In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy paints a poignant image of the death of an un-contemplative man after his brief life. On the surface, Ivan has success: a good job, family, and money. However, despite all his earned success, Ivan Ilyich was still an empty man, unprepared to die. It is only as he dies that he begins to realize the true meaning of life and what it should have meant to him.
Even as he was living, Ivan seemed to be aware that all of his colleague friends lacked true affection for him. “He felt that he was trapped in such a mesh of lies that it was difficult to make sense out of anything.” He hated his wife for he knew that all of her words were false and her affection towards him was not really out of love, but out of desire for money. Ivan Ilyich also thought that his doctors were liars. Perhaps his physicians were like many of those today and lack the ability to think about death or to deal with dying. It is easy to regard the patient as a kidney or organ that is merely not working properly. Tolstoy writes that Ivan Ilyich hates that “the real question of life and death” is neglected when it comes to the organ malfunctions that he has.
Tolstoy begins his story at the end, after Ilyich has died, portraying the falseness of all those around Ivan: his wife, his family, and his “so-called friends”, to express the bundle of lies that he is living. His wife is merely interested in only the sort of pension she will receive from the government, and Ivan’s “friends” are only worried about the next promotion they will receive due to his nonexistence. The show of a funeral is enacted where both acceptable gestures and sympathy is given, and afterwards Ivan’s friends return to their selfish lives only glad that it was not them who were in the casket.
Contrasting with the mental anguish, physical pain, and false life that Ivan suffers, are the relationships he forms with his son and the servant, Gerasim. Ivan lacked honest affection from his wife and his friends, but his son and Gerasim really cared about him. His son truly grieved over his father’s condition, and Gerasim, a servant but later a nurse, gave Ivan all of the honest companionship and care that he so desperately craved. Gerasim’s reassuring touch and his son’s willingness to stay and talk with his father were enough to alleviate Ivan’s constant suffering.
Tolstoy portrays Ivan Ilyich’s life as the antithesis of the contemplative life. Ivan had been consumed with the material, the present, and the popular within society. His entire life he has done what is expected in society for a higher class living. He buys an expensive house to which he could not afford, and does things in accordance to society’s expectations. It is only as he lies dying that he realizes he should have done things differently in his life, but is still confused about the thought since he did what everyone is supposed to do.
Ivan’s body is covered with physical pain, but it is his moral agony that torments him the most. The most painful realization comes when he looks at his wife, son, and the doctor. “In them he saw himself, all he had lived by, saw clearly that all this was not the real thing but a dreadful, enormous deception that shut out both life and death.” He realized that he has lived a complete lie and all that he lived for was society’s approval. And so upon realization of the enormous lie he had lived, Ivan Ilyich began to scream for three days.
“He realized that he was lost, that there was no return, that the end had come, the very end, and that his doubts, still unresolved, remained with him.” An hour before his death, Ivan Ilyich thought, “I can still make it the real thing – I can. But what is the real thing?” At this thought, Ivan Ilyich stopped screaming, and he felt someone kissing his hand. It was his son. Too weak to adequately express his regrets and ask for their forgiveness, he stuttered words of forgiveness to his wife and son, knowing that they would understand.
At the end of his life Ivan Ilyich realized the truth that if he forgave himself for his life, than the “heavenly father” would forgive him. Ivan was ready to accept death at this point, and finally knew the significance of his life. In sudden understanding, he yells, “How good and how simple!” Now, he is accepting death. To his response he screams “So that’s it! What bliss!” After screaming these mortal words, Ivan Ilyich stretches out and dies, yet dies at peace with himself and with God.