The Theme of The Death of Ivan Ilych
One Work Cited In "The Death of Ivan Ilych", Leo Tolstoy examines the life of a man, Ivan, who would seem to have lived an exemplary life with moderate wealth, high station, and family. By story's end, however, Ivan's life will be shown to be devoid of passion -- a life of duties, responsibilities, respect, work, and cold objectivity to everything and everyone around Ivan. It is not until Ivan is on his death bed in his final moments that he realizes what will become the major theme of the story: that the personal relationships
we forge are more important in life than who we are or what we own.
This point of the story is indirectly brought out in the very beginning
when Ivan's colleagues, and supposedly his friends, learn of his death. The narrator states in paragraph 5:
So on receiving the news of Ivan Ilych
's death the first thought
of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes
and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their
This line reveals that among Ivan's peers, he was no more than an obstacle. It also reveals that these men regarded Ivan with the same respect and cold, professional indifference with which he regarded them. Ivan's own wife appears to be just going through the motions of grieving, when in fact she is more concerned with monetary matters. Of all the characters presented in this story, none truly mourns the passing of Ivan Ilych.
Of the things Ivan seemed to pride himself on during his lifetime was his professionalism while performing his job at the Court of Justice. The narrator explains in some detail how Ivan was able to detach himself from the emotional turmoil surrounding a case while "eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case" (paragraph 65). This portrays Ivan Ilych as a shrewd, calculating, apathetic magistrate, whose only concern was for the process of justice, and not for the people his rulings affected. He is made to realize, too late, the dehumanizing effect his unemotional demeanor has had on others when a physician gives him like treatment. Ivan recognizes that "the doctor put on just the same air towards him as he himself put on towards an accused person" (paragraph 115).
Probably the most pleasurable pursuit in Ivan's life -- the pursuit for material things -- will ironically lead to his untimely death. When Ivan finds himself in a suitable professional position, with a high salary, he buys a house he had always dreamt of owning. In his zeal for furnishing the new house with expensive looking items, he has what at first seems a minor accident, but one which will lead to a slow agonizing death. In his delirium, Ivan will search for a moment when he was truly happy, and can only find that moment in childhood, when he had nothing. As his memories progress through his life, Ivan realizes "the further he departed from childhood and the nearer he came to the present the more worthless and doubtful were the joys" (paragraph 302).
Ivan Ilych will realize on his deathbed in his final moment that he has wasted his life. His impassioned pursuit for wealth, power, and property at the expense of meaningful relationships will cost him an early death. He will come to realize what the author meant in paragraph 55: "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible".
Tolstoy, Leo. "The Death of Ivan Ilych". An Introduction to Literature, 11th ed. Ed. Barnet, Sylvan, et al. 202-240