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The Death Of Ivan Illych Essay, Research Paper
The short story, “The Death of Ivan Ilych”, written by Leo Tolstoy, is about
the reactions of a man and his friends to his suffering and death. Everyone
who knows Ivan including Ivan himself has led a life of total disconcern for
the feelings and sufferings of others. They all lead shallow lives not
daring to probe into the feelings deep down inside for fear of stepping
outside the lines of propriety. That is the biggest rule that people of that
society follow. Do not say or show what you are thinking.
Ivan Ilych’s attitude toward life is the same all the way up to his death.
He was as the author put it, “…a capable, good-natured, and social man,
though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered his duty: and he
considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority.” (p.
1088) That quote states that Ivan was solely concerned with his duties and
his advancement in position by following the orders of his authorities.
Ivan was son of a successful man who held many positions in many
departments. That man, Ilya Epimovich Golovin, had three sons. The oldest
followed his father’s example and was a success. The youngest son was a
total failure. He had blown many opportunities and was the shame of the
family. Ivan the middle son was the better of the two. Ivan was a mix of his
two brothers. He had the hard-working spirit of the older brother but also
appreciates the value of a good time like the younger brother.
Ivan’s career grew steadily. In a short time, he eventually obtained the
position of examining magistrate. Ivan did very well in this position. He
excelled in the separation of the personal duties in his life and the
official duties to which he was totally dedicated. This taste of power which
came with his new position was very appealing to Ivan. The idea that writing
a few words or giving a simple command sent people into motion made Ivan
Upon moving to a new town to take up the position of examining magistrate,
Ivan met his future wife, Praskovya Fedorovna Mikhel. Ivan saw her as a
“…well connected, and was a sweet, pretty, and thoroughly correct young
woman.” The view that she was so within the lines of propriety was the most
attractive feature which this young woman possessed in Ivan’s view. At first
the marriage which Ivan thought couldn’t hurt his pleasure-seeking life
didn’t, then according to Ivan she began to disturb the pleasure and
propriety of his life. This ordeal only worsened when his wife became
pregnant. She became unbearable to him, overly jealous and coarse, becoming
an obstacle to his pursuit of happiness and properness. When the child was
born, Ivan realized that a life totally separate his family life would be
necessary to fulfill the goals he set for himself. He also came to the
realization that to keep his marriage in order that he was going to have to
adopt the same attitude to his family that he has to his official duties.
Ivan developed an attitude towards his family of complete indifference as
stated in the story, “He only required of it those conveniences—dinner at
home, housewife, and bed—which it could give him.” (p. 1092) More children
arrived and his wife’s attitude only worsened.
After three years and becoming a highly looked upon official he received a
promotion to the position of Assistant Public Prosecutor. This new promotion
made Ivan like his job even more. Meanwhile, more children were born which
made Ivan’s life even more difficult. After getting another promotion and
moving to another province, the marriage was getting increasingly difficult.
To try and overcome this Ivan decided to spend some time in the country with
his wife. This move turns out to be a very bad one. Ivan falls into deep
depression and decides that some drastic measures are needed. He returns
from the country heading towards St. Petersburg with the objective of
obtaining a salary of 5,000 rubles a year. Things worked out very much in
his favor. He got a promotion two steps above his former position. After
obtaining this position, he returned to the country and his marriage life
improved immensely. Ivan then proceeded to the province to which they were
moving to attempt to locate a house. He found one which suited his tastes
Ivan turned his attention towards furnishing his house. He searched for all
the things which give his house an air of aristocracy and yet not too
snobbish. While showing an upholsterer how he wanted the drapes hung, Ivan
fell and nearly caught himself but unfortunately managed to hit himself in
the side and give himself a large bruise. This is when the health problems
The illness began slowly but the pain steadily increased. Ivan visited many
doctors, but none of them could give him a solid diagnosis. The pain caused
many problems in his life, most of all it interfered with how he did his
job. People began to look down upon him.
No one really felt sympathy for Ivan. The people whom he called his friends
treated him the same as he treated them in his life, with total
indifference. Even Ivan’s own wife treated his illness as a burden and a
trouble. He begins to realize how everyone is treating him. All that he
wants is pity and there is no one there to give him it besides his servant
Gerasim. Ivan shows spots of beginning to realize how he treated life. He
treated life with the utmost propriety and tried his very best not to let
his emotions get in the way of how he acted and performed his duty. This
shows when Ivan says, “What if my whole life has really been wrong?”(p.
1117) Ivan says this while looking at Gerasim peacefully sleeping at his
side, the only one who shows the slightest bit of pity and sorrow for him.
Ivan’s wife is falsely concerned in his condition merely because that is the
thing for her to be in this situation. She does not really care if he makes
it; she is only worried about the inconvenience his suffering is putting her
through and the financial bind his death puts her in. Ivan realizes all
these things and cannot even bear to speak with her. He thinks to himself,
“Yes, I am making them wretched…They are sorry, but it will be better for
them when I die.” (p. 1119) All of these things lead up to the conclusion in
Ivan’s mind that he is sorry for them. He is trying to act so as not to hurt
them. In the final scene someone besides his servant, Gerasim, begins to
show pity for him, it is his son. Ivan sees the sorrow and pity in his eyes
and apologizes to him for causing this grief.
With this story, Leo Tolstoy shows that a man can change. That even if it
must be through pain and suffering that everyone is capable of redemption.
If a man such as Ivan Ilych who never cared for anyone more than necessary
can be redeemed and see the fault in his ways then anyone can. The most
selfish man can be changed if people show him pity and feel for him, as he
should feel for others. It stirred something inside Ivan when people went
out of their way to attempt to comfort him. It made him realize his faults
and want to change.
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