Motifs are recurring structures, contrasts, and literary devices that can help to develop and inform the text’s major themes.


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.