Skip over navigation

The Death of Ivan Ilych

Leo Tolstoy

Chapter XII

Chapter XI

Important Quotations Explained

Summary

After sending his wife away, Ivan begins screaming. The screaming is loud and terrible and it lasts for three days, during which time Ivan realizes that his doubts are still unsolved. Just like in the dream from Chapter IX, Ivan struggles in the black sack like a man in the executioner's hands, certain that he will not escape. His agony stems partly from his being thrust into the sack, and partly from not being able to get right into it. His inability to enter the sack is caused by his conviction that his life has been a good one, "That very justification of his life held him fast and prevented his moving forward, and it caused him most torment of all."

Suddenly, at the end of the third day, "some force" strikes Ivan in the chest and side. It pushes him through the sack and into the presence of a bright light. Ivan compares the sensation to the feeling of being in a railway car that you think is moving forward, but suddenly realize is moving backward. Just at this moment, Ivan's son, Vasya, approaches his bedside. As Ivan's hand falls on his son's head, Vasya begins to cry. When Ivan catches sight of the light, it is revealed to him that though his life has not been a good one, it can still be set right.

He asks himself, "What is the right thing?" He opens his eyes, sees his son kissing his hand, and feels sorry for him. His wife approaches his bed, her face wet with tears, and he feels sorry for her too. He realizes that life will be better for his family when he dies, and desires to say as much, but not having the strength to speak, he understands that he must act. He indicates to his wife to take Vasya away, and tries to say, "Forgive me," but he only manages to say, "Forego." As Ivan realizes that he must act so as to release his family from suffering and free himself from pain, what was oppressing him suddenly drops away "from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides." He no longer fears death, and he knows this is so because "death is finished." In place of death, there is light, and Ivan is overwhelmed with joy. While for those present Ivan's agony lasts for two hours, for Ivan, the entire experience is a single changeless instant. In the middle of a sigh, Ivan stretches out and dies.

Analysis

The climactic moment of The Death of Ivan Ilych, the changeless instant when Ivan passes through the black sack into the light, fully resolves the contradictions and conflicts present throughout the novel. As Ivan is reborn into the light, the spiritual finally transcends the physiological. Life conquers death, and the authentic prevails over the artificial. At the very moment of his rebirth, when Ivan asks himself, "What is the right thing?" Ivan's hand falls on Vasya's head and he feels sorry for him. Ivan's sincere and heartfelt expression of compassion, coupled with physical human contact, bridges the gap that Ivan had created between himself and others. Throughout Ivan's life, he had erected barriers between himself and the world. Whether by engrossing himself in his official work, losing himself in the game of bridge, or adopting a formal and escapist attitude toward life's unpleasantness, Ivan has isolated himself from meaningful human interaction. By adopting the values of high society, Ivan's life has lost all value. Yet when Ivan realizes the error of his past life, when he feels sorry for Vasya and Praskovya, when he opens himself up to an empathetic connection with another human being, the walls fall from around him. The self-erected barriers drop away from all sides, and Ivan experiences the true joy of unimpeded, authentic human relationships.

The climactic moment also completes the logic of reversal that has been operating throughout the story. Just as Ivan's life has caused his inner, spiritual death, so too, through his physical death Ivan achieves new spiritual life. The metaphor of the railway car captures the idea. At his moment of illumination, Ivan realizes that he has actually been traveling opposite his intended direction. Moving up in social esteem has not led to joy, fulfillment, and life, but to misery, emptiness, and death. Blinded by the values of high society, he has been traveling in the wrong direction on the road of life. When Ivan realizes his error and comes to a fuller understanding of the nature of life, he is reborn spiritually and experiences extreme joy. Tolstoy's message is clear: compassion for and empathetic connection with other human beings are the hallmarks of a proper life. The death of Ivan Ilych is not the result of his physical degeneration, but of his failure to understand the true nature and meaning of life. In actuality, however, Ivan's death does not represent a cessation of life, but rather its affirmation.

More Help

Previous Next
tread?

by ndizzles, February 18, 2014

"a judge who chose to tread the newspaper rather than engage in the discussion," you said tread instead of too read

Follow Us