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The death of Ivan Ilyich – Leo Tolstoi

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, first published in 1886, is a novel by Leo Tolstoi, considered one of the masterpieces of his late fiction, written shortly after his religious conversion in the late 1870s.

“Generally ranked among the best examples in the novel,” The Death of Ivan Ilyich tells the story of a superior court judge in 19th-century Russia and his suffering and death from a terminal illness.


Summary and Synopsis

Ivan Ilyich lives a carefree life that is “the simplest and most ordinary and, therefore, the most terrible”. Like everyone he meets, he spends his life climbing the social ladder. Enduring marriage to a woman he often finds too demanding, he prepares to be a magistrate, thanks to the influence he has over a friend who has just been promoted, focusing more on his work as his family life becomes less tolerable.

As you hang the curtains from your new home one day, you fall awkwardly and hurt your side. Although at first he does not give it much importance, he begins to suffer pain in the side. As your discomfort grows, your behavior towards your family becomes more irritable. His wife finally insists that he visit a doctor.

The doctor cannot determine the source of his illness, but it soon becomes clear that his condition is terminal. Confronted with his diagnosis, Ivan tries all possible remedies to obtain a cure for the worsening of his situation, until the pain becomes so intense that he is forced to stop working and spend the rest of his days in bed. Here, he comes face to face with his mortality and realizes that although he knows it, he doesn’t really understand it.

During the long and painful process of dying, Ivan stops at the idea that he does not deserve his suffering because he has lived correctly. If she hadn’t lived a good life, there could be a reason for her pain; But it has, so pain and death must be arbitrary and meaningless.

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When he begins to hate his family for avoiding the subject of his death, for pretending that he is only sick and does not die, he finds his only comfort in his peasant servant, Gerasim, the only person in Ivan’s life who is not afraid of death. , and also the only one who, apart from his own son, shows compassion for him. Ivan begins to wonder if, in fact, he has lived a good life.

In the last days of his life, Ivan makes a clear division between an artificial life, like his own, that masks the true meaning of life and makes one fear death, and an authentic life, the life of Gerasim. Authentic life is marked by compassion and sympathy, artificial life by self-interest.

Then “some force” hits Ivan in the chest and side, bringing him into the presence of a bright light. His hand falls on the head of his near son, and Ivan sympathizes with his son. He no longer hates his daughter or wife, but feels sorry for them and hopes that their death will set them free. In doing so, his dread of death leaves him, and, as Tolstoy suggests, death itself disappears.

Genre: Realistic novel

Ivan Ilych’s death is definitely a realistic work. This is a story about a middle-class official with an unhappy marriage and shallow friends whose greatest joy is bridge games. Ivan dies from a fall he suffered while putting up curtains. That is ordinary, unscented life right there.

Tolstoy’s particular brand of realism is also characterized by psychological realism. Try to describe the thoughts and emotions of your characters as directly as possible.

For this reason, Tolstoy generally has the effect of appearing as a master psychiatrist who understands his characters in a way that they themselves could never do. Because Tolstoy himself was such a good psychologist (he allegedly used his journal as a means to dissect his own mind), he is capable of creating credible and ordinary characters.


  • Ivan Ilyich: He is a highly regarded official of the Court of Justice, described by Tolstoy as “neither as cold and formal as his older brother, nor as wild as the younger, but he was happy means among them: an intelligent, polished, cheerful and nice “. As the story progresses, he becomes increasingly introspective and emotional as he reflects on the reason for his dying illness and death.
  • Praskovya Fëdorovna Golovin: She is Ivan’s unfriendly wife. She is characterized by being self-absorbed and uninterested in her husband’s struggles, unless they directly affect her.
  • Gerasim: is Ivan’s young butler. Take on the role of sole comforter and caregiver during Ivan’s illness.
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  • Peter Ivanovich: He is Ivan’s old friend and colleague. He studied law with Ivan and is the first to recognize Ivan’s impending death.
  • Vasia: He is the son of Ivan.
  • Lisa Golovin: She is the daughter of Ivan.
  • Fëdor Petrishchev: He is Lisa’s fiancé.


The worldly depiction of Ivan’s life, along with the dramatization of his long and exhausting battle against death, seems to directly reflect Tolstoy’s theories of moral life, which to a large extent derived during his gap year from personal and professional duties. in 1877.

Death permeates the narrative in a realistic way. But the actual physicality of death is only present in the first chapters during Ivan’s wake. Instead, the story leads the reader through a thoughtful and metaphysical exploration of the reason for death and what it really means to live.

Phrases from the book

“As with all the dead, his face was more graceful and, above all, more expressive than he had been in life.”

“I saw that the atrocious, horrible fact of its gradual extinction was reduced by all those around him to the level of a casual incident, in part unseemly (something as if an individual entered a room spreading a bad smell), a result of that same “Decorum” that he himself had practiced all his life. ”