Good Example Of Essay On Death Of Ivan Ilyich

Type of paper: Essay

Topic: Medicine, Death, Family, Literature, Tolstoy, Disease, Health, Illness

Pages: 4

Words: 1100

Published: 2020/11/24


“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is Leo Tolstoy’s novella he was working at from 1882 till 1886. In the work he describes the process of painful dying of a mediocre judicial official. The novella is widely recognized as one of the best in the world literature and the greatest accomplishment of Tolstoy in small literary form. In this paper we shall analyze the experience of the main character of the novella as he is going through the dying process, and the five steps which the goes through during this process. Besides, we shall evaluate the treatment of Ivan Ilyich by his doctors, friends and family and suggest what they should have done differently to help the main character and reduce his suffering. At the end, we shall relate the novella to the theological theories and basic ethical principles.
The novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” is a masterpiece of the great Russian classic Leo Tolstoy. This is one of the first works he wrote after a drastic outlook change. Tolstoy put his rather ordinary character in the face of death. Ivan Ilyich realizes that the end is near, it is inevitable, but he does not want to die, he wants to continue his life, which was not easy, but nonetheless rather simple, allowing him to escape from the family to the work and from the work to the family. Ivan Ilyich in Tolstoy’s novella lives like a dead man, and only as he happens to be on his deathbed he seems to actually start living and understanding that the life he lived before was not as good as he believed it to be.
Let us examine closer Ivan Ilyich’s experience going through the dying process. As Dr. Kubler-Ross (1997) proposed, there are five stages of mourning and grief which may occur to the individuals before they achieve the acceptance of death. These stages are as follows: denial and isolation; anger; bargaining; depression; and acceptance. Not all people experience these stages in the same way and in exactly the same order, but in case of Ivan Ilyich we can observe them quite precisely. So let us take a closer look at them.
The first stage is denial – hiding from facts, which is the first reaction to learning about near death. In case of Ivan Ilyich we can observe that he kept on taking the medicine the doctors prescribed him, and although the pain did not decrease, Ivan Ilyich made an effort to force himself to think that he felt better. And he could deceive himself while nothing bothered him. But as soon as he had troubles with his wife, something went wrong at work, or he lost money playing cards, then he felt the full force of his illness. Sometimes endured these unpleasant occurrences, hoping that thing are about to get better, that big success will come soon. But more and more often with every failure he started to feel despair.
Then started the second stage – anger. Ivan Ilyich said to himself that he had just began to recover, and the drug had already begun to act, and that that cursed misfortune or trouble happened. And he was angry with the misfortune or people causing that misfortune and thus killing him. He felt that this anger was killing him, but he could not refrain from it. It seems that it should have been clear to him that it is his anger at the circumstances and people that strengthens his illness and therefore he should not pay attention to misfortunes; but he did quite the opposite.
After that trying to regain control over the situation he transferred to the third stage – bargaining. Within a month he visited several famous doctors. One doctor confirmed the diagnosis of the first doctor, but posed the questions differently. Another doctor defined his illness quite differently and promised recovery, but his questions and assumptions confused Ivan Ilyich and strengthened his doubts even more. He also consulted a homeopath, who identified the illness yet differently, and Ivan Ilyich was secretly taking medicine he prescribed to him, but without any positive effect. Ivan Ilyich even caught himself listening attentively to a lady who was telling him about icons that heal illnesses, but then he got frightened that he is so mentally weak that he was about to believe in such a nonsense.
After that started the fourth stage, and namely depression. He felt that something terrible, new and significant was happening to him. But he was the only one who knew that; others did not understand or did not want to understand and thought that everything in the world was the same. That is what most tormented Ivan Ilyich most of all. He saw that his wife and daughter did not understand anything; they were annoyed that he was so sad and demanding, as if he was to blame. Although they tried to hide it, he saw that he was a hindrance to them. At work he started to notice a strange attitude to himself: it seemed to him that he was treated as to a person who will soon make a post vacant; then suddenly his friends started to tease his suspiciousness, as if that awful and terrible illness inside of him was the best subject for jokes. Many young, healthy and energetic people irritated him. And the worst thing was that he had face this terrible reality alone, and there was not a single person who would understand and feel sorry for him.
Two months passed until Ivan Ilyich came to the last stage and accepted the inevitable death he was facing. He was angry and terrified; he did not want to die. It was painfully, unbearably difficult to accept. He could not believe that all were always doomed to this terrible fear. Ivan Ilyich saw that he was dying, and he was in constant despair. He knew that he was dying, but he could not get used to it; he did not and could not understand. But at the end he nevertheless had to accept it.
Let us now analyze the treatment of Ivan Ilyich at the hands of his doctors, friends and family members. The doctors in the novel seem first of all as incompetent. Of course, back in 1880’s they did not have the modern technologies and equipment we have now, but still none of so many doctors Ivan Ilyich consulted could not identify the illness he was suffering from. Besides, not being sure in the diagnosis, they still prescribed him some medicine – and who knows what effect that medicine had on the illness Ivan Ilyich actually had. Apart from that, the attitude to the patient is awful: they do not really care how the patient feels, whether the medicine they prescribe will help him, and even whether he will recover or die. They simply do the standard set of actions, not caring whether those actions are helpful or at least necessary. In my opinion, the doctors should have taken an individual approach to the patient; they should have been more passionate about their duties and responsibilities; if the doctor could not determine the diagnosis himself, he should have organized a conference of specialist doctors; they should not have prescribed medicine if they were not sure in the diagnosis; and they should have cared about their patient more.
Friends and family members also did not treat Ivan Ilyich very well. They did not care about his suffering, about his fears; they even did not try to understand what he felt and what he was thinking about. None of his friends came to visit him during his illness, and his wife and daughter were busy with their own affairs and did not pay much attention to Ivan Ilyich. Only his son felt sorry for him, and his servant Gerasim tried to make his last days less unpleasant. There is no doubt that friends and family members of Ivan Ilyich should have been less egoistic and indifferent. They should have paid more attention to him, spent time with him, listened to him and tried to understand his feelings and thoughts. Maybe that would not have lessened his physical suffering, but at least he would have felt happier and not that lonely.
In the next of the novella we may notice the relation to the theological theories and the basic ethical principles. As an example of this we can take one of the major themes which goes through the whole novella – courts and justice; this is related to a ‘justice of Heaven’ which each person will face after death. Besides, after dying Ivan Ilyich saw white light and thought that he was very happy because the death was over; this relates to the theological theory about life after death. As for basic ethical principles (i.e. respect for people, beneficence, justice), we see that Ivan Ilyich lacks them, and that he is criticized by Tolstoy for that, and at the end he suffers from the same treatment from other characters of the novella.
As we have analyzed, in his novella Leo Tolstoy not only described the experience of a person going through the dying process, but he also revealed many vices of the contemporary society. Although Ivan Ilyich is not a positive character, but on his example the author showed us that the human race is not hopeless. Even more than that, he contrasted the death of Ivan Ilyich to social norms and morality. But although death defeated public morality, and Ivan Ilyich was “healed”, it happened only on his deathbed.


Kubler-Ross, E. (1997/1969). On Death and Dying. What the Dying Have to Teach Doctors, Nurses, Clergy and Their Own Families. New York, NY: SCRIBNER
Tolstoy, L.N. (n.d.). The Death of Ivan Ilyich. (L. & A. Maude, Trans.). Hazleton, PA: Electronic Classics Series (Original work published 1886). Retrieved from

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