61 pages 2 hours read

Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Fiction | Novella | Adult | Published in 1886

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Summary and Study Guide


The Death of Ivan Ilyich (1886) is a fictional novella by the Russian author Leo Tolstoy (1828-1910). The story raises questions about what is important in life through Tolstoy’s observation of social interaction and individual priorities.

Tolstoy was born into aristocracy and was popular at a time when Russia was under the autocratic rule of Tsar Nicholas II, the last Russian emperor of the Romanov Dynasty. Tolstoy, whose best-known works are War and Peace (1867) and Anna Karenina (1877), is widely considered to be one of the most influential fiction authors the world over.

This summary is based on the 1967 edition of Perennial Library’s Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude.

Plot Summary

Ivan Ilyich Golovin (Ilyich is his patronymic—Russian middle names are based on the name of one’s father, and polite address uses the first and middle names) passes away on February 4, 1882. His former law colleagues quickly overcome their initial surprise at seeing his obituary in the newspaper, then move on to other general gossip before heading back to work. Peter Ivanovich, one of Ivan Ilyich’s more personal work acquaintances, attends the funeral service, where Ivan Ilyich’s widow Praskovya Fedorovna questions him about whether she might acquire a higher pension from her husband’s death.

In life, Ivan Ilyich was a decent student. He begins prioritizing social mobility early in his law career, making steady progression up the ranks of the Russian law circles. He marries Praskovya Fedorovna, the most eligible in his circle at the time, and has a family that he generally avoids in favor of his work and card games. Ivan Ilyich and Praskovya Fedorovna have an unpleasant marriage, which Ivan Ilyich copes with through distractions and distancing himself from his family.

Ivan Ilyich becomes briefly dissatisfied with his job when he is overlooked for a promotion. After some frustration and a period of listlessness, he successfully seeks a new position with a higher salary. He is proud of the new home he acquires and carefully decorates it in the style of the upper class. Ivan Ilyich falls while hanging new curtains. His injuries at first cause no worry, but his health deteriorates as the pain in his side increases. Doctors cannot agree on a diagnosis, and Ivan Ilyich realizes that he is dying.

Nearly everyone around Ivan Ilyich avoids talking about his impending death. His colleagues see his deterioration, but they are too respectful to mention his mistakes. His wife focuses on their daughter’s upcoming engagement, and he lacks a strong bond with his two children. Feeling lonely, Ivan Ilyich becomes increasingly volatile as his health deteriorates, reaching a point of open resentment toward his family. Having dreams of being pushed into a dark sack, he wonders why he must suffer. He is eager for the struggle to be over, but fearful of what comes next.

Coming to terms with his unavoidable death, Ivan Ilyich considers how life should be lived and whether he has lived correctly. At first, he is sure that because he has done everything that society expects of a successful law professional, he has spent his life well. However, eventually, Ivan Ilyich allows himself to consider the possibility that his life has been misdirected. In his final moments, Ivan Ilyich’s hand lands upon his son’s head. Suddenly, he understands why he has been suffering, and he attempts to ask his family for forgiveness before passing away.