whatever has been agonizing him is leaving him. He wonders where his pain has gone, and when it rushes back, he doesn’t mind its presence. He also wonders where death has gone, surprised that he no longer fears it. In fact, he feels that there’s nothing to fear in the first place, because there is no death—instead of death, he only experiences light, and this brings him great joy. His body continues to gradually die over the next hour, but this shift in perspective happens in just a moment. Eventually, his breath slows, and someone says, “He’s gone!” Hearing this, Ivan tells himself, “Death has gone.” He then inhales one last time, stops in the middle of this breath, and dies.
When Ivan tells himself that “death has gone,” he perhaps means that the process of dying has finally ended. Now that he’s at the end of his life, he no longer has to worry about dying, realizing that he has no control over what happens to him and therefore might as well give himself over to his own mortality. That he feels as if death has turned into light is also noteworthy, as this suggests that he experiences the loss of his life as a blissful, spiritual moment. And though this implies that he has had a certain kind of religious awakening, Tolstoy doesn’t elaborate on what happens to Ivan. After all, Ivan is dead, meaning that—as is the case with all dead people—nobody will ever know what has happened to him.
Themes
Meaning and Mortality Theme Icon
Illness and Control Theme Icon
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