The Death of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych Themes


The reality of Death is a central theme of the novel. Tolstoy's contemplation of death precipitated his intellectual crisis. The truth of death puts all of life in context, and many of the other themes are seen in Death's shadow.

Denial of Death

As real as death is, characters in The Death of Iván Ilych go out of their way to avoid thinking about it. At the funeral, those present try to see death as an odd occurrence, a thing that has happened to the deceased, rather than an end awaiting everyone. To Tolstoy, denial of death is usually linked with an incredibly detached living of life.

Detachment from Life

Everywhere in the novel, Tolstoy speaks of Iván Ilych's desire for propriety, decorous living, and pleasantness. This motivation is a poor substitute for involved, richer living. Occupation with petty social concerns and interior decorating are Iván Ilych's way of escaping from the real world around him. Misplaced priorities are the bane of all the characters of the novel except Gerásim, whose simple goodness makes Iván Ilych question his whole life.

The Gap Between Inner Reality and Outer Appearance

The gap between inner truth and outer appearance becomes apparent nearly every time two characters speak to each other. Hypocrisy is a way of life for the novel's characters, as nearly every statement is made to hide real motivations and feelings. Worse yet, most are at some level aware of the gap, and choose to ignore it. As Iván Ilych grows more ill, the hypocrisy in the world around him hurts him as much as his sickness. In Gerásim, the gap does not exist, and Iván Ilych is struck powerfully by the peasant boy's example.


Iván Ilych's final moments are not depressing or painful, but full of hope. As full as the novel's world is of hypocrisy, as devoid as it is of real love, Tolstoy offers an alternative. Compassion and living fully can both be done even when there is no time left, and the protagonist's acceptance of both compassion and mortality means that his death can be a happy one. Sincerity, pity, and compassion are all marks of a good life, and breaking through to them is possible even on one's deathbed.