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Leo Tolstoy’s View of Ethics as Described in His Book, The Death of Ivan Iiyich

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Human Morality’s Presence Through Ivan Ilych’s Death

Leo Tolstoy eloquently weaves together the lackluster life tale of a dying man who lived for vanity in “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”. Tolstoy bluntly portrays the agonizing awareness of death growing within Ilyich, while Ilyich is recognizing his own mortality and lack of human morality; the amount of human morality is also missing from those around him. Morality can be seen in a variety of ways. However, George Gutsche from Northern Illinois University specifies that Tolstoy focuses on a specific few, “Tolstoi indicts society’s reigning values, personal pleasure and propriety, and advocates compassion and love as the best foundation for living…Tolstoi advances compassion as one of the highest human virtue,” (260). Instead of living through love and compassion, Ilyich and those around him dedicated their lives to vanity and self decorum. Leo Tolstoy’s exploration through Ivan Ilych’s death shows the effect of human morality on his peers and family. This is shown through his wife, Praskovya Fyodorovna, his peer, Pyotr Ivanovich, his servant, Gerasim, and Ivan Ilyich himself.

Using Gutsche’s moral frame of compassion and love as the focus of human morality, Praskovya Fyodorovna had an extreme lack of both through Ilyich’s death. Her underwhelming emotional presence caused a resentment from Ilyich towards her as he began to the realize the falsity of their relationship, “He hates her with every inch of his being. And her touch causes an agonizing well of hatred to surge up in him,” (Tolstoy 111). Fyodorovna is unable to empathize with him, instead she blames him for his sickliness. Their marriage was not one of love or mutual compassion, it was of social calling and the idea of a perfect match, “Even in the presence of death they still lived in accordance with decorum, the master he served all his life. His wife simulated sympathy and care for him because these belonged to that decorum,but now Ivan Ilyich was sick of falsity” (Pachmuss 331). Ilyich pined for love and the care, similar to that of a child, yet he was met with hostility and loneliness. His marriage displayed Fyodorovna’s lack of care for her husband. His death made her feel as if she suffered more than he did. She had to experience his screaming in agonizing pain and watch as her husband fell apart in front of her. Any show of affection or sympathy was an act for the doctors or peers around her. His dying was an inconvenience on her life and even more inconvenient because his death didn’t bring anything more to her.

Pyotr Ivanovich never actually considered death as a part of the life he faced. Ivanovich and Ilyich were apart of the same world. They only wanted what looked pleasing and made themselves look better socially and emotionally; any other aspect of life was unimportant, unnecessary to think about, “People in Ivan’s world are dedicated to the pursuit of pleasure and comfort and to the avoidance of what is discomforting: they cannot imagine their own deaths,” (Gutsche 262). Similar to Fyodorovna, Ivanovich feels no sympathy for Ilyich. Their entire friendship is a falsity. Ivanovich cared mostly about how Ilyich’s death unsettled him. But it was less of an inconvenience to him because he did not have to deal with it. Ivanovich showed no compassion for Ilyich in the first chapter or throughout the story. Ivanovich is concerned more so with the business of work, “And so the first thought that occured to each of the gentlemen in this office, learning of Ivan Ilyich’s death, was what effect it would have on their own transfers and promotions or those of their acquaintances.” (Tolstoy 36).

Compassion and love is the height of morality for a person in this story, to bestow to someone else. Gerasim was Ilyich’s only emphatic and human companion. Ilyich’s death only provoked a natural release of compassion from Gerasim to Ilyich. He showed no inconvenience from Ilyich, knowing he would face death one day as well. Gerasim is a servant who is in this false world of living and vanity, however he was not a part of it. Gerasim wasn’t living for vanity or what made him appear more sociable. He lived to serve and understood the needs of people, resulting in Ilyich being comfortable with only him[1] , “Gerasim did everything easily, willingly, simply, and with a goodness of heat that moved Ivan Ilyich,” (Tolstoy 102). Gerasim displayed a lot of compassion and care for Ilyich in his final moments, however this wasn’t from the emotions he felt specifically for Ilyich. Gerasim didn’t care for Ilyich because he genuinely loved and felt for him, he cared for Ilyich because that’s what morally human beings are supposed to do. He was acting out of the way he believes the world should work and they way he hopes someone cares for him when he is in his deathbed, “Even kind and understanding Gerasim acts out of a sense of moral duty rather than from real love,” (Pachmuss 332). This moral duty still provided compassion and love, but it is important to note that Gerasim acts out of human decency and moral code over a personal connection to Ilyich.

Ivan Ilyich displayed a drastic change in morality from the beginning to end. Ilyich’s pain throughout his death came more so from the question within himself of whether or not he lived how he was supposed to than from his actual event of dying. Ilyich lived for vanity and the purpose of appeasing the societal quo. He even dies from and for vanity. His death led him to an abrupt realization that his life was lived for nothing. He was agonizing over an empty shell that he created for himself, “It’s inconceivable, inconceivable that life was so senseless and disgusting, why should I have to die and die in agony? Something must be wrong. Perhaps I did not live as I should have,” (Tolstoy 120). Ilyich lived his life for himself, he didn’t care for those around him. Any problem was a burden to him and he was unable to feel for others or have humility. The kindness and happiness he portrayed was a falsity, even though he worried about others falsity around him. There was a change in him right before his death, instead of hatred and selfishness, he embraced compassion and love for his family. He asked for forgiveness and allowed their tears and somber embraces. “Without love, Ivan Ilyich’s life was empty and meaningless. With the discovery of love, Ivan Ilyich felt that his death was reduced to insignificance,” (Pachmuss 332), Ilyich no longer feared death because it was not discomforting or unpleasant anymore. Once he realized that his life was unpleasant, death became unimportant. His own death’s effect on himself clarified the importance of compassion and love instead of vanity, how he should not have pushed away those around them, and instead embraced them.

Life was all for social appearances and how good you appeared in Ilyich’s world, everything else was unimportant or discomforting. Leo Tolstoy’s exploration through Ivan Ilych’s death shows the effect of human morality on his peers and family. His wife, Praskovya Fyodorovna, lacks love for her husband and cannot empathize with him. His death served more difficult for her than for anyone else, in her eyes. His peer, Pyotr Ivanovich; claims to be close with Iylich, however has no compassion for him. Ilyich’s death serves nothing more than a discomforting thought. His servant, Gerasim, displays the utmost respect and compassionate care for Ilyich. He understand that a dying man deserves to be taken care of and looked after in hopes that when he is a dying man, someone will do the same. Ivan Ilyich’s death had the biggest effect on himself. Ilyich’s death transformed Ilyich from a lowly, egocentric man to a free and compassionate man. Even though, it was at the moment of his death, Ivan Ilyich faced a change that freed him from his own agony.

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Leo Tolstoy’s View of Ethics as Described in His Book, The Death of Ivan Iiyich. (2018, December 11). GradesFixer. Retrieved November 28, 2021, from
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