The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy is not an enjoyable story to read. The novella, however, does contain a powerful message. It is a message of sin, repentance, and forgiveness. A theme that every Christian is familiar with.
Tolstoy's narrative opens with the observation that “Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (102). His middle-class existence is not just terribly plain and boring in its outward forms but, more significantly, terrible in its spiritual dullness and oblivion. Ivan Ilych, a middle-aged man with a high paying government job, a wife and two children is incredibly selfish and thinks of no one but himself. What makes the story even more depressing is that every other character is utterly selfish. (With the possible exception of the young man Gerasim who tends Ivan when he gets sick. But even Gerasim the peasant servant has a cold and dutiful pity as if he is above the troubles of others and can therefore consent to look down upon their affliction.)
Ivan Ilych develops an illness that he is unwilling in his pride of life to admit has control over him. As his pain worsens, however, the life-threatening nature of the sickness becomes impossible to deny. His response to approaching death is to accost God angrily. To Ivan's surprise, immediately he hears an inward voice that asks him what he wants (143). “Why, to live as I used to—well and pleasantly” (144). But with the reply Ivan begins to realize that his life had not been well and pleasant. Of course, he always had the luxuries of money and a fashionable wife but... He sees that the only really pleasant times in his life were far back in childhood on the verge of memory (144). He had made his own life into a miserable and terrible thing.
Ivan is coming around to the fact that his life is empty of all but the sins that he has contentedly filled his life with. Only two hours before his death does he grasp that he could have lived better. More importantly, he understands there is still time to treat others better. When his wife and son come into his room he attempts to speak in his weakness and ask forgiveness. He is unable to speak but he rests content, “knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand” (152).
In this novella of Leo Tolstoy's, with all its unpleasant characterization of a lone man's life, can be seen the universal need of all men. Ivan Ilych is a sinner condemned to death for his fruitlessness, but who recognizes this, repents, and is snatched from a spiritual death.
“'it is finished!' said someone near him.
He heard these words and repeated them in his soul.
'death is finished,'he said to himself. 'it is no more!'” (152)
Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories. Trans. Alymer Maude and J.D. Duff. New York, Signet Classics-Penguin Putnam Inc. 2003