Leo Tolstoy’s short story, Death of Ivan Ilych, tells the story of a man in his middle-forties about to die of unknown causes. Because of this, the protagonist, Ivan Ilych, begins to reflect on his life, whether he was able to lead a good and fulfilling life or not. As he became successful at work, he spent less time with his family as his relationship with his family became intolerable. While Ilych was well-loved by his colleagues, his wife and daughter do not share the same affections towards him. The only one that truly showed compassion towards him is his son, Vasya. From a life of liberty to repression, vigor to weakness, and community to seclusion, Ilych is slowly introduced to the realities of life and then death. In all, he is forced to accept his situation as events slowly unfold right in front of his eyes.
Coming from middle-class society, Ilych mingles with people who are too self-involved, self-centered, judgmental, and too concerned about their careers. But the story does not present all characters in the same manner as there are at least two characters, Vasya and the peasant boy Gerasim, who made a huge impact on Ilych during his illness. In them, Ilych was able to overcome his pain and face death eventually. Ilych is touched by the fact that these two were the only ones who truly showed care and compassion towards him. Both are free from the hypocrisy that the adult characters showed, which helped in opening his eyes to the bitter truth about his unnamed illness. Ilych initially thought he did not deserve suffering from his illness believing that he led a fairly good life and was righteous in his ways. But his exposure to Gerasim made him question his thinking, which led to his self-realizations.
Only Gerasim was realistic in his approach to Ilych as he did not mask his sense of pity and compassion towards Ilych, while the others, including his wife and daughter, pretended that he was merely sick and not dying. This indifference hurt him as he wanted to be pitied and be comforted. Because of this, Ilych felt at ease with Gerasim and was reassured by Gerasim’s strength and vitality instead of being scared and threatened, which were his initial reactions (Tolstoy Chapter VII). In Chapter IX, as he was feeling self-pity and torturing himself mentally, he recalled his earlier days and remembered feeling loved by a woman as he recalled his earlier successes at law school. Suddenly, he was overcome by emotion as he realized he probably did not spend his life wisely as he imagined it, thus having another epiphany about the difference between life and death, leading to his acceptance of the ideas about death.
Vasya, his son, was also a source of happiness for Ilych as he recognizes that he is like Gerasim in that Vasya was strong enough to recognize Ilych’s impending death. His openness in acceptance of his father’s condition instead of avoiding the inevitable lent strength to Ilych as he realized there is no turning back and death is imminent. These exposures to Gerasim and Vasya has opened his eyes to the fact that is life was probably not how it should have been, which he wrongfully believed to be. This realization lifted the feelings of self-pity and self-importance that has been torturing his being from the start. Instead, it gave him the realization that death is a beautiful thing as it frees him from all worldly attachments and physical pain. Death also served as a way to free his family of the pain of his suffering. This liberation from life is what makes him triumphant in death.
Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” N.d. Web. 5 November 2014. <http://classicallibrary.org/tolstoy/ivan/7.htm>.