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 everything he has ever believed in now appears empty and vain. In other words, everything he has focused on has done nothing but distract him from the fundamental truth of existence, which is that death is inevitable. Ivan derives some satisfaction from this thought because he thinks the thought itself gives life meaning. In reality, though, the inevitability of death doesn’t actually lend a sense of meaning or purpose to life—rather, it simply spells out an undeniable truth, one that Ivan apparently can only embrace by experiencing the process of death itself. Consequently, The Death of Ivan Ilyich doesn’t illuminate the meaning of life, but merely draws attention to the human desire to eke a sense of greater significance out of existence—whether or not this is actually possible, in either a tangible or spiritual way, Tolstoy doesn’t indicate.
For his entire life, Ivan Ilyich has kept thoughts about death at bay by committing himself to his career and searching for ways to improve his social status. These pursuits have ultimately distracted him from considering his own mortality. When he falls ill and realizes he’s dying, then, he finds it difficult to comprehend this harsh reality. Of course, Ivan knows that he is mortal, but he has on some level always rejected this idea. As a sick man, he thinks of a popular syllogism that helps people grasp the fact that everybody dies, no matter who they are: “Julius Caesar is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caesar is mortal.” When he considers this, though, he can’t help but feel that he has “always been a special being, totally different from all others.” Simply put, he isn’t Caesar, and he isn’t like anyone else either. In this moment, Tolstoy spotlights the way that human subjectivity can warp a person’s understanding of mortality, implying that it’s difficult for people to fully accept the limits of their own existence without actually facing death for themselves. In Ivan’s narrow focus on his singular experience—the specific way he moves through the world, his air of professional gravitas, his subjectivity—he has inadvertently come to see himself as immortal, effectively convincing himself that his life is too unique and meaningful to ever come to an end.
At a certain point in his illness, though, Ivan can no longer deny that he will soon die. With this realization comes the understanding that nothing he has done will save him from his fate; there is, he thinks, “nothing left but to die.” Accordingly, he cynically reviews his life and realizes that he has wasted it by focusing on inconsequential matters like power, status, and his career. This, in turn, causes him to question the entire meaning of life, wanting to know what actually matters if not the superficial things he used to hold dear. Moreover, he questions the point of the painful suffering he endures throughout his illness, asking, “Why all this horror? What’s the reason for it?” It’s worth pausing to consider who, exactly, Ivan is addressing in this moment. Although he has never shown any interest in religion, his existential questions seem directed at God, or at least at something that has an omniscient understanding of life and death, ultimately indicating that he is desperately grasping for answers in the face of death. More importantly, though, his questions underscore his assumption that existence must have some kind of inherent, overarching meaning in the first place.
The closest Ivan gets to wringing meaning out of existence comes when he decides that everything he has focused on in life has been a mere distraction from the inevitability of his own death. Once he accepts that he has squandered his life obsessing over meaningless things, he senses that these distractions have been nothing but “gross deception[s] obscuring life and death.” Thinking this way, he embraces the only tangible truth about human existence, which is that everyone dies. This comes to him as something of an epiphany, suggesting that only by experiencing death for himself can Ivan derive meaning from mortality. And yet, this thought does nothing to truly add purpose or significance to life and death—rather, it just provides him with a bit of clarity about death’s inevitability. Nonetheless, Ivan experiences this moment of realization as laden with meaning, and he even appears to have a spiritual awakening in the final minutes of his life, as death turns into “light” while he himself fades away from the material world. This religious awakening allows him to further embrace his own death, but it doesn’t actually imbue his life with a sense of meaning, or least not one that Tolstoy presents to readers. Rather, Ivan’s realization only changes his relationship to the fundamental dichotomy between life and death that people assume to be at the heart of existence. As Ivan dies, he sees death turn into “light”—the two states appear to join as one, illustrating that death is part of life, not separate from it. And though this is perhaps somewhat profound and might strike Ivan as an epiphany, it’s hard to argue that it actually gives readers a sense of meaning. For a novella in which the protagonist yearns to grasp the meaning of life, then, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is profoundly empty of any actual conclusions about the purpose of existence, instead simply assembling a portrait of human desperation and uncertainty in response to unsettling existential truths.
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Meaning and Mortality 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
He waited only for Gerasim to go out into the next room, and then he could restrain himself no longer: he burst into tears like a child. He was weeping because of his own helpless state, and his loneliness, and other people’s cruelty, and God’s cruelty, and God’s non-existence.
‘Why hast Thou done all of this? Why hast Thou brought me to this point? Why oh why dost Thou torture me like this?...’
He was not expecting any answers; he was weeping because there were not and could not be any answers.
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.
‘What is this? Can it really be death?’ And an inner voice would reply, ‘Yes, that’s what it is.’ ‘What is this torture for?’ And the voice would reply, ‘It’s just there. It’s not for anything.’ Above and beyond this there was nothing.
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.
‘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.