The Death of Ivan Illych

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Ivan Ilyich Golovin, a high court judge in St. Petersburg with a wife and family, lives a carefree life that is "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." Like everyone he is aware of, he lives a life spent almost entirely in climbing the social ladder, and his life begins to amass more hypocrisy as it goes on. Enduring life with a wife whom he often finds too demanding, he works his way up to be a magistrate owing to the influence he has over a friend who has just been promoted, focusing more and more on his work as family life becomes more miserable.

While hanging curtains for his new home one day, Ivan Ilyich fell awkwardly and hurt his side. Though he did not think much of it at first, he begins to suffer from a pain in his side. As Ilyich's discomfort increases, his behavior towards his family becomes more irritable. His wife finally insists that he visit a physician. The physician cannot pinpoint the source of his malady, but soon it becomes clear that his condition is terminal. He is brought face to face with his mortality, and realizes that although he knows of it, he does not truly grasp it.

During the long and painful process of death, Ivan dwells on the idea that he does not deserve his suffering because he has lived rightly. If he had not lived a good life, there could be reason for his pain; but he has, so pain and death must be arbitrary and senseless. As he begins to hate his family for avoiding the subject of his death, for pretending he is only sick and not dying, he finds his only comfort in his peasant boy servant Gerasim--the only person in Ivan’s life who does not fear death, and also the only one--apart from his son--who shows compassion for Ivan. Ivan begins to question whether he has, in fact, lived rightly.

In the final days of Ivan’s life, he makes a clear split between artificial life, the life of himself and his family that masks the true meaning of life and makes one fear death, and authentic life, the life of Gerasim. Authentic life is marked by compassion and empathy, artificial by self-interest. Then “some force” strikes Ivan in the chest and side, and he is brought into the presence of a bright light. His hand falls onto his nearby son’s head, and he pities him. He no longer hates his son or wife, but rather feels sorry for them, because he has found at last a joy in authentic life and they will continue their artificial lives, fearing death. In the middle of a sigh, Ivan dies.