In his novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy explores questions about happiness and the meaning of life with brutal honesty and realism. Tolstoy’s harrowing account of one man’s confrontation with his own mortality helps us to see that even the most selfish and shallow life still contains within it the inherent potential for redemption through self-transcendent, sacrificial love.
The story’s protagonist is Ivan, a late nineteenth century Russian bureaucrat who strives, above all else, to live a “decorous and pleasant life”—a life of material comfort that is, at least to the greatest extent he can manage, insulated from hardship or suffering. We read that Ivan is “capable, cheerful, and sociable” as well as “playful, witty, good-humored and bon enfant.” He is industrious in his well-appointed role as a public prosecutor and content to do “his duty,” but Tolstoy cautions us that Ivan understands duty not in the moralist’s sense, but in accordance with what members of the Russian haute bourgeoisie perceive as good, proper, and decent. It is their standards that Ivan has internalized and their approval and validation that he seeks. By this measure, even at a young age, Ivan is succeeding in living well, and this brings him great satisfaction.
As a young man Ivan falls in love with “the most attractive, intelligent, brilliant girl,” Preskovia, who was also a member of his social class and consequently shared his general outlook. Ivan married her both because he loves her (at least as he loves anything –he finds her company “agreeable”) but also because she is met with the approval of his social circle. But the demands of marriage and family life soon lose their charms for Ivan, as he learns that domesticity does not always (or perhaps even very often) fit his ideals of agreeableness; thus he quickly finds it essential “to shut himself off from such interferences” to his personal well being. To avoid the trials that typically attend family life, Ivan throws himself into his work, where he takes particular delight in the power and honors the position affords him. Of this darker aspect of Ivan’s pleasure seeking, Tolstoy writes:
The awareness of his power, the power he had to ruin anyone he chose to ruin, the importance and even the outward dignity of his entrance into the courtroom and his meetings with subordinates, his success with both superiors and subordinates, and—above all—the mastery with which, as he felt, he carried out his duties—all this gave him pleasure, and alongside chats with his colleagues, dinners, and whist [cards], it was what filled up his life. So, on the whole, the life of Ivan Ilyich went on as he felt it ought to, that is pleasantly and decorously. (p. 169)
In this way, we learn, seventeen agreeable years of Ivan’s life pass.
But then Ivan reaches a point of perceived stagnation in his career, and feels that his talents are being neglected. He sees that he is being passed over for promotions that he both desires and feels he alone deserves, and he feels forgotten and wronged by his colleagues. He sets off for Petersburg with a single aim: to get a position that carries a significant raise. Through luck he succeeds, attaining a position in a new ministry “two grades higher than his colleagues.” At this achievement, all his hard feelings are forgotten, and he is “perfectly happy.” Ivan takes particular pleasure in his awareness that he is now the envy of many colleagues who previously ignored him, and who now must grovel before him.
The newfound happiness Ivan experiences on the occasion of his promotion allows him to resume pleasant relations with his wife. Having a new influx of money, they take on the task of securing a much larger apartment they can decorate together. Ivan throws himself into this task with determination and joy, making every detail very elegant and comme il faut. He particularly relishes his thoughts of how impressed his friends will be once his vision of a finely appointed home is completely realized.
At this point in the narrative Ivan truly believes he is happy and living just as he should. Although his life is devoid of love and shot through with motives of pride, vanity, and greed, as far as he can see everything is very good. And yet Ivan stands on the precipice of existential despair. For his agreeable existence is about to be disrupted by a mysterious ailment, which will open up horizons of suffering and torments previously unimaginable to him.
Ivan’s troubles begin with bouts of nausea, and a mysterious pain on the left side of his stomach, which only grows worse over time. His condition casts a pall over his otherwise happy mood, and makes him unable to find pleasure in his normal routines. Just as quickly as their reconciliation had come about, relations between Ivan and Preskovia begin to unravel; they take to quarrelling often as Ivan finds that the easy and agreeable feelings he longs for have vanished. Soon enough, a mutual hatred grows between them.
Despite the fact that he is seeing all the most famous doctors and taking his medicines punctiliously, Ivan can see that his condition is worsening. He begins to realize the gravity of his situation, and despair descends upon him. After a month of trying to convince himself that he is improving and will recover, Ivan realizes that he is dying. And yet he is unable to comprehend or reconcile himself to this fact; in fact, he actively works to hide from the grim reality. Of Ivan’s internal struggle with the truth, Tolstoy writes:
“He couldn’t understand it, and tried to banish this thought as false, wrong, and morbid, and put other thoughts in its place, correct thoughts and healthy ones. And this thought—and not only the thought but what seemed to be the reality—kept coming back and standing there before him. And he called up a succession of other thoughts to displace this one, hoping to find support in them. He tried to return to his old thought patterns, which had once shielded him from death. But strangely enough, everything that had once screened away, hidden, or abolished the awareness of death now failed to produce that effect.” (p. 188)
Ivan finds himself in unchartered psychological territory, as neither work, cards, or his fine home can any longer distract him from the unbearable truth. He finds himself all alone, face to face with it, though there was nothing to do “but stare at it and shudder.” He must confront and reconcile himself to death, but finds he is unable.
And so his life becomes a torment to him. Ivan is particularly aggrieved by the fact that no one around him—his colleagues, his doctors, his family—will acknowledge reality. They all perpetrate the “lie” that he is merely ill; worse still, they force him to participate in this lie. And so Ivan is deprived of the pity he feels is owed to him. Ivan wants desperately to be “caressed, and kissed, and wept over” even though he knows such behavior does not befit a man of his age and social stature. Instead he is merely prodded and poked by his doctors, cajoled by his wife, and ostracized by his so-called friends.
Ivan begins to enter a phase where his sufferings take on new dimensions: fear, helplessness, loneliness, and doubt. In particular, Ivan begins to doubt that his life had been anything more than a trivial and dubious mistake. He begins to worry that he never perceived reality clearly, and that what he thought was life was really death:
“It’s as if I had been going downhill, while imagining that I was climbing uphill. That’s what it was. In society’s eyes I was going uphill, and at exactly the same pace life was vanishing from under me.” (p. 202)
But once again, while Ivan knows the truth in his heart, he is still unable to reconcile himself to it. He struggles and fights back against it:
“‘Perhaps I didn’t live as I should have done?’… ‘But how can it have been wrong, when I did everything properly?’ he said to himself, instantly dismissing as completely impossible this one and only solution to the whole riddle of life and death.” (p. 202)
Ivan’s struggle to accept the truth, “that everything had been a huge and terrible deception which had shut out both life and death” (p. 206) is his final torment, the cause of an internal struggle that sends him into a fit of madness during which he screams uninterrupted for three days. Tolstoy describes his inner ordeal as follows:
“For those three days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which some invisible, invincible force was thrusting him. He fought as a man condemned to death fights in the arms of the executioner, knowing that he could not save himself; and minute by minute he felt that, despite all his struggles, he was drawing nearer and nearer to the thing that horrified him. He felt that his torment lay both in the fact that he was being thrust into that black hole, and even more so in the fact that he could not get into it. And what prevented him from getting into it was his awareness that his life had been a good one. It was this justification of his own life that held him back, not letting him go forward, and tormenting him more than anything.” (p. 207-8)
The struggle ends when Ivan has a sudden revelation: his life really was a worthless mistake, but it could now “be put right.” But how? Ivan does not have a clear answer until Vasya enters the room, kisses his hand, and bursts into tears; soon after Preskovia, who is also weeping, enters as well. For the first time Ivan sees what they need from him and lovingly responds. He realizes that to let himself die he needs to cease justifying his own life. And so, instead of continuing to try to reassure himself, he asks them for forgiveness for his failures. And with that gesture, suddenly,
“it was clear to him that the thing that had been oppressing him, and not letting him go, was now releasing him all at once, from two sides, from ten sides, from every side. He was sorry for them, and he must do what is needed so that they should not be hurt.” (p.209)
At last Ivan sees how to put things right: he can, and will, for the first time in his life, put the needs of others before his own. And with that final act of love and reconciliation, Ivan conquers death—the spiritual death of being trapped inside the prison of the self—and in so doing redeems his pathetic life. For it was that same selfishness that had him locked in an ongoing struggle with truth that was preventing him from the possibility of a happy death. Of Ivan’s final moments, Tolstoy writes that he searches for death but cannot find it: “Instead of death there was light.” By embracing the truth of sacrificial love for others, Ivan is released from his suffering and dies in a condition hitherto unknown to him—not a state of agreeable pleasure, but immense joy.
Click here to see the translation used in this reading.
Jennifer A. Frey is Assistant Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Carolina and Principal Investigator with Virtue, Happiness, and the Meaning of Life.