The Death of Ivan Ilyich


Leo Tolstoy

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Themes and Colors
Meaning and Mortality Theme Icon
Empathy vs. Resentment Theme Icon
Greed, Purity, and Corruption Theme Icon
Illness and Control Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.

Meaning and Mortality

In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, a novella detailing a wealthy man’s gradual death, Leo Tolstoy studies the human impulse to grasp for meaning in the face of mortality. As Ivan Ilyich succumbs to an ailment that is—at the time—mysterious and incurable, he begins to review his life, eventually concluding that he has wasted his energies focusing on his career and social status. To that end, he decides that nothing in life matters because…

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Empathy vs. Resentment

In many ways, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a story about failures of empathy. As Ivan’s health deteriorates, his family members come to see him as a burden, viewing his illness as an impediment to their everyday happiness. Rather than genuinely caring for him, his wife Praskovya only checks in on him every once in a while, relying on expensive doctors and servants to do the real work of caring for him. As…

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Greed, Purity, and Corruption

Focusing on Ivan Ilyich’s careerist worldview and its destructive qualities, The Death of Ivan Ilyich warns against the toxic, soul-corrupting effects of fixating on status, money, and power. By giving an overview of Ivan’s life before his illness, Tolstoy illustrates that success and praise can easily lead to greed and isolation, as Ivan becomes less and less capable of caring about anything except his job. By the time Ivan falls ill, he has effectively…

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Illness and Control

In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy uses Ivan’s decline to illustrate the uncomfortable fact that becoming ill often means involuntarily relinquishing control over one’s own life. Although Ivan has long enjoyed the privilege of fine-tuning his life by manipulating his power and influence in society, he now has to come to terms with the fact that he is at the mercy of his body and, to a certain extent, his caretakers. This…

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