The Death of Ivan Ilych


Leo Tolstoy



Connections between a coming-of-age story and “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy.

Theme of compassion in "The Death of Ivan Llych" (Marie-Michèle Forget)*



Connections between a coming-of-age story and “The Death of Ivan Ilych” by Leo Tolstoy.

By Catherine Gervais


    Coming-of-age stories represent a type of novel where the protagonist is initiated into adulthood through knowledge, experience, or both, often by a process of disillusionment. Understanding comes after the dropping of preconceptions, a destruction of a false sense of security, or in some way the loss of innocence. It often represents clashes between the protagonist needs and desires and the views and judgements enforced by the social order.

    In The Death of Ivan Ilych, rather than a coming-of-age story, it is about coming toward death. Ivan is confronted with the prospect of his death, which brings him face to face with his own isolation in his life. That isolation terrifies him, provoking deep reflexions. On the other hand, the reader knows that Ivan's pain is caused by the possibility that his whole life has been in error, but despite the protagonist's new knowledge, he still does not wholly understand it. When Ivan begins to examine his life, as he questions his existence and the rationale behind his suffering, he slowly goes through disillusionment throughout his life and how it was not as it should have been. “Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done”(Tolstoy 1249) As Ivan realizes that his illness has pervaded his entire life and that the disease he suffered from is actually the manifestation of a general malaise that has been growing with him since childhood, Ivan's illness reveals to him the true nature of life. At the climactic moment of the novel, Ivan realizes that compassion and love are the true life values by which to live.

What are the author's intentions of using such a process?

    The process followed by the protagonist expresses how Ivan is blinded by the values of high society, and how he has been going in the wrong direction all his life. Tolstoy's message is clear: compassion and empathy with other human beings are the themes of a proper life. For example, during his early life, when Ivan seems to be growing in strength, freedom, and status, he is actually being reduced to weakness, bondage, and isolation. The theme of this story expresses the contrast between an artificial life and an authentic life. The artificial life is marked by shallow relationships, self-interest, and materialism. “Moreover, he needed time to settle into the new place, to move all his belongings from the province, and to buy and order many additional things... ”(Tolstoy 1227) It is insular, unfulfilling, and ultimately incapable of providing answers to the important questions in life. The life of Ivan Ilych is a deception that hides life's true meaning and leaves the protagonist terrified and alone at the moment of death. The authentic life, on the other hand, should be marked by pity and compassion. It breaks down isolation and allows true interpersonal contact.

“And strange to say it seemed to him that he felt better while Gerasim held his legs up. After that Ivan Ilych would sometimes call Gerasim and get himto hold his legs on his shoulders, and he liked talking to him. Gerasim did it all easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych.” (1241)

Whereas the artificial life leaves one alone and empty, the authentic life fosters strength through solidarity and comfort through empathy. It creates bonds and prepares one to meet death.



"A Glossary of Literary Terms." VirtualSalt. Web. 12 Nov. 2010. <>.

Pickering, James H. "The Death of Ivan Ilych." Fiction 100: an Anthology of Short Fiction. New York: Longman, 2010. 1215-254. Print.