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 Praskovya continues to lead a rather lavish life, Ivan begins to resent her and the rest of his family. In turn, readers see that Praskovya’s lack of true empathy for Ivan has pushed him away from her, interfering with their relationship in ways that would likely continue even if he were to recover. At the same time, though, Ivan eventually regrets the fact that he resents his family members so much, recognizing that a large amount of his scorn has to do with nothing other than his awareness that they’re healthy and he isn’t. In turn, readers see that his family’s lack of empathy has inspired a lack of empathy in him, too, as he unjustly criticizes them. In this regard, Tolstoy intimates that resentment often perpetuates itself, estranging loved ones from each other and making it nearly impossible for them to support one another in times of hardship.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich begins after Ivan has already died, giving readers a glimpse of his funeral before jumping back in time to outline the details of his long and painful death. In an interaction at his funeral between Ivan’s longtime friend Pyotr Ivanovich and Ivan’s wife, Praskovya, readers sense the extent to which Praskovya failed to empathize with her husband as he went through his illness. As she tells Pyotr about Ivan’s death, she explains her husband’s suffering “only in terms of the distressing effect [it] had” on her, not on Ivan himself. This emphasis on her own experience underlines her failure to consider what it must have been like for Ivan to die such a harrowing death. Instead of focusing on Ivan’s feelings, she fixates on how his deterioration affected her life—the exact mindset that Ivan himself senses and comes to resent when he’s still alive. Indeed, as Ivan’s health declines, he develops bitter feelings toward Praskovya. At first, this bitterness arises because Praskovya and Liza, their daughter, go on with their social lives without paying much attention to his health, acting annoyed that he isn’t “much fun” and that he wants so much from them. In keeping with this, he begins to feel as if he’s a mere nuisance to his own family members. Worse, Praskovya adopts a self-centered attitude toward Ivan’s illness, one in which she implies that his ailments are his fault and that he’s doing nothing but making her miserable. Of course, Ivan thinks that she’s adopting this mindset unknowingly, but Tolstoy goes out of his way to remark that Praskovya’s lack of ill intent doesn’t make the relational dynamic any easier for Ivan to bear. After all, it’s clear that Praskovya can’t bring herself to empathize with her husband, thereby leaving him to deal with the emotional difficulties of his illness all by himself.
Even when Praskovya tries to show Ivan compassion, her kindness does nothing but upset him. This is because he has sensed that neither she nor any of his family members or friends actually want to empathize with him. To that end, nobody fully pities him because nobody has even “the slightest desire to understand his situation.” This sentiment suggests that a person has to fully understand someone else’s hardship in order to show legitimate empathy. The only person in Ivan’s life who is capable of doing this, it seems, is Gerasim, a kind young peasant who works for him. Unlike Ivan’s family members and friends, Gerasim is willing to try to understand what it must be like to be so sick. This is because Gerasim recognizes that everyone dies, so he’s comfortable showing others the empathy that he hopes he himself will receive when he’s on his deathbed. People like Pyotr Ivanovich, on the other hand, can’t empathize with Ivan because they refuse to admit that what he’s experiencing will one day befall them, too. Instead, they distance themselves from Ivan, reminding themselves that this illness has happened to him, not to them. As a result, Ivan begins to resent everyone except Gerasim, who is singularly capable of making him feel less alone with his illness.
Because Ivan feels that Gerasim is the only person willing to understand his pain, Ivan becomes so hateful toward his family that he stops masking his contempt when they come to visit him in his final days of life. As Praskovya enters his room, he looks at her with unconcealed bitterness and recoils from her touch, deciding that he hates her. Not only has she failed to empathize with him in this time of hardship, but she has continued to lead a life that only a healthy, happy person can lead, effectively rubbing his face in his own suffering. Consequently, he “hate[s] her with every fibre of his being.” In this manner, then, he fails to empathize with the fact that she is about to lose her husband and thus her stability. To be fair, this is arguably a minor loss compared to what he is about to lose (his entire life), but it still illustrates the ways in which one person’s lack of empathy only spawns animosity, alienating loved ones from one another simply because they’re unwilling to inhabit each other’s perspectives. Finally, though, Ivan sees just before his death that he’s harming his family members by resenting them so vehemently in the last moments of his life. Accordingly, he tries to say, “Forgive me,” in an effort to reach across the gulf of misunderstanding between him and his loved ones, which has estranged him from them and left him even more isolated in his illness than necessary.
Empathy vs. Resentment ThemeTracker
Empathy vs. Resentment Quotes in The Death of Ivan Ilyich
So, the first thought that occurred to each of the assembled gentlemen on hearing the news of his death was how this death might affect his own prospects, and those of their acquaintances, for transfer or promotion.
‘I’m sure to get Shtabel’s job now, or Vinnikov’s,’ thought Fyodor Vasilyevich. ‘They promised me ages ago, and a promotion like that would give me another eight hundred roubles a year, plus expenses.’
‘I must apply to have my brother-in-law transferred from Kaluga,’ thought Pyotr Ivanovich. ‘My wife will be delighted. She won’t be able to tell me I never do anything for her people.’
‘I had a feeling he wasn’t going to get better,’ said Pyotr Ivanovich. ‘It’s sad.’
Apart from the speculations aroused in each of them by this death, concerning the transfers and possible changes that this death might bring about, the very fact of the death of someone close to them aroused in all who heard about it, as always, a feeling of delight that he had died and they hadn’t.
‘There you have it. He’s dead, and I’m not’ was what everyone thought or felt.
Pyotr Ivanovich entered the room, and hesitated, as people always do on these occasions, not knowing precisely what to do. The only thing he was certain of was that in this situation you couldn’t go wrong if you made the sign of the cross. Whether or not you should bow at the same time he wasn’t sure, so he went for a compromise, crossing himself as he walked in and giving a bit of a bow as he did so. At the same time, as far as hand and head movements permitted, he glanced round the room.
He had changed a good deal; he was even thinner than he had been when Pyotr Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as with all dead bodies, his face had acquired greater beauty, or, more to the point, greater significance, than it had had in life. Its expression seemed to say that what needed to be done had been done, and done properly. More than that, the expression contained a reproach, or at least a reminder, to the living. The reminder seemed out of place to Pyotr Ivanovich, or at least he felt it didn’t apply to him personally.
‘Three days and three nights of horrible suffering, and then death. Just think, it could happen to me any time, now,’ he thought, and he felt that momentary pang of fear. But immediately he was saved, without knowing how, by the old familiar idea that this had happened to Ivan Ilyich, not him, and it could not and would not happen to him, and that kind of thinking would put him in a gloomy mood, for which there was no need, as Schwartz’s face had clearly demonstrated. Pursuing this line of thought, Pyotr Ivanovich calmed down and began to show a close interest in the details of Ivan Ilyich’s death, as if death was a chance experience that may have applied to Ivan Ilyich but certainly didn’t apply to him.
Far from abusing this power, he did his best to play it down, but his consciousness of that power and the very chance to play it down were what gave his new job its interest and appeal. In the work itself, the process of investigation, Ivan Ilyich soon mastered the technique of distancing himself from all irrelevancies and reducing the most complicated cases to a version that could be set down on paper in objective outline, excluding any personal opinion on his part, while observing all the necessary formalities, which was what mattered most.
He could see that the awful, terrible act of his dying had been reduced by those around him to the level of an unpleasant incident, something rather indecent (as if they were dealing with someone who had come into the drawing-room and let off a bad smell), and this was done by exploiting the very sense of ‘decency’ that he had been observing all his life. He could see that no one had any pity for him because no one had the slightest desire to understand his situation.
‘Yes, I’m hurting them,’ he thought. ‘They feel sorry for me, but they’ll be all right when I’m dead.’ He wanted to tell them this, but he wasn’t strong enough to get the words out. ‘Anyway…no good talking. Must do something.’ He looked at his wife, motioned to their son and said: ‘Take him away…sorry for him… and you…’ He tried to say, ‘Forgive me,’ but it came out as, ‘For goodness…’ Too weak to correct himself, he waved his hand knowing that he who needed to would understand.