Ivan Ilyich’s Misery from an Ordinary Life: Is Ordinary Bad? (The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy Book Review)


Ordinary life is something that most people strive for and view as a sign of success and happiness. However, the short story The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy changes the normal perception of ordinary lives to what I believe is a more accurate perception of ordinary life. This perception is the realization that the ordinary desires in life, like wealth, status, and power, are eventually meaningless with the consideration of death. When Ivan gets sick and becomes very fearful of death as his entire life is spent gaining power, wealth, and status, he is ashamed of his shallow priorities in his life. He can only be satisfied with death until he accepts it and reflects on his wrong way of life. Right Before he dies, he finds himself emotionally worried about his wife and son. This is the realization for Ivan that caring for his family is what truly makes him satisfied in his life while his material accumulation will only be left behind when he dies. Often, people ignore death and put it aside by refusing the truth of morality. As Ivan faces suffering and mortality, he realizes that by rejecting death he only deceives himself. All the characters in the story besides Gerasim, refuse to accept the fact of death. From the beginning, Pyotr Ivanovich finds the thought of death like Ivan’s would be frightening as if he never considered death. Also, Ivan’s wife Praskovya blames the worsening of Ivan's sickness on him by responding to the doctor with, “He just doesn’t listen. He doesn’t take his medicine when he should. And above all he lies in a position that has to be bad for him with his legs up” (799). Clearly, Tolstoy is pointing out the denial of death that these characters have that also exists among real people given that this is a realist story. With Ivan’s greedy desire for power, status, and happiness, he realizes how his life only gets worse as he pursues what he thinks he wants including wealth, status, and possessions. Tolstoy portrays Ivan as someone that has everything he wants according to his class. What he is trying to point out in this story is that status or possessions can not satisfy someone when they die. Even after Ivan gets his promotion and pleases his wife, it is only a short amount of time until he goes back to his life of misery. The story is a new perspective on death being that death is a normal part of life. The character Gerasim maintains that death is something that happens to everyone and says that it is God’s will (774). This is Tolstoy’s view of accepting death as normal by having less desire for material wealth. When Ivan reflects on his life before he dies, he realizes that he has never had a happy time in his life since his childhood memories. Right before he dies, when he worries and cares about his wife and son, it gives him joy at the fact that for that moment he is caring for his family instead of just himself. Tolstoy is trying to show readers of his Altruism views and against Materialism because material achievements can not produce satisfaction in the reflection of one’s life. An evident theme within the novella is the correlation to misery in his pursuit to follow the things of the upper-middle class. Tolstoy’s claim in the novella that “Ivan Ilyich’s past life had been very simple and ordinary and very awful” (775) is a belief that being ordinary is somehow a bad thing. In Ivan’s ordinary life, he is only focusing on reflecting the upper class. Because of this, he never pursued happiness which caused him to never have any happiness after his childhood. I believe that the author is defining ordinary as having and seeking things of success and status. I think that Tolstoy would argue that material things cannot produce happiness because they will simply become useless when facing death as Ivan did.

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