Themes are the fundamental and often universal ideas explored in a literary work.

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.