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 cut himself off from anything that might have actual value to him on his deathbed, including his relationships with his wife, Praskovya, and adult daughter, Liza, both of whom have grown accustomed to his disinterest in family life. In fact, Praskovya and Liza have structured their own lives based on the same desire for power and admiration that has driven Ivan up until this point. For this reason, Ivan begins on his deathbed to idealize the few people in his life who have not been corrupted by greed or egotism. Removed from his false sense of self-importance, Ivan covets people like his peasant servant, Gerasim, and his young son, Vasya, both of whom he sees as innocent and pure. That these are the only characters in the entire novella who embody these qualities is especially noteworthy, since this indicates that Tolstoy believes everyone else in Ivan’s milieu has been corrupted by the very same bourgeoise affectations and superficial concerns that leave Ivan feeling so lonely and wretched at the end of his life. With this in mind, it becomes clear that Tolstoy sees the trappings of high society as capable of poisoning otherwise pure and authentic ways of moving through the world.
The influence of greed is all around Ivan, so apparent in his social circles that even his supposedly close friends can’t help but think about how they might benefit professionally from his death. Upon hearing that Ivan has died, people like Pyotr Ivanovich—who is not only his colleague but also an old friend—immediately start thinking about the fact that Ivan’s position has just opened up, devising schemes to capitalize on his death as if it’s nothing but a new opportunity. Pyotr Ivanovich maintains this insensitive mindset when he attends Ivan’s funeral and eagerly looks for excuses to leave, wanting nothing more than to make a quick exit so he can go play cards with his friend Schwartz, who winks at him during the services and makes no effort to hide how unwilling he is to let Ivan’s death get him down. Thinking this way, Pyotr Ivanovich manages to leave the funeral, meeting up with Schwartz and three other men to play a game of whist. That he chooses to gamble instead of paying respects to an old friend shows readers that, throughout Ivan’s life, he tended to associate with people who exclusively cared about earning money and socializing.
As the story jumps back in time to chart Ivan’s professional rise, Tolstoy frames the development of young Ivan’s careerist attitude as something that slowly but surely poisons his inherent moral sensibilities. While studying law, Ivan starts to do things that he finds “utterly revolting,” and though Tolstoy never clarifies the nature of this behavior, he notes that Ivan Ilyich often feels “disgusted with himself” during this period. However, as Ivan continues to do these things, he notices that well-respected and successful people are behaving in the exact same way. Of course, this doesn’t necessarily convince him that this lifestyle is completely good or virtuous, but recognizing the behavior of his superiors allows him to excuse his own actions. By the time he himself is a lauded magistrate, he has completely stopped questioning his behavior, having fully relaxed into a way of life that he instinctively felt at the outset of his career—when he was still young and uncorrupted by greed and opportunism—was shameful and uncouth.
When Ivan is on his deathbed, he can no longer truly enjoy the power and wealth that previously distracted him from acknowledging his life’s shortcomings. Throughout his adulthood, he has become increasingly attached to his work and less involved in his familial relationships. Anytime he and Praskovya have fights, for instance, he distracts himself by turning his attention to his work, looking over documents instead of trying to mend their relationship. Similarly, he obsesses over the appearance of his apartment, going to great lengths to decorate it so that other people in his social circles will think highly of him. When he falls while hanging a curtain and bruises his side, the injury signifies the extent to which his fixation on appearances has superseded all other concerns, indicating that his greedy, egotistical outlook on life is taking a tangible toll on his wellbeing. After all, none of the work he does nor the effort he puts into his apartment actually matter when he’s on his deathbed, since these things cannot heal his illness or atone for his past mistakes. Accordingly, he finally recognizes while dying that his life has become utterly vapid, but that it’s too late to go back and lead a more substantial existence. Consequently, he covets his relationship with Gerasim, a young servant from a humble background who remains untainted by the materialistic and power-hungry preoccupations that have consumed everyone else in Ivan’s environment. For Ivan, Gerasim, along with Ivan’s own young son, Vasya, represent the kind of faultless integrity that he himself could have embodied if he hadn’t wasted his life chasing wealth and status. In this regard, The Death of Ivan Ilyich warns readers about the harmful effects of leading a greedy, superficial life, ultimately suggesting that such lifestyles can corrode a person’s virtues, and eventually their happiness.
Greed, Purity, and Corruption ThemeTracker
Greed, Purity, and Corruption 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.’
In his student days he had done things that at first he thought of as utterly revolting, things that made him feel disgusted with himself even as he was doing them, but in later life, noticing that the same things were being done by people of high standing without a qualm, although he couldn’t quite bring himself to think they were good, he did manage to dismiss them, and he felt no pangs of remorse when he recalled them.
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 realized that married life—at least with his wife—didn’t always mean enjoyment and decency, but, on the contrary, it often disrupted them, and it was therefore necessary to guard against such disruptions. And Ivan Ilyich began to seek ways of doing this. His work was the one thing that impressed Praskovya, and it was through work and the commitments associated with it that he took on his wife and asserted his own independence.
In court he found his mind wandering; he would be miles away, wondering whether to have plain or moulded cornices with his curtains. He became so involved that he often did the work himself, rearranging the furniture and rehanging the curtains. On one occasion, climbing a stepladder to show a dull-witted upholsterer how to hang the draperies, he slipped and fell, though he was strong and agile enough to hold on, and all he did was bump his side on a window-frame knob. The bruised place hurt for a while but it soon passed off. And all this time Ivan Ilyich felt particularly well and in the best of spirits. ‘I seem to have shed fifteen years,’ he wrote home.
But then suddenly there it was, the pain in his side, irrespective of where they had got to in the proceedings, and it was beginning to gnaw at him. Ivan Ilyich focused on it, drove the thought of it away, but it continued to make itself felt. It kept coming back, facing him and looking at him, while he sat there rigid, the fire went out of his eyes and he began to wonder whether It was the only truth. And his colleagues and subordinates looked on in distress, amazed that he, a man of such brilliant and subtle judgement, was getting confused and making mistakes.
But what was strange was that all the best times of his happy life no longer seemed anything like what they had been before. Nothing did—except the first recollections of his childhood. There, in his childhood, there was something truly happy that he could have lived with if it returned. But the person living out that happiness no longer existed; it was like remembering someone quite different.
At the point where he, today’s Ivan Ilyich, began to emerge, all the pleasures that had seemed so real melted away now before his eyes and turned into something trivial and often disgusting.
It occurred to him that what had once seemed a total impossibility—that he had not lived his life as he should have done—might actually be true. It occurred to him that the slight stirrings of doubt he had experienced about what was considered good by those in the highest positions, slight stirrings that he had immediately repudiated—that these misgivings might have been true and everything else might have been wrong. His career, the ordering of his life, his family, the things that preoccupied people in society and at work—all of this might have been wrong. He made an attempt at defending these things for himself. And suddenly he sensed the feebleness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend.