The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy: A Story for All Souls

A man lies on his deathbed—screaming; screaming for three days without cessation. Even behind closed doors, the sound horrifies all who hear even its muffled suggestion. The death of Ivan Ilych was no peaceful affair. It was a fight literally to the death; and it is a struggle we all must undergo, for we all must die.

We all must die.

No matter how common this truth, it is still brutal in brevity—more like a grim sentence than a grammatical sentence. How one confronts it makes all the difference. Some confront it with John Donne’s sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud.” Others share St. John’s vision: “And behold a pale horse, and he that sat upon him, his name was Death, and hell followed him.” Whether serene or screaming, we all play Hamlet:

…To die, to sleep,
To sleep, perchance to dream; aye, there’s the rub,
For in that sleep of death, what dreams may come,
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause.


At this dying time of year, human thoughts and liturgies turn toward the departed; and hence, the human obligation to die:

What is the purpose of life?

What occurs after death?

Such existential meditations are central in Leo Tolstoy’s writings; and perhaps never presented with such emotional, fearful force as in his short work, The Death of Ivan Ilych. A source of this novella’s power lies in the fact that its conflicts and revelations reflect Tolstoy’s own in many ways.

One night, at a country inn in Arzamas, Tolstoy had a life-changing experience. He felt assured that Death was present within the house. The incident actually drove the writer to mental prostration, spurring him to the study of religion and doctrines of death to overcome his dread of mortality. Ultimately, he rejected Boethian consolations of philosophy and Biblical fortifications of faith in favor of the simple worldview of the Russian rustic, whose honest acceptance of death bore the wisdom of ages.

Tolstoy Death MaskTolstoy upheld that the uneducated, underestimated poor were the preservers of Christianity. He struggled against the forms of orthodox civilization and the Orthodox Church, following instead the serf’s faith and fellowship. Towards the end of his life, he wore only peasant garb and refused all royalties for his writings. Despite this shift into simplicity, Tolstoy’s passionate radicalism had already driven a wedge between him and his wife, Sofya. Mutual resentments led to such strife that Tolstoy, aged eighty-two, left her. He boarded a train for a monastery where he might live out his remaining days, but fell ill in transit and died in a railroad station.

Leo Tolstoy was an artist attracted to extremes, and his work scrutinizes extreme situations—situations of life and death. The Death of Ivan Ilych is a perfect example. Ivan Ilych: a man engulfed in the habits of a class bred by hypocrisy—a sine qua non of cosmopolitan courtesy. He is as disingenuous as anyone in his social circle: nurturing shallow yet fashionable friendships, forcing a bad marriage that looked good, and utilizing career to define his worth. He labors on the judge’s bench, claws for seniority, navigates marital altercations, and plays bridge. It is only when his life unexpectedly dwindles to death (sustaining an injury hanging curtains) that he tries to comfort himself with a life well lived; and realizes the lie that his life is.

Faced with his end, Ivan Ilych learned the unbearable truth that he was dead long before he was called to die. He had participated in a vast vanity. Every detail of his life mocked him with hollow insincerity; from his wife’s disdainful assurances that he would recover, to his watch-chain medallion engraved with Respice finem, “be mindful of the end.” Too late, the unmindful Ivan Ilych saw his life as artificial rather than authentic.

Ivan Ilych placed all his chips on the modern, material, rational world and lost his bet. There was a time when he had no concern for lowly, backward folk like his butler’s assistant, Gerasim—until he discovered that Gerasim was the only person who actually treated him like a dying man. This hearty, healthy country youth admitted that all that live must die—and so administered to his master with patience and sympathy. For some time, Ivan Ilych found no comfort save for the human touch that Gerasim provided as he good-naturedly and tirelessly held the dying man’s legs up to relieve his pain—the pain of malady and the pain of knowledge that he had not lived as he ought to have.

Despite these periods of relief, Ivan Ilych fought to rationalize his way out of the “black sack” that death was thrusting him into with indomitable force. But there was no way out. The Judge was coming for the judge. Ivan Ilych dragged rationality to its limit—and then began screaming like an animal. He would have screamed all the way into his grave had it not been for a second touch—a touch more intimate than his selfless servant’s: a touch from his son. A peace that Ivan Ilych had never known was imparted by this touch because he had never known love. The black sack suddenly became a life-giving womb. At last, Ivan Ilych was able to surrender to death without screaming.

Ivan Ilych’s physical life had been spiritual death.

His physical death was spiritual life.

Tolstoy believed that crisis was necessary to comprehend the essential. Ivan Ilych is a testament to this belief. He was by all accounts a successful man—who found that his life was a failure when he had to lose it. Everything he thought solid and profitable was a sham and a lie when he weighed it as the substance of a good life. It was only through direct and genuine human contact that Ivan Ilych was saved and grasped that, though death eclipses the concerns of life, love endures.

The irony of Ivan Ilych’s death is devastating in itself and as a condemnation of the facades of sophisticated society. This devastation does not, however, extend to the recognition of the reality of death—only to one poor soul’s struggle for compromise. Ivan Ilych’s attitude toward life changed through dying, his psyche running the gambit from terror to triumph. Ignoring or denying death embodied Ivan Ilych’s environment, a delusion devised to ward off unpleasantries; which only breeds superficiality, fear, and frustration. Acceptance of death and the irregular patterns of life allows for confidence, concord, and content. As Gerasim put it, “We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble?”

The Death of Ivan Ilych is Tolstoy’s parable representing the mystery that living well is the best way to die well—and that is a mystery that all souls should grapple with.

Sean Fitzpatrick


Sean Fitzpatrick is a graduate of Thomas Aquinas College and the Headmaster of Gregory the Great Academy. He lives in Scranton, PA with his wife and family of four.

  • NE-Catholic

    No one, repeat, no one gets out of here alive. So what!

  • poetcomic1

    I seem to remember his transformation and understanding of the truth penetrating to his family at the end. It has been a long time since I read this.

  • Steven Jonathan

    It is a breath of fresh air Mr. Fitzpatrick, this fine meditation on death. It is no small irony that scientistic contemporary culture sucks, grabs and claws at shadows of time and prosperity, and misses the forest of life for the tree of death that has so badly obscured our view. It is a terrifying prospect to imagine looking back on a poorly lived life and trying in vain to rationalize it as a “good” life. Though in these materially abundant times our lives may be more deceitfully festooned with the appearances of the “good” life, I doubt the lie ever truly reaches the heart. Oh but how the mind can conspire with the ego to deceive.

    “Artful rather than authentic” the modern expertise!

    This is a superb essay. well done Mr. Fitzpatrick!

  • Jill

    Found a malapropic typo. “[H]is psyche running the gambit from terror to triumph.” Gamut. 🙂

  • sybarite123

    Myself, I do like the motif of ‘a life well lived’ for which we all should strive. For us old people we can ask ourselves, “Have I lived well?” I think I have done so despite the costs. I feel at peace with myself, but do not thereby excuse myself either. My mistakes are many as well. Thanks for this Short Story by Tolstoy. A great writer and a great theme.

  • Pingback: All Hallows Eve & All Saints Day Preview II -

  • Jamie

    What a gift it is to see someone die the other way–man who went “all in” for eternity and couldn’t wait to say goodbye to this vale of tears!

  • Natasha Jeffery

    Even though you do not read much, you can still sound
    intelligent during literary discussions =p

    Here are some tips !!!

  • J P

    God has given no one the right to a personal summation of his life; therefore, empty your soul of the temporal, accept it be filled w/God’s grace, the breath of eternal life and leave a dead body to fend for itself. 🙂

  • I read this short story when I was taking English Lit at a junior college. In my mixed up view I saw Ivon’s death as a sort of conversion rather than an epiphany. Of course being young I had all the time in the world and I had an assurance that i would be saved no matter how I lived. Due to a NDE (a normal one) in the hospital I too had that same awareness of just how empty my life was. After having been given last rites I recovered. My opinion has changed and while I do believe that it is important to live a good life it is even more necessary to die a good death with all your accounts all settled with both man and God. There is a place that I can’t explain where you will find yourself somewhere between life and death where you are all alone with yourself and not even God is there. It is just you with yourself facing truth for what it is in the depths of your conscience. In that place you cannot even lie to yourself. The next time I am there I am sure that i will step into eternity with irrevocable consequences. So this is where the Death of Ivan Ilych became my death. Perhaps this was Tolstoy’s whole reason and purpose of the story.