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A Study on The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

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In Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, love, death, and life all play an integral part in Ivan Ilyich’s life in the final days leading to his eventual death. Leo Tolstoy gives readers the recollection of a dying man recollecting his life, his past, and everything in between. Ivan Ilyich never truly appreciated his life only after getting hit with a “floating kidney”. Ivan Ilyich was a man who cared for his work and stature as a lawyer/judge rather than anything else in his life. This led to the whole premise of the book, that death comes for every individual, and when it comes one can be scared and lonely, or one can be free and thankful death has come. In this case, Ivan is scared of death, recollecting his misdeeds, the many good things he’s done and so on. Gerasim is Ivan’s light in a sense, as he cares of Ivan on his death bed, taking care of his every need without hesitation. Gerasim is personified as a righteous and pious individual, while Ivan is consumed with falseness and confusion. Gerasim along with Vasya are Ivan’s Guardian angels in a sense, because they are the only ones who truly care for Ivan, they know death is nearing closer. While Ivan’s wife and the doctors who gave Ivan false hope and think he’ll get better. Ivan doesn’t like this, as he sees Gerasim as truth without fear in his soul and accepts death, as Gerasim mentions, as stated by Tolstoy, “it’s God’s will, sir. We all have to die someday” Ivan craved compassion and love, he wanted someone in his family to pity him like a child. His wife didn’t pity him but lied to herself that he’d get better or the medication would ease his sorrow and pain. While Gerasim, as mentioned by Tolstoy, Ivan recollects, Gerasim told Ivan, “We all have to die someday, so why shouldn’t I help you?”.

Gerasim says this because he himself wants to be pitied and helped on his death bed when he’s an old man. Gerasim brought more to Ivan then his own family ever did. Ivan had moments where he wanted to cry, and be cried over to be loved and hugged. But on occasion when his colleagues come to visit, Ivan’s demeanor changes completely and Ivan goes back to his usual self of being a stern, serious, cold person. Gerasim for the time he spent with Ivan, gave his goodness and light onto Ivan, Gerasim was a peasant and a god-fearing boy, and at the end of the book, we see Ivan too believed in God on his deathbed, because the goodness of Gerasim he bestowed on Ivan made him not scared of death in the end. Toward the end of the novel Ivan says, as mentioned by Tolstoy, “What if my entire life, my entire conscious life, simply was not the real thing?”.

Ivan says this because all his life he thought he was living a pleasant life, focusing on his social status and thought a lot on how society perceived him, but when he meets Gerasim he had it all wrong, the more popular Ivan became in society the more money and fame he had, he was never truly happy with himself, he was so consumed by work that he never truly understood himself as a person. Ivan thinks to himself if what he has done in his lifetime was truly worth it or was it a lie. This creates hatred within himself and while lying on his deathbed reflects himself, on the man he should’ve been rather than the man he was trying so hard to be. Ivan’s wife and daughter were not the real thing to Ivan, Ivan saw his family as a false deception and not what he truly wanted. Ivan on his deathbed began to reconcile and remember his life, that the life he lived was a lie and it consumed him into a different entity. While dying Ivan’s perception regarding his loved ones changed and the people closest to him changed. Because Gerasim showed him love is key to a fulfilled life. Gerasim showed Ivan love and therefore Ivan realized the way he treated others with such a heartless attitude his whole life and therefore admitted to his guilt.

Lastly, Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, is an exploration of a man cross-examining his life in unchronological order questioning his whole world, his meaning. Questioning his faultiness in this world, when death comes knocking, Ivan’s internal being flashes before his eyes, we see that Ivan never really lived his life in its purest form, but he lived a life that was artificial and false. When Ivan utters the words “What if my entire life, my entire conscious life, simply was not the real thing?” It’s about a story of a person who had it all, done it all, but he never got to truly live and have faith, in a sense Ivan came up short even when he had it all a wife, a beautiful home, a good job. Ivan didn’t have himself; he was soulless living in a cold shell. When Gerasim enters the picture, we as readers see a different side of Ivan, a flower that is blossoming, and person who awakes from his cocoon, we see a man Ivan that is reborn on the verge of death. Gerasim was Ivan’s perception of what a “real thing” “a real life” can be. Gerasim showed Ivan in is final moments that he was living his whole life in a simulation, he did things to please society, getting married, having kids, being a father etc. Ivan wasn’t being his true self for most of his life. But in his dying moment right before he is confronted by death, he tells his wife and tells his son, as mentioned by Tolstoy, Ivan states to his son and wife “Take him away…sorry for him… and you.” He wanted to say “forgive” but instead said “Forget”. Ivan is too weak and gone to correct himself, Ivan mentions that he who needed to understand those words and its implications would understand, leaving it ambiguous to his family.

Works Cited

  • Tolstoy, Leo, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. Bantam Classics Edition, 2004, pp. 41-112. 

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