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I first read and studied this novella as a sophomore in college. It was my first intense adult encounter with literature. Being a work of Christian fiction, Tolstoy’s story also gave me a vision for the integration of literature and Christianity that never left me. I am happy to report that this great Christian classic still appears in The Norton Anthology of World Literature, where I encountered it in college.
In a post on Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story “Young Goodman Brown,” I claimed that while Hawthorne’s religious views are important, his short story is universal in its issues and does not require being contextualized in the broader landscape of Hawthorne’s religious views. The same thing is true of The Death of Ivan Ilych. Tolstoy is an important figure in any history of modern Christian thought and practice, but knowing about his unorthodox Christian faith is not a prerequisite to understanding his masterpiece on suffering and death. I will therefore concentrate on the story itself, with minimal reference to Tolstoy’s tortured religious life.
Leo Tolstoy was a Russian who lived from 1828 to 1910. His biography reads like an adventure story and a tragedy. At the approximate age of 50, Tolstoy reached a point of extreme despair about life. He resolved his despair in what can loosely be called a Christian conversion. The Death of Ivan Ilych was Tolstoy’s first major fictional work published after his conversion and belongs to a group of works in which Tolstoy explained his religious views.
Date of writing: 1884-1886 (Tolstoy worked on his masterpiece over a two-year span and made numerous references to the composition of it in his correspondence)
Format: 12 chapters (representing a symbolic completeness, corresponding to how Ivan’s life ended in such a way that “what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly”)
Genres: novella (short fiction, but longer than a short story); realism; satire; semi-autobiographical fiction (inasmuch as the spiritual progress of the protagonist is modeled on the spiritual conversion of the author); the literature of dying
Setting of the action: multiple, inasmuch as the story encompasses the entire life of the protagonist, but mainly St. Petersburg, the capital of Russia in Tolstoy’s day
Chronology of the plot: the story begins with the death of the protagonist at the age of 45 and then (starting with chapter 2) moves back to the beginning of Ivan’s life
Style: simple and matter-of-fact prose (reminiscent of biblical narrative)
Point of view: the story is told by a reliable narrator who knows everything (including what characters are thinking) and relentlessly forces us as readers to get beneath the surface level of life
Inferred purpose of Tolstoy: to jolt readers out of living by the shallow norms of modern society and to lead them to face the serious and unavoidable issues of life and death
Double plot: the story of external action (the level at which most characters in the story live) and the story of Ivan’s internal life
The Death of Ivan Ilych is a picture of the values by which many (and perhaps most) people live. It is a life without meaning. We need to note a great divide that runs through the story, however. With two exceptions, the characters who inhabit the world of the story are content with the trivial and materialistic life. This includes Ivan before he injured himself and embarked on the process of dying. But the story also pictures an alternative to life without meaning. As a result of his suffering, Ivan repudiates the values of materialism to embrace something more human, more moral, and more spiritual. The ultimate breakthrough comes when he is converted on his deathbed.
One of the great strengths of this story is its satiric portrayal and exposé of modern life. The features of modern society that we confront as we read include the following:
the triviality of the things that occupy people’s daily lives
preoccupation with material things
worship of success and prosperity
breakdown of families
denial of death
trust in medical technology, and a sense of betrayal when doctors cannot heal a patient
The mere portrayal of these familiar facets of modern life would itself be powerful and convicting, but Tolstoy’s master stroke is his narrator. The narrator describes external and internal events in such a way as to heap scorn on the spectacle of living by the norms listed above. One of the best tips for reading is thus to regard the narrator’s voice as a helpful tour guide that prompts us to respond correctly to the data that is presented.
Death Is Announced
This discussion guide will divide the story into three disproportionate units. This week’s posting will limit itself to the opening chapter. There is no reason not to read more than the opening chapter in connection with this week’s posting, since the opening chapter achieves its full meaning when we have the whole story in our awareness.
Tolstoy himself highlighted the opening chapter as a freestanding unit by devoting it to the death of Ivan Ilych and the responses this death elicits (and fails to elicit) in Ivan’s family and colleagues. Only afterward does Tolstoy take us to the beginning Ivan’s life. It is as though we cannot understand Ivan’s life without first understanding his death. The Encyclopedia of Death and Dying correctly observes that structurally this story privileges Ivan’s death over his life. By the time we end the story, this perspective will seem entirely logical to us.
Additionally, the opening chapter is the portal through which we enter story, so we should view it as our introduction to what will follow. One commentator claims that as a prelude to the story, the first chapter is designed in such a way as to implicate the reader in sharing the wrong responses made by the characters in the story.
Chapter 1Runtime: 22 min
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Plot Summary of Chapter 1
During an interval in a trial in the law courts, someone announces to the assembled lawyers that their colleague Ivan Ilych has died. Immediately the colleagues begin thinking in terms of how the death will benefit their career climb, and then they take stock of the tiresome demands of visiting the widow to pay their condolences. We make the visit to the widow with a specific colleague named Peter Ivanovich. During his visit, Peter learns the details about Ivan’s suffering and death. Yet he manages to distance himself from everything that might bring him to perception, including an awareness that death will come to him, too. All responses (including the widow’s) remain on the surface level, and Peter leaves feeling lucky when he gets to his scheduled card game only a little late.
Narrative World of the Story
We need to begin by accepting that Tolstoy intended something definite by rearranging the chronology of his story in such a way as to begin with the last event in Ivan’s life, namely, his death. One commentator believes this strategy puts us as readers into the story. As various characters respond to the death, we share their inner thoughts. Those thoughts are selfish, unfeeling, distanced, death-denying. We are right there to share Peter Ivanovich’s irritation at the inconvenience of a colleague’s death.
The opening pages of any fictional story are designed to initiate us into the narrative world that we enter when we commit ourselves to read the story. There can be no doubt that this is what Tolstoy accomplishes by beginning with the announcement of Ivan Ilych’s death. Merely by recording what characters thought by way of response to Ivan’s death, Tolstoy has plunged us into the world of the story by a kind of shorthand method. Our response to what we observe is double—shock at the attitudes displayed in various characters and at the same time awareness that these are the same thoughts to which we are at least tempted when confronted with the inconvenience and demands occasioned by someone’s death. This story is like the Bible in its manner of convicting us.
For reflection or discussion: Since this is our initiation into the world of the story, we need to note the essential features of that world. What leaps out most obviously? How do the features of modern life listed above already establish themselves in our awareness? How do your own experiences and observations confirm the accuracy of the portrait that chapter 1 paints? Taken a step further, how does the narrator’s voice get us to evaluate these features? At what points in the account are we particularly aware of the shallowness and deceitfulness of social conventions?
Foreshadowing Things to Come
Initiation is one of the two main items of narrative business that Tolstoy achieves in his opening chapter. The other is a skillfully managed strategy of foreshadowing. The opening chapter is a “teaser” that makes us curious about the rest of the story. Four things in particular are foreshadowed.
The first is embodied in a statement that describes the look on the face of the deceased Ivan: “The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly.” We will not learn what this means until the last chapter, where even the word rightly will explode with meaning. What is here a foreshadowing will be echoed in our memory when this key sentence is explained.
A second piece of foreshadowing is the information that the widow imparts to Peter Ivanovich regarding Ivan’s suffering. We learn that Ivan’s suffering was so terrible that he screamed for (a symbolic) three days before his death. Again we are teased into wanting more information.
Third, the ease with which Peter Ivanovich and Ivan’s widow manage to sidestep the reality of death foreshadows a leading motif in the story as a whole. In the opening chapter, Peter is only momentarily struck by the possibility that what had happened to Ivan Ilych could happen to him. The widow’s response to Ivan’s suffering is the self-centered statement, “I cannot understand how I bore it.”
Finally, in view of what we later come to know about Ivan’s servant, Gerasim, we can view our introduction to him in the opening chapter as a foreshadowing. As Gerasim performs his servant’s duties, we catch a glimpse of someone who understands what is happening in life. In contrast to Peter’s and the widow’s denial of death, Gerasim says forthrightly that death “is God’s will. We shall all come to it some day.”
For reflection or discussion: The skillful use of foreshadowing in chapter 1 is something that subsequent chapters will bring to fruition. Other techniques, though, can be relished in the opening chapter itself. For example, part of the triumph of this novella is its exploiting the literary technique of realism. Writers of realism love the apparently random and trivial detail that make a story lifelike. The pouffe [cushioned chair or couch] with its unwieldy springs takes on a life of its own in the scene set in Ivan’s house. What other realistic touches strike you as cleverly managed by Tolstoy? More generally, knowing that Tolstoy worked on this 60-page novella for two years, what evidence do you see of careful craftsmanship?
The opening chapter is a detailed dramatization of how the death of Ivan Ilych fails to affect his family and acquaintances. By contrast, the story will eventually record how the death does affect Ivan. The story as a whole is arranged in such a way as to encourage us as readers to share Ivan’s insight into suffering and death, and to rise above the imperceptiveness of his (and our) society.
Chapters 2–4: Terrible Conformity
As narrated in this novella, the life of Ivan falls into two eras—life before his accident, and life after that accident. Chapters 2-4 tell the story of life before the accident (with chapter 4 serving as a transition as it records the onset of Ivan’s illness, while stopping short of identifying the illness as terminal). The keynote of Ivan’s life before his accident is summarized in the first sentence of chapter 2: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” It is terrible in its superficiality.
Ivan’s childhood and early professional life are spent in social conformity. His marriage, too, is “thoroughly correct,” “easy and decorous.” When his wife becomes irritable and family life demanding, Ivan retreats into his professional life. He unexpectedly gets a promotion, and he “was completely happy.” Then Ivan becomes preoccupied with decorating his house, which represents a further stage of dehumanizing in his life. One day while decorating his house Ivan bruises himself when he missteps on a ladder. This becomes the turning point of his life, as it leads to an undiagnosed illness and then to deteriorating health. Chapter 4 tells of the growing pain in Ivan’s side, of futile visits to doctors, of the gradual isolation of Ivan in his private world of illness.
Chapter 2Runtime: 20 min
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Chapter 3Runtime: 19 min
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Chapter 4Runtime: 18 min
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Life of Conformity
Chapters 2-4 trace a sequence of phases through which Ivan’s life passes, so we should follow the contour that the story lays down. The keynote for all three chapters is sounded at the outset, with its equation of Ivan’s “ordinary” life and the fact that it is “therefore most terrible.” Exactly what makes Ivan’s life terrible? The verdict is voiced by the narrator, and if we follow the cues laid down in the text itself, we will see the ways in which Ivan’s life is terrible—not externally, but morally and spiritually.
Externally, Ivan’s life is not terrible, and we can profitably begin by tracing the things that make his external life successful, as narrated in the first half of chapter 2. It is a life in which conformity triumphs. Already as a schoolboy Ivan fit in completely. Upon graduating from law school, Ivan receives “an easy and agreeable” position. His life flows “pleasantly and decorously.” When he transfers to a new town, he “settled down very pleasantly.” He married “a sweet, pretty, and thoroughly correct young woman.”
The sheer accumulation of details would itself lead us to protest against the superficiality and banality of such a life, but Tolstoy does not put the entire burden of interpretation on us as readers. He creates a narrator to serve as a tour guide through the story. As the vocabulary of conformity noted in the previous paragraph accumulates, we catch a distinct note of scorn toward what is being portrayed. When the element of conformity is highlighted to this extent, we cannot help but see that it is being mocked.
This relates to the rhetoric of narrative—the techniques of persuasion by which a story gets us to assess characters and events in the manner desired by the storyteller. Selectivity of material is one of these rhetorical strategies. What a storyteller chooses to include influences what we see and how we see it. Tolstoy chose to include details that add up to a life of conformity in which the protagonist does all the “right” things as prescribed by social norms.
For reflection or discussion: Literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves; it is also a window through which we look at life around us. Both of these are profitable premises from which to assimilate the first half of chapter 2. Where do you see your own lifestyle and inner inclinations laid out to view in the account of Ivan’s life of conformity? At what points are you reminded of what you see in your society or neighborhood or circle of friends? How does the story bring conviction?
Protecting Life from Unpleasantness
The first phase of Ivan’s life, from infancy through early marriage, is a life of ease. Of course this life is a spiritual void—a life without meaning. Additionally, Ivan himself is a moral nonentity, totally self-absorbed. This self-absorption is threatened when Ivan’s wife becomes pregnant, and thereupon Ivan enters a new phase. The story is orchestrated in such a way as to lead us to see the strategies by which people manage to escape involvement with human suffering.
The first thing Ivan does is lose himself in his professional work. Correspondingly, his marriage and domestic life become a mere social convenience, not a high value. His work becomes a “separate fenced-off world of official duties, where he found satisfaction.” Ivan becomes an organization man.
The second half of chapter 2 is conducted in such a way as to show that Ivan manages to shield himself from human suffering. When he receives a promotion and moves to a new town, the higher cost of living cancels the higher salary, his wife does not like the place, and two of their children die. Ivan simply spends “less and less time with his family.” The “whole interest of his life” centers in his job. Everything considered, Ivan manages to sidestep suffering and finds that “life continued to flow as he considered it should do—pleasantly and properly.”
Tolstoy has constructed his story in such a way that only dying will bring his protagonist to a state of awareness regarding the true issues of life. Until Ivan reaches that point, a series of intermediary and potential impetuses to awareness enter Ivan’s life. In the second half of chapter 2, that impetus is domestic disappointment. But Ivan comes up with a defense mechanism against that disappointment. A key statement is that domestic life became something “in which [his] sympathy was demanded but about which he understood nothing.”
For reflection or discussion: We should continue to operate on the premise that literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves and a window through which we see life around us. How is the second half of chapter 2 true to life as you know it?
Another Narrow Escape
In the first half of chapter 3, another form of suffering enters Ivan’s life, accompanied by another possible occasion for Ivan to face life’s true issues. Ivan’s income is inadequate and his marriage unfulfilling. He becomes depressed and takes a leave of absence from work. It appears that he may need to embrace human suffering and learn from it.
But then the unexpected happens. By chance, Ivan lands an improved job. Having escaped suffering yet again, “Ivan Ilych was completely happy.” His life and marriage reach a new level of triviality when furnishing the new home becomes the passion of his life. Even his official work “interested him less than he had expected.” In short, Ivan has become interested in things rather than people. “Life was growing fuller,” the narrator tells us in mockery. Again, “Everything was as it should be.” At one point the narrator tells us that Ivan’s “chief pleasure was giving little dinners to which he invited men and women of good social position,” and a few paragraphs later that his “greatest pleasure was playing bridge.”
In either case, we are to understand that Ivan is living life at the level of complete triviality and social convention. Tolstoy is adept at giving us aphoristic sentences that sum up various phases of his story and the broader issues of the story as a whole. Chapter 3 ends with one of these sentences: “So they lived, and all went well, without change, and life flowed pleasantly.” As readers we are expected to supply what is omitted from that progress report, namely, that Ivan and his wife are totally superficial people, cut off from essential humanity. Ultimately their physical prosperity makes this type of life possible.
As we end chapter 3, we can profitably sum up what the story has presented up to that point. First, we have observed a life of complete social and moral conformity. Second, we have seen Ivan avoid family involvement and suffering through work. Third, we have viewed a life materialistic triviality, with devotion to physical things and the home prominent on the list of priorities.
For reflection or discussion: This story provides an anatomy of how many (most?) people in the affluent West (and perhaps worldwide) live. What are the keynotes of that lifestyle? In what ways is it your own lifestyle? By God’s grace, to what extent have you avoided it?
The story gradually leads us to wonder what will bring Ivan to a state of moral and spiritual awareness. The answer comes in a seemingly trivial event that nonetheless becomes the pivot on which Ivan’s whole life turns. In the middle of chapter 3, we read in passing about a bruise that Ivan sustained when he slipped on a ladder while decorating his house. The very triviality is ironically important: just as Ivan’s life has revolved around the shallow trivialities of life, so his injury is undistinguished (a slip on step ladder).
To heighten this effect, the ladder incident is tucked into the middle of a chapter devoted to chronicling how Ivan managed to do everything in life “easily, pleasantly, correctly, and even artistically.” However, a new note is sounded as we move into chapter 4.
This chapter is mainly devoted to the progress of Ivan’s illness. Earlier Ivan had distanced himself from his wife’s physical difficulties, and now she turns the tables on him. We read that “the more she pitied herself the more she hated her husband.” She demands that Ivan go “to see a celebrated doctor.” “He went,” and with disappointing results. The doctor treats Ivan as he himself treats people in the law courts—as a professional case. The doctor is preoccupied with figuring out the physical cause of Ivan’s pain and ignores Ivan’s anguish: “It was not a question of Ivan Ilych’s life or death, but one between a floating kidney and appendicitis.”
One of the great triumphs of Tolstoy’s story now enters aggressively. It is the literary technique known as psychological realism and consists of our entering the character’s thought process. An early example occurs in chapter 4 with the account of what goes through Ivan’s mind on the journey from the doctor’s office to his home. We read that “all the way home he was going over what the doctor had said.” He tries to translate the medical terminology into answers to his questions, “Is my condition bad? Is it very bad? Or is there as yet nothing much wrong?”
In addition to this uncertainty and anguish, Ivan finds himself ignored by and isolated from the people around him. His wife impatiently listens to his account of his visit to the doctor, finding the report “tedious.” Her advice: “Mind now to take your medicine regularly.” As Ivan himself becomes convinced that “something terrible” is taking place inside of him, “those about him did not understand or would not understand it, but thought everything in the world was going on as usual.”
As Ivan’s physical state deteriorates, his mental anguish increases. So does his isolation from those around him. Again a summary statement at the end of chapter 4 packs the punch: “And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him.”
For reflection or discussion: It is hard to beat this story for its truthfulness to life. For example: when have you or a family member or friend faced Ivan’s situation of a physical ailment for which there is no medical help or even diagnosis? How does the suffering of Ivan in regard to that correspond to experiences in your own life? Suffering is what forces Ivan to probe beneath the pleasant surface of life; has this been your experience?
The overall shape of this story resembles Shakespeare’s play King Lear so closely that one wonders whether it was in Tolstoy’s mind as he composed his novella. Both stories revolve around the tragic theme of wisdom through suffering.
While that is common to all literary tragedies, the following paradigm is not. Both King Learand The Death of Ivan Ilych first divest the hero of all external privileges that had given meaning to life. With space thus cleared, the second half of both works traces the hero’s moral and spiritual progress forced by intense suffering.
Chapters 5–12: Wisdom Through Suffering
While chapter 4 has already portrayed the onset of Ivan’s serious illness, the new development that enters with chapter 5 (and that will persist to the end of the story) is the premise that Ivan is a dying man. The main action is twofold: (1) the indifference and deceptiveness of Ivan’s family and acquaintances regarding his illness, and (2) the thoughts and feelings that run through Ivan’s mind as he suffers physical and mental anguish and seeks to understand the meaning of his past and future. The exception to the prevailing indifference of the world is Ivan’s butler, Gerasim, who shares Ivan’s suffering, who “alone did not lie,” and who holds Ivan’s legs on his shoulders to ease the pain.
As Ivan ponders the meaning of his life and approaching death, he comes to the shocking conclusion that his life of conformity had been a sham and that “there was nothing to defend” in regard to it. On his deathbed Ivan moves beyond this conviction of his lost condition to a state of salvation. This is handled with literary indirectness and subtlety, and by means of symbolism, but it is unmistakable. Ivan falls through the black sack that had impeded his progress and enters into light and joy, finally declaring “death is finished. It is no more.”
Chapter 5Runtime: 11 min
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Chapter 6Runtime: 8 min
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Chapter 7Runtime: 11 min
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Chapter 8Runtime: 17 min
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Chapter 9Runtime: 8 min
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Chapter 10Runtime: 6 min
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Chapter 11Runtime: 7 min
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Chapter 12Runtime: 6 min
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The main interest of the second half of the story is the moral and spiritual progress of the protagonist, ending with his physical death and spiritual regeneration. But before we chart that progress, we need to register something that remains constant. The falsity, deceptiveness, and insensitivity of Ivan’s family and acquaintances are a background chorus to everything Ivan experiences. Tolstoy keeps coming back to the way in which Ivan’s society does not “get it” in regard to human suffering, illness, and dying.
The story accomplishes several things with this technique. One thrust is satiric, as Tolstoy makes a scathing indictment of modern society. The object of satiric attack is the way in which people deny the reality of death, both in regard to themselves and also to the dying. As always with satire, as readers we see the folly of what is portrayed, and we are invited to avoid the same folly in our own lives.
Additionally, the deceptiveness of people in their interactions with Ivan is a leading ingredient in his suffering. We read, for example, that “this deception tortured him.” And again, “This falsity around him . . . did more than anything else to poison his last days.” Ivan comes to hate his family members because they ignore him and even pretend that he is not dying.
The servant Gerasim stands as a foil to the other characters. He does not pretend that Ivan is not dying. He does not avoid contact with Ivan. In fact, he holds Ivan’s legs up on his shoulders “easily, willingly, simply, and with a good nature that touched Ivan Ilych.” It is in the nature of storytelling that the writer puts examples before us—positive examples to emulate and negative examples to avoid.
For reflection or discussion: We can profitably ask three questions regarding the deceptiveness of the death-dying culture portrayed in this story: (1) how do we see the same thing in our own culture, (2) how do we see the impulse within ourselves, and (3) what do we resolve to do about the situation?
Psychology of Facing Death
Truthfulness to human experience is one of the great contributions of literature. The classical tradition spoke of literature as an imitation of life. Other eras (as well as Shakespeare in a famous speech by Hamlet) called it “holding the mirror up to nature.”
One of the things that makes The Death of Ivan Ilych so riveting is that it takes us through the thoughts and feelings that surge through all of us when we have a physical ailment. We can credit Tolstoy with “getting it right.” One strand is the fluctuations that tyrannize Ivan’s thought life. For example, “Now a spark of hope flashes up, then a sea of despair rages.” When the doctor says in reply to a question from Ivan that there was a possibility of recovery, Ivan experiences a “gleam of hope” that “did not last long.” We also read that since the onset of Ivan’s illness his life “had been divided between two contrary and alternating moods”—despair and intense “observation of the functioning of his organs.”
Tolstoy also does a masterful job of capturing the psychology of living with anguish (in this case awareness of dying) that becomes a constant mental preoccupation. At one point death becomes a personified “It” that stands before Ivan incessantly. In another memorable image, death becomes a “narrow, black sack” into which Ivan is being pushed. There are moments when Ivan “wept like a child.” This is what it is like to live with a tyrannizing problem.
Part of the psychology that the story portrays consists of the voices that arise within Ivan. We read that “it was as though he were listening . . . to the voice of his soul, to the current of thoughts arising within him.” The voice asks, for example, “What do you want?” Ivan replies, “To live and not to suffer.” And so forth.
A further dimension of the psychology of suffering that Tolstoy portrays is the impulse to blame God. At one point we read that Ivan “wept on account of his helplessness, his terrible loneliness, the cruelty of man, the cruelty of God, and the absence of God.” He also asks of God, “Why dost Thou torment me so terribly?”
For reflection or discussion: What strikes you as skillful about Tolstoy’s portrayal of the psychology of suffering and dying? How does that portrayal correspond to some of your own experiences?
Conviction of Sin
The theme of wisdom through suffering has held an esteemed place in serious imaginative literature from the Book of Job and ancient Greek tragedy through King Lear to a modern work like The Death of Ivan Ilych. Additionally, no matter how moved we are by Tolstoy’s handling of social critique and psychological analysis (as discussed above), the central aspect of this story is the spiritual journey of the protagonist. That journey falls into two distinct phases, and these correspond to what theologians call the order of salvation.
Like Job, Ivan seeks to understand the meaning of his suffering. At one point he asks, “Why, and for what purpose, is there all this horror?” And later, “Why these sufferings?” And again, “If I could only understand what it is all for.” Ivan becomes a latter-day Socrates in his belief that the unexamined life is not worth living.
The first step toward answering the “why” question is Ivan’s decision to cast a retrospective look at his life. Early in that thought process, having told his inner voice that he wants “to live and not to suffer,” the inner voice asks, “To live? How?” Ivan replies, “Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly.” This provides the impetus for him to look back on his “pleasant” life.
Ivan quickly comes to the conclusion that his shallow life was “worthless.” In fact, “the longer it lasted the more deadly it became.” Of course the complacency of his social setting makes it hard for Ivan to admit this: “‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’”
The conviction keeps growing that “what had appeared perfectly impossible before, namely that he had not spent his life as he should have done, might after all be true.” This prompts Ivan to “pass his life in review in quite a new way.” His conclusion: the life he had lived “was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death.”
This conviction of sin remains with Ivan right up to the moment of his conversion on the verge of his death. Ivan “realized that he was lost” [a theology-laden word]. In this awareness, he experiences the sensation of being forced into a black sack, struggling “as a man condemned to death struggles in the hands of the executioner, knowing that he cannot save himself” [and we should note the theological nuance of the word save]. Ivan feels unable “to get right into it [i.e., the black sack],” and the double meaning of the word right should not escape us: Ivan cannot go into the afterlife “right.”
For reflection or discussion: The foregoing quick trip through Ivan’s growing awareness that he is a lost soul does not do justice to the detail with which Tolstoy chronicles Ivan’s coming to an awareness of the failure of the life he has lived. As you peruse the text, what for you are the important landmarks in Ivan’s growing conviction of sin? The biggest obstacle to Ivan’s achieving salvation is “his conviction that his life had been a good one. That very justification of his life . . . prevented his moving forward.” How have you observed the same phenomenon in your own life or in the lives of acquaintances?
Ivan’s moment of conversion is handled in a thoroughly literary way, that is, by indirection, symbolism, allusion, and metaphor. It is certainly not preachy or overly explicit. This is to Tolstoy’s credit, and the fact that some (not all) secular readers do not see the Christian nature of the experience should not deter us in the least from celebrating the Christian conclusion to the story.
To begin, the image of being forced into the black sack of death and of not able to get into it “right” has by now taken on a life of its own in the story. That is all the preparation we need in order to understand the moment of transformation when Ivan “fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light.” Key biblical verses provide a good context for this symbolic use of light (e.g., Matthew 4:16; John 3:21 and 8:12; 1 John 1:5, 7).
The very next sentence compares what has just happened to the experience of someone on a train who thinks he is going backward when he really going forward “and becomes aware of the real direction.” Ivan has changed spiritual direction. We might imagine Jesus saying parabolically, “The kingdom of heaven in like a man riding in a railway carriage. . . .” There is also the symbolism of Ivan’s screaming in pain for three days, “during which time did not exist for him.” Falling through the sack occurs “at the end of the third day, two hours before his death.”
The conversion motifs keep tumbling out. At the very moment that Ivan “fell through and caught sight of the light, . . . it was revealed to him [note the theological overtones] that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified.” Earlier he had hated his family, but now he “felt sorry for both his son and his wife.” He tries to say “forgive me” but instead says “forgo, but he is not troubled by this because he knows “that He [capitalized] whose understanding mattered would understand.”
Ivan experiences the sensation of losing a burden, “dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, from all sides.” He “sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. ‘Where is it? What death?’ There was no fear because there was no death.” “In place of death there was light. ‘So that’s what it is!’ he suddenly explained aloud. ‘What joy!’” The rebirth is instantaneous (“all this happened in a single instant”) and its effect permanent (“and the meaning of that instant did not change”). Someone near Ivan says, “It is finished,” and Ivan repeats the words “in his soul.” “Death is finished,” Ivan says; “it is no more,” in obvious reference to Revelation 21:4 (see also 2 Timothy 1:10 and John 5:24).
For reflection or discussion: The foregoing commentary says enough to make the case for the Christian meaning of the story’s conclusion, but it does not exhaust the nuances Tolstoy packed into the last three pages; what do you see in addition? Chapter 1 says regarding the look on the deceased Ivan’s face conveys that “what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly”; how does the last chapter explain that statement? It is the task of Christian storytellers and poets to “sing a new song”—to express the timeless truths of the Christian faith with fresh vision or new effect; how does Tolstoy’s story do this for you?