The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy: Purposefully Avoid Death

In today’s Classics Book Club, we will be covering one of the darkest, one of the funniest, and one of the deepest novels ever written, The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy. This post is sponsored by the Home Shop. This is where all the elegant details that make my home a luxurious sanctuary reside. You will find my favourite go-to picks for every room in the house, from kitchen to bedroom. Read full disclosure here.

Ivan Ilyich is an upper middle class, bureaucratic, relatable man. He was famously quite normal. There’s a line in the book, ‘He lived a very normal life, and thus, such a terrible one.’ 

Through a freak accident he was hanging drapes, he falls, hits his side, and causes internal damage. He does not realise it at first, but comes to realise he has a serious injury. 

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The rest of the book is about him slowly dying, but the overarching theme is man facing his mortality. This includes the people around him and their refusal to confront it. 

Take a normal man, who lives like most of us and tries not to think about these things, and now force him to deal with the situation. You know as the reader that nothing miraculous will happen, this is realism, and he will die. You are only waiting for him to catch up to the idea. It’s all about his internal struggle facing reality. Tolstoy gives a personal characteristic depth of detail in experiencing all these extremely ordinary events. 

Ivan Ilyich gets married, not because he is madly in love with his wife, but because that’s what you’re supposed to do. They have a lukewarm marriage, and go through life together. He is not nobody. He is a bright young boy and is called Phoenix of the family. He is getting good grades, goes to law school, moves up in a great career, gets the right government job, goes to play cards all the time – that’s his pleasure. 

Then, he earns some money, gets a house, and doesn’t just fill up his house with furniture. He fills it with bourgeois furniture that yuppies get, also known as the middle class items that they think rich people have. It’s actually just the furniture that all middle class people get they think the rich people have, but it’s all just the same thing other middle class people own. 

He does all these things, because he feels like he needs to do it. There’s a French phrase that keeps coming up, ‘comme un fait’, meaning as one does. Not because there is a deep yearning of the heart. He thinks this is the life that one happens to lead. 

Once the idea of death strikes him, he realises, ‘Wait a second. I hate my life. I hate my wife. I hate this family around me. I hate the way people interact. I hate it all.’ It’s not a happy death – at least not until the end. He awakens from being on standby and it becomes satirical, even laughable.

He stumbles on this idea that he hasn’t lived as he ought to have lived. He starts reviewing his mind if he has a good life, a good job, lived a decorous life according to the values of his day. The idea that that could somehow be wrong or there could be more to life hardly occurred to him. Now all of these things finally are.

There’s a line in the book that says he’s looking at death, and there is nothing he could do except look at it and suffer. You cannot do anything about your demise. So many individuals recoil from the notion that they are presented with the opportunity to confront the reality of their mortality, and there must be something we can do about this. There is this attitude that this cannot be real, so we must change it. Do something, even if it doesn’t entirely fix the situation. At least, it will be better, because we put in some effort. 

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Tolstoy makes an explicit point to go after doctors and medical science in Ivan Ilyich. He says, ‘The doctors all came. They didn’t really all know what the problem was. Well, they all knew, but they couldn’t come to one answer of what the problem was.’ He goes to a scientific medical doctor and says he’s not doing that. Then a homoeopathic doctor says he’s not doing that. Then thinks about praying to icons, and says that’s a step too far, he’s not definitely doing that. But then goes back to the doctors who are all idiots. Ultimately, they do not help him. The man has to die. He says, ‘this is the end of death.’ 

The book is only somewhat explicitly religious. But Tolstoy does not give his religious status, but is not an atheist. Back in that century, it was odd to not believe in God, and strange to not be religious. It is in the peripheral, and Ilyich does resort to praying briefly, but there is never that intended moment where he has a conversion. 

Tolstoy himself bears similarities to Ivan Ilyich in his difficult marriage and heterodox religious views. Tolstoy himself had a religious conversion, but apparently it was awkward. 

The funniest moment in the story is with his wife whom he hates, who is also not that lovable to begin with. She asks if he could take communion. He refuses saying he doesn’t want to talk with a priest, he doesn’t want to do anything to do with church. But then eventually agrees. He takes it, and then he actually starts to feel better.

When he took communion, there were tears in his eyes. His wife asks if he feels better, and he grits his teeth saying yes and continues, ‘This is wrong. Everything you have lived by and still do is lie. A deception that hides life and death away from you.’ And the moment this thought occurred to him. His hatred welled up. And along with the hatred came physical suffering and agony. And along with the agony, came awareness of the inevitable destruction that is now so close. He still looks at her and screams, ‘Get out! Leave me alone!’

This is hilarious, because he has a beautiful woman who loves him, and brings him communion to offer some sort of salvation. And he says, ‘I hate you! Get out!’

The book is really funny. It starts at the end and retells the story going backwards. Within the first few lines, his friends are at his funeral service and they get bored, so they go play cards. 

That shows you what Tolstoy does here. He doesn’t give you the easy way out. Each time you think he is sort of absolved from a life of not creating much meaning, for example, his wife gives him communion, they press on together as a loving couple facing the truth. Instead, Tolstoy pulls you back further away with resistance to becoming a virtuous person. 

If he miraculously recovered at the end, he would have gone back to playing cards and hating his wife. The quotidien problems are widespread, which is why they are impossible to overcome. That is why we relate to the story. 

The simple lesson from this book is you are going to die. But there is a lot of value in realising that, because it gives you more meaning in every little thing you do to get your day started, asking what will you do with this 24 hours? How will you treat others? Are you going to be remembered as someone who was pleasant to look at, be around, or even contributed to society?

His frustration is only to himself while as far as the other people are concerned who are around him, this is only something that is happening to Ivan Ilyich and only him. There is only one person who does not lie to him is the only individual who tells the truth. It is also the only character Ivan likes – his peasant servant. 

His servant holds up his legs for hours, and says it’s no big deal. There is a stench of death, and the servant says, ‘It’s okay. I don’t mind, because we’re all going to die. And I hope someone does this for me when I die.’ When someone asks if the servant is sad from the turning of events, he says, ‘Tis God’s will, Sir. ‘Twill come to us all.’ He is the only reasonable person in the whole book. 

Ivan Ilyich wants to be babied, and as he is dying, he wants to be around people and pitied. All he wants is to be pitied. Which is normal. You just want someone to come alongside you as far as they can so you do not feel alone. Society is structured around blunting the impact of reality. So much of what we do is to distract us from mortality.

You think about simple things where Ivan Ilyich in 1882 in Russia goes to the theatre, but for us, we go home and watch Netflix for hours. Where Ilyich looks around at people waiting around six hours around a screen at night and says, ‘What are you doing? You’re wasting your years. You’re going to die. Why is this what you choose to do?’ 

In the past couple years, we’ve had many worldwide tragedies befall us, and we want little to do with death, little to be accustomed to think about it, how little we want to acknowledge it. We are going to die. We think about literally everything else. 

Ivan Ilyich did not have a bad childhood. He said life just got worse and worse and worse. His last good memory was out of law school. He got good grades, he got married as much for love as for pleasing his superiors, and was always pleasing the authorities, perhaps he got it all wrong. 

The characters are inescapable of the discomfort even being around the body, being around death. His friend feels uneasy and does the sign of the cross, but says he thinks that’s what you’re supposed to do, but it doesn’t change the feeling. He simply feels that’s what you do, and then his wife turns to him asking him how to milk the government for money from Ivan’s death benefits. Until the very cusp of death, people worry about worldly themes. 

I’ve been dying since the day I was born. I noticed that people keep themselves busy to not do the thing they actually want to do. For example, people say, ‘I’m not going to start the business, because I won’t have enough money.’ ‘I won’t start a family, because I am not in a stable position yet.’ ‘I don’t want to get married, because I’m not ready for commitment.’ You have to eventually take the plunge, and before you know it, your youth is gone, and you have not much else to offer. 

Youth is a human currency. It’s when you’re the most open minded, when you learn the most, when you’re instantly excused for not knowing much or having decent skills, and when you are willing to dive into the depths of exploration simply to gain the experience. As you get older, you lose a lot of that will, and if you never started the things you want to do, you will never get around to it, because if you are chasing a standard that you haven’t dipped your toe into, you are never going to get there. 

Shoot for the stars so you can land on the moon. Where some do not shoot at all, and land nowhere. That comes simply from distant wishful thinking, and you will never be ready for anything that is good. They continue to play cards and distract themselves, when they haven’t committed to anything worth living for. Everything good and worthwhile takes sacrifice and discomfort. 

In the book, Ilyich says, ‘He gave his life to hang drapes.’ This makes you ask the question, if you die right now, is what you are doing something worth dying in the moment? Will you go down with honour and bravery? 

When he is dying, his loved ones are holding his hands. He knows they are going to be better off without them, and tries to say, ‘forgive me’. But instead, since he cannot get it out, says, ‘For—goodness’, in translation from Russian. Then in his head states how the only person who can hear it is the one who needs to know it – God. Even in that moment, you do not get the delicious reconciliation you were reaching for in the story. 

Wanting that Disney happy ending is part of what he is fighting. There are two final moments. He says in the moment of his death he sees the light, is released, and feels no pain. In reality, his family is in the physical world, and he goes on screaming for two more hours. His wife said he was screaming in pain until the very end. What he meant was he let the twisted truth of the world go that people are constantly trying to disguise, and even so, if it is with a scream, he felt great giving that exhale of relief and realisation. It was more of a spiritual redemption. 

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Every month, we have a new book. I have the full list of books for the year here where you can download it for free. Sometimes I like to know what happens, but still go back and study such magnificent works nonetheless. These are behemoths that you can tear into over and over again and always learn something new.

Thank you so much for taking time to read the end of this post. I hope you find some inspiration in this and feel free to share with your friends as a free way to help my blog grow. Your support is endlessly appreciated. 

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Gia G. Dixon
Gia G. Dixon

I’m Gia G. Dixon, an etiquette consultant certified under Royal Charter of King Charles III. Here is my guide to elegant style, high quality living, and little things that make your daily life glamorous.

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