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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols

Themes, Motifs, and Symbols


The Right Life

From the outset of the novel it is clear that Tolstoy believes there are two types of lives: the artificial life—represented by Ivan, Praskovya, Peter, and most everyone in Ivan's society and company—and the authentic life represented by Gerasim. The artificial life is marked by shallow relationships, self-interest, and materialism. It is insular, unfulfilling, and ultimately incapable of providing answers to the important questions in life. The artificial life is a deception that hides life's true meaning and leaves one terrified and alone at the moment of death. The authentic life, on the other hand, is marked by pity and compassion. It sees others not as means to ends, but as individual beings with unique thoughts, feelings, and desires. The authentic life cultivates mutually affirming human relationships that break down isolation and allow for true interpersonal contact. Whereas the artificial life leaves one alone and empty, the authentic life fosters strength through solidarity and comfort through empathy. It creates bonds and prepares one to meet death.

Gerasim alone is unafraid of death. Confident in the correctness of his life and unafraid of personal involvement, Gerasim has a self-sacrificing love for others that infuses his life with meaning. The spiritual support that Gerasim provides to Ivan by empathizing with his plight and relieving his isolation is even more important than the physical support Gerasim provides by holding Ivan's legs. Gerasim is able to lessen Ivan's pain by sharing in it. The virtue of the authentic life is that at the same time Gerasim is helping Ivan, he is also benefiting from the relationship. Compassion and love go both ways, and the authentic life is the right life.

The Inevitability of Death

The story of Ivan's steady approach toward death is also the story of Ivan's recognition of death and his search for a compromise with its dreadful and nullifying power. How is one to make sense of the end of one's life, of one's relationships, projects, and dreams, of one's very existence? Throughout the novel, Tolstoy makes clear that preparation for death begins with a proper attitude toward life. As Ivan's attitude toward life changes, prompted by pain and the prospect of death, his emotions progress from sheer terror to utter joy. The avoidance of death that characterizes Ivan's social milieu is based on a delusion designed to protect people from unpleasant realities. It leads only to emptiness, horror, and dissatisfaction. An acceptance of death, however, and recognition of the true unpredictable nature of life allows for confidence, peace, and even joy at the moment of death. More than anything else, then, the novel can be seen as a lesson on making sense of death through living rightly.

Inner life vs. Outer life

Much like the artificial/authentic dichotomy, Tolstoy depicts human existence as a conflict between the inner and the outer, the spiritual life and the physical life. Up until Chapter IX, Ivan is a purely physical being. He shows no indication of any spiritual life whatsoever. He lives for the benefit of his own flesh and relates with others only insofar as they promote his desires. Worst of all, Ivan mistakes his physical life for his true spiritual life. He believes that his existence is the "right" existence, and he refuses to see the error of his life. As a result of denying the spiritual, Ivan is incapable of transcending the physical. He experiences excruciating pain, overwhelming unhappiness, and absolute terror. Yet when the prospect of his death forces Ivan to confront his isolation, he gradually begins to see the importance of the spiritual life. As he grows toward understanding, as he supplants the physical with the spiritual, he moves beyond suffering, conquers death, and experiences extreme joy. Tolstoy's message is clear: the task of each individual is to recognize the duality of the self and to live so as the less important physical life conforms to the more important spiritual life.



Tolstoy incorporates several patterns of reversal into the structure of the novel. The actual death of Ivan Ilych, the chronological end of the story, occurs in the first chapter. The remainder of the novel is devoted not to Ivan's death as the title seems to indicate, but to his life. Tolstoy reverses the very concepts of life and death. During his early life, when Ivan seems to be growing in strength, freedom, and status, he is actually being reduced to weakness, bondage, and isolation. After Chapter VII, when Ivan is confined to his study and suffers physical degeneration and alienation, he is actually being reborn spiritually. Tolstoy reinforces this point by means of several verbal formulations. Ivan describes his spiritual awakening as if he were moving downwards while all the time believing he was moving up. He compares his sudden insight into the true nature of his life to the sensation one gets in a railway car upon discovering that the true direction of travel is opposite the supposed direction.


Characteristic of the artificial life as well as of the purely physical life is the tendency toward alienation. Whenever Ivan encounters a situation or relationship that does not promote his pleasant existence, he distances himself from it. This reaction ties in to the larger theme of the inner life v. outer life. Because Ivan has no spiritual existence, he is incapable of seeing other people as individuals. He acts only to obtain the good for himself and has no value for those that impinge upon his pleasure. Thus, in his selfish quest for happiness, Ivan shuts out individuals. Yet by fencing others out, he fences himself in. Tolstoy makes use of several images of enclosure and isolation to reinforce this point. From the funeral notice surrounded by a black border to the coffin lid leaning against the wall, Tolstoy hints and the voluntary separation that Ivan created.

The Pleasant, the Proper, and the Decorous

Throughout the novel, Tolstoy uses the words pleasant/proper/decorous to refer to the accepted norms of social life. These norms are an important factor in the theme of the right life, as discussed above. Ivan's inordinate concern with propriety, decorum, and standards of conduct is an excellent indication that he is living the artificial, rather than the authentic life. He is more concerned with external appearance than with internal substance, with the appearance of truth rather than with actual truth. The man who chooses not to concern himself with the opinions of high society, who disregards the pleasant/proper/decorous for the real, the true, and the genuine is the man who lives the right way.

Contraction of Time and Space

An interesting if not readily apparent motif is the contraction of time and space in the novel. This contraction is an important factor in the theme of the inner life v. the outer life because it highlights the significance of the spiritual and reinforces the notion that life is not limited to the time between birth and death. Tolstoy accomplishes this effect in several ways. The first four chapters of the novel cover more than forty years, the second four chapters span several months, and the final four chapters span only slightly more than four weeks. In addition to the shrinking temporal framework, Tolstoy also makes use of shrinking spatial dimensions. In his early life Ivan moves from town to town. Middle-aged Ivan settles in a city and obtains an apartment. Shortly after the onset of his illness he is confined to his study, and by the end of the novel he cannot move from the sofa. In addition, each chapter in the novel, for the most part, is progressively shorter than the one before it. Thus, time and space contract until both reach point zero at the moment of Ivan's death, when Ivan experiences the single, eternal, changeless instant. This instant, when Ivan's spirit transcends the physical boundaries of time and space, signifies the end of death and reinforces the importance of a spiritual life.

Bourgeois Society

Throughout the novel, Tolstoy depicts aristocratic society as a collection of self-interested, materialistic, shallow individuals. The members of aristocratic society care little for authentic human relationships. They desire status and pleasure and attempt to obtain their goals at the expense of their so-called friends. This depiction plays an important role in the theme of the right life. Every member of Ivan's society leads an artificial existence. Tolstoy hints that materialism and social climbing connote obstacles to living rightly.

Foreign Language References

Several foreign-language references occur throughout the text of the novel. Each reference, by conveying a hidden truth about Ivan, helps inform a major theme of the work. Calling Ivan le phenix de la famille means figuratively that he is the member of the family most likely to succeed. Understood literally, however, it foreshadows Ivan's spiritual rebirth, his rising up from the ashes after the fiery death caused by his artificial life. Bringing to mind the mythical phoenix that was reborn from the ashes of its own destruction, this foreign language reference hints at Ivan's eventual recognition of the importance of the spiritual and highlights the theme of the inner life vs. the outer life. Similarly, the motto inscribed on his medallion respice finem "look to the end" is both a helpful suggestion for a future lawyer to focus on the outcome, and a warning for a man living an artificial life to prepare himself for death.


In Chapter IX, Ivan first dreams of the deep black sack and he imagines himself being thrust further and further into it. He wants to fall into the bag, yet he fears it at the same time. He resists being pushed into it, yet he also cooperates. If the bag is understood as a symbol of death, Ivan's ambivalence becomes clear. He both longs for the reprieve of death and fears having to relinquish life. The fact that Ivan breaks through the bag anticipates Ivan's escape from the power of death. It seems reasonable, however, that the symbol of the bag, much like the story itself, operates on two levels. As well as its function as a symbol of death, the bag also symbolizes a womb, the source of life. The pain and suffering that Ivan experiences while passing through the bag into the light refer to the trauma of birth into new life. The duality of the symbol holds a key to the story. In Ivan's life, what appears like physical death is actually spiritual rebirth, while his old life was the cause of spiritual death. Things are not what they seem, and the action must be understood in light of the motif of reversal. Ivan's life was his death, and his death brings new life.


Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Quiz

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Test Your Understanding with the Themes, Motifs, and Symbols Quiz



What two types of life does Tolstoy explore in this novel?
Artificial, authentic
Artificial, glamourous
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Themes, Motifs, and Symbols QUIZ

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

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