Tolstoy - The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Dive into the profound narrative sea of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" by Leo Tolstoy, where every word echoes the cold, inevitable truth of mortality. Our critique unveils the rich tapestry of existential contemplation and the stark reality of societal superficiality within Tolstoy's masterpiece. Engage with a review that sails through the solemn yet enlightening voyage of Ivan Ilyich, exploring the depths of life’s ephemeral nature against the eternal silence of death. Discover why this narrative remains an unyielding mirror to our own existence.

"The Death of Ivan Ilyich" by Leo Tolstoy
A Review and Critique

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a masterpiece of psychological realism that explores the existential anguish of a man facing his own mortality. Leo Tolstoy, one of the greatest writers of all time, wrote this novella in 1886, shortly after his religious conversion and renunciation of his aristocratic lifestyle. The story is based on Tolstoy's own experience of witnessing the death of a fellow judge, Ivan Ilyin, who had fallen from a ladder and injured his side. Tolstoy was deeply moved by the contrast between Ilyin's agonizing deathbed and the indifference of his colleagues and family, who were more concerned with their own affairs than with his suffering.

The novella begins with the announcement of Ivan Ilyich's death and the reactions of his co-workers and friends, who are mostly interested in the possible promotions and transfers that his vacancy might bring. The narrative then shifts to Ivan's life story, from his childhood to his education, his career as a judge, his marriage and family, and his social status. Ivan is portrayed as a typical representative of the Russian upper class, who lives according to the conventions and expectations of society, without questioning or challenging them. He is satisfied with his comfortable and respectable life, until he falls from a ladder while decorating his new house and injures his side. This seemingly trivial accident marks the beginning of his physical decline and his awareness of his impending death.

As Ivan's condition worsens, he realizes that his life has been meaningless and superficial, that he has wasted his time and energy on trivial pursuits and false values, that he has alienated himself from his true self and from God. He suffers not only from physical pain, but also from spiritual torment, as he faces the existential questions that he has avoided all his life: What is the meaning of life? What is the purpose of suffering? What happens after death? He seeks answers from doctors, from religion, from literature, but finds none. He feels alone and misunderstood by everyone around him, especially by his wife and children, who are annoyed by his illness and wish for his death.

The only person who shows him genuine compassion and care is Gerasim, a young peasant who works as his butler. Gerasim represents the opposite of Ivan's artificial and corrupted world: he is simple, honest, natural, and pious. He does not fear death or hide it behind euphemisms; he accepts it as a natural and inevitable part of life. He helps Ivan to cope with his pain by holding his legs, by listening to him, by praying for him. He is the only one who understands Ivan's true condition and does not lie to him or pity him.

In the final hours of his life, Ivan undergoes a profound transformation. He reviews his past and sees it as a series of mistakes and wrong choices. He realizes that he has lived for himself, for his ego, for his worldly success, instead of living for others, for love, for God. He feels a deep remorse and a desire to atone for his sins. He asks for forgiveness from his wife and son, who are surprised by his change of attitude. He sees a light at the end of a dark tunnel and hears a voice saying: "Take him." He cries out: "What joy!" And dies.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a powerful and moving work that challenges the reader to reflect on the meaning of life and death, on the role of society and religion, on the value of authenticity and compassion. Tolstoy uses various literary devices to convey his message, such as symbolism, foreshadowing, irony, imagery, similes, direct and indirect characterization. For example:


In the solemn narrative of "The Death of Ivan Ilyich", Tolstoy employs symbolism with a masterful touch, weaving a tapestry of meaning that beckons the reader to delve deeper. The ladder, a seemingly mundane object, upon which Ivan falls, transcends its earthly existence to symbolize Ivan’s fall from grace and detachment from reality. This fall is not just a physical one, but a metaphorical descent that invites contemplation on the vicissitudes of life and the ephemeral nature of worldly pursuits.


Tolstoy’s narrative genius shines through the element of foreshadowing, an eerie whisper of the inexorable fate awaiting Ivan. The black bag that haunts Ivan’s dreams is not just a figment of imagination, but a harbinger of the impending abyss of death. It also mirrors the emptiness and darkness that has enshrouded Ivan’s life, a poignant reminder of the void that lurks amidst a life lived in superficiality.


The landscape of Ivan’s life is rife with irony, a bitter yet enlightening realization of the incongruities between the pursuits of existence and the essence of living. Ivan, a man of justice by profession, ironically embodies injustice in his dealings with self and others. His quest for happiness lands him in the quagmire of misery, and his dread of death metamorphoses into a serendipitous joy in embracing the inevitable, painting a picture of life’s paradoxes through a lens of melancholic wisdom.


Through the brushstrokes of imagery, Tolstoy contrasts the ephemeral with the eternal, the physical with the spiritual. The imagery of light and darkness is a visual voyage that delineates Ivan’s spiritual awakening amidst his physical decay. The light, a symbol of divine grace and enlightenment, pierces through the darkness of ignorance and despair, illuminating the path of transcendence and the quintessence of existence.


Tolstoy employs similes to underscore the harsh realities and the absurdities that underpin Ivan’s existence. The comparison of Ivan’s life to "a series of increasing sufferings" is a stark reflection of the futility that shrouds a life lived in oblivion to the higher truths, evoking a sense of existential dread yet also a beckoning towards enlightenment.


The characterization of Ivan is a complex mosaic that unveils the dichotomies within the human soul. Through direct characterization, Ivan is portrayed as "a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man," a facade of contentment and societal approval. However, the indirect characterization peels back this veneer to reveal a selfish, shallow, hypocritical, and unhappy individual. Through this dichotomy, Tolstoy invites a contemplation on the authenticity of being and the façade of societal conformity.

In orchestrating a narrative imbued with profound literary devices, Tolstoy crafts a mirror in "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" for readers to reflect upon the quintessence of life, death, and the human condition. Through symbolism, foreshadowing, irony, imagery, similes, and characterization, he nudges the soul to traverse beyond the superficial, to question, to seek, and to embrace the essence of existence amidst the inevitable dance with mortality. The tale of Ivan is not just a story of one man, but a reflection of the collective human journey towards enlightenment amidst the shadows of existential quandary.

The novella has been widely praised by critics and scholars as one of Tolstoy's finest works and one of the best examples of psychological realism in literature. It has also been interpreted from various perspectives, such as existentialist, religious, moral, social, and political. Some of the more influential commentators on the novella include:

Vladimir Nabokov's Perception:

Vladimir Nabokov, a luminary in the world of literary critique, beheld Leo Tolstoy with a lens of discerning appreciation, particularly enchanted by the latter's artistic prowess and the realism embroidered in his narratives. However, Nabokov's admiration met a threshold when it came to Tolstoy's penchant for didacticism and moralism, which, in his view, perhaps curtailed the unbridled essence of storytelling. The juxtaposition of awe and critique that Nabokov held towards Tolstoy's work paints a complex yet enriching discourse, nurturing a dialogue that traverses the realms of mere storytelling into the domains of philosophical deliberations.

Thomas Mann's Acknowledgment:

The name of Thomas Mann reverberates in the halls of literary criticism with a note of reverence, and when such a name bestows the title of a modern masterpiece upon "The Death of Ivan Ilyich," it carries a weight of immense significance. Mann perceived this novella not merely as a tale told, but as a stellar model of artistic expression that transgressed the mundane into the profound. His acknowledgment of Tolstoy's novella is akin to a maestro recognizing the genius in a symphony, a testament to the timeless resonance of Tolstoy's narrative artistry.

Albert Camus' Reflection:

Albert Camus, a thinker of profound depths, gazed upon "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" and saw a canvas painted with the hues of existential absurdity that defines the human condition. In the narrative arcs of suffering and the quest for meaning, Camus found a reflection of his own philosophical discourse about life's inherent absurdity and the human endeavor to derive meaning amidst suffering. The novella, through Camus' lens, morphs into a literary companion to existential musings, epitomizing the conundrum of human existence amidst the undeniable reality of mortality.

Martin Heidegger's Analysis:

Martin Heidegger, with his deeply philosophical mind, approached "The Death of Ivan Ilyich" as a narrative cauldron where existential concepts brewed with intensity. He dissected the novella, unveiling layers that resonated with the notions of being-toward-death, authenticity, and care. Through the lens of Heidegger, Tolstoy's novella transcends a mere story and ventures into a realm where existential concepts dance in a narrative ballet, embodying the essence of Heidegger's philosophical delineations with a poignancy that only a masterful narrative such as Tolstoy's could achieve.

Mahatma Gandhi's Inspiration:

The pacifist ethos of Mahatma Gandhi found a kindred spirit in the pacifism and non-violence echoed in Tolstoy's life and letters. Their correspondence is a testament to a shared vision for a world where conflicts resolve not through the barrel of a gun but through the heart of understanding. Gandhi, inspired by Tolstoy's profound commitment to non-violence, saw in him not just a literary giant, but a comrade in the quest for a peaceful human existence. The rapport between Gandhi and Tolstoy transcends mere admiration, morphing into a confluence of ideologies aiming for a harmonious world narrative.

The Death of Ivan Ilyich is not only a remarkable work of literature, but also a profound and universal human document that speaks to the deepest concerns and aspirations of every reader. It is a testament to Tolstoy's genius and wisdom, and a masterpiece that deserves to be read and reread by generations to come.


  • Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude. New York: Dover Publications, 1994.
  • Nabokov, Vladimir. Lectures on Russian Literature. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1981.
  • Mann, Thomas. "The Making of The Magic Mountain." In Essays of Three Decades. Translated by H.T. Lowe-Porter. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1947.
  • Camus, Albert. The Myth of Sisyphus and Other Essays. Translated by Justin O'Brien. New York: Vintage Books, 1991.
  • Heidegger, Martin. Being and Time. Translated by John Macquarrie and Edward Robinson. New York: Harper & Row, 1962.
  • Gandhi, Mahatma. The Collected Works of Mahatma Gandhi. Vol. 90. New Delhi: Publications Division Government of India, 1994.

Note: The works of Leo Tolstoy are in the public domain.

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Pragmatic Journey is Richard (rich) Wermske's life of recovery; a spiritual journey inspired by Buddhism, a career in technology and management with linux, digital security, bpm, and paralegal stuff; augmented with gaming, literature, philosophy, art and music; and compassionate kinship with all things living -- especially cats; and people with whom I share no common language.