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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

very happy.

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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