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 is particularly disturbing to him because he resents that his doctors are in a position of power over him. In fact, he even comes to resent them for treating him the same way he might treat a guilty defendant in court. Rather than seeing them as people trying to help him, he sees them as malicious figures of authority who threaten his sense of superiority and control. He soon views their diagnoses and suggestions with great animosity, as if undermining what they say will somehow make him feel better. With this outlook, he gives up all hope of recovering, completely surrendering to his illness and thinking of his doctors as liars when they act like they might still be able to help him. Ivan effectively accepts that he has no control over his body while simultaneously discrediting the only people who might actually have a modicum of influence on his illness. In turn, this ability to oppose his caretakers gives him a small sense of control, thereby illustrating what little sense of agency is available to people who have otherwise been forced to recognize the harsh reality of life’s unpredictable and seemingly unfair nature.
At first, Ivan is quick to overlook his symptoms, clearly eager to disregard anything that might suggest his body’s ability to slip out of his control. In the initial stages of his illness, he experiences an odd taste in his mouth and a slight pain in his side, but he doesn’t pay much attention to either sensation, deciding that these symptoms don’t “count as ill health.” As time goes on, though, these discomforts begin to affect Ivan’s mood, causing him to mistreat Praskovya. In this subtle way, Ivan fails to fight off his encroaching illness, allowing it to get the better of him and influence his marriage. As a result, it becomes clear—even at the mere outset of his bad health—that simply asserting himself over his body’s whims is an ineffective and futile pursuit, since he will always be at the mercy of his physical condition.
When Ivan finally agrees to see a doctor, he once again finds himself in a position in which he has very little control. Not only is he unable to force his ailments to subside, but he now has to face an authority figure who, because of his superior knowledge of the human body, only emphasizes Ivan’s own powerlessness over his entire predicament. This is apparent right away, as Ivan instantly notices that the doctor behaves like he, as a magistrate, behaves when he’s presiding over a case in court. According to Ivan, the doctor looks at him in the exact same way that he looks at defendants, lording his power over them and controlling the nature of the ensuing conversation. In keeping with this, Ivan listens to the doctor speak at length about anatomical matters that he can’t comprehend, feeling lost in a sea of words that leave him confused and uncertain about his future. Trying to regain control of the conversation, then, he asks the doctor the only question that matters to him: “Is this condition life-threatening or not?” Unfortunately for him, though, the doctor ignores this question, instead returning to his clinical assessment. When he finishes, Ivan asks his question once again, but the doctor only claims to have already told him what he thinks. This disconnect between Ivan and his physician accentuates Ivan’s overall lack of control—not only can he do nothing to change his physical state, but he can’t even manage to get his doctor to give him something as basic as a clear diagnosis.
Hoping to recapture a sense of control, Ivan seeks out multiple other doctors, but none of them tell him anything he wants to hear, nor do their assessments stop his pain. After trying to diligently follow various regimens, he begins to view his doctors with consternation, thinking of them as liars who don’t truly care about his health and are only pretending that what they do will help him. Moreover, he convinces himself that these doctors are focused on the wrong thing, believing that they’re getting hung up on unnecessary anatomical considerations instead of considering the practical nature of the problem—namely, whether or not he is going to die. Before long, he embraces that he is going to die and that nothing any of his doctors give him or tell him to do will stop this from happening. In this strange way, he comes to terms with his lack of control over his body. In doing so, though, he underhandedly opposes his doctors, who—despite what they might really think about his hopes of surviving—will apparently continue indefinitely to talk about his organs and try new approaches. By finally letting go of the idea of beating this illness, Ivan goes against his doctors, and this is perhaps the only kind of control over his life that he’s able to recapture before dying—a kind of control that has more to do with the way he mentally frames his situation than with what will actually happen to him. In this sense, Tolstoy intimates that the only things humans can truly control in life are their own thoughts.
Illness and Control ThemeTracker
Illness and Control Quotes in The Death of Ivan Ilyich
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.
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.
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.
The whole thing turned out just as he had expected […]. He was made to wait, the doctor was full of his own importance—an attitude he was familiar with because it was one that he himself assumed in court—then came all the tapping and listening, the questions with predetermined and obviously superfluous answers, the knowing look that seemed to say, ‘Just place yourself in our hands and we’ll sort it out, we know what we’re doing, there’s no doubt about it. We can sort things out the same way as we would for anyone you care to name.’ It was just like being in court. The way he looked at the accused in court was exactly the way he was being looked at now by the famous doctor.
The doctor glared at him through one eye over his glasses as if to say, ‘Prisoner in the dock, if you will not confine yourself to answering the questions put to you I shall have to arrange for you to be removed from the courtroom.’
‘I have already told you what I consider necessary and appropriate. Anything further will be determined by the tests.’ The doctor bowed.
Absorption; the blind gut was curing itself. Then suddenly he could feel the same old dull gnawing pain, quiet, serious, unrelenting. The same nasty taste in his mouth. His heart sank and his head swam. ‘O God! O God!’ he muttered. ‘It’s here again, and it’s not going away.’ And suddenly he saw things from a completely different angle. ‘The blind gut! The kidney!’ he said to himself. ‘It’s got nothing to do with the blind gut or the kidney. It’s a matter of living or…dying. Yes, I have been alive, and now my life is steadily going away and I can’t stop it. No. There’s no point in fooling myself. Can’t they all see—everybody but me—that I’m dying? It’s only a matter of weeks, or days—maybe any minute now. There has been daylight; now there is darkness. I have been here; now I’m going there. Where?’
All his life the syllogism he had learned from Kiesewetter’s logic—Julius Caesar is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caesar is mortal—had always seemed to him to be true only when it applied to Caesar, certainly not to him. There was Caesar the man, and man in general, and it was fair enough for them, but he wasn’t Caesar the man and he wasn’t man in general, he had always been a special being, totally different from all others, he had been Vanya with his mama and his papa, […] with all the delights, sorrows and rapture of childhood, boyhood and youth. Did Caesar have anything to do with the smell of that little striped leather ball that Vanya had loved so much? Was it Caesar who had kissed his mother’s hand like that, and was it for Caesar that the silken folds of his mother’s dress had rustled the way they did?
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.
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.