In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Leo Tolstoy allows us to see a man who has wasted his life and was incapable of imagining his own death. This work makes it clear that the way we lives our lives is important if we are to hold any hope for the life beyond. The Death of Ivan Ilyich is also an attack on the smug satisfaction of a middle class population, who live artificial lives.
The novella begins a few moments after Ivan Ilyich dies. A number of people have gathered to mark his passing: judges, family members and acquaintances. However, these people cannot understand death, because they cannot really believe that they will ever die. They only praise God that the dying men is not him, and then start considering how his death might be to their advantage them in terms of money or position.
The novella then takes us back thirty years. We see Ivan in the prime of his life. He is the middle child and lives a life of studied mediocrity. He studies law and becomes a judge. Along the way, he completely expels all personal emotions from his life. He does his work objectively and coldly. He becomes a strict disciplinarian and father figure (that the Russian head of the household ought to be).
He is also a jealous and pole-climbing sort of man. He is intensely happy when he gets a job in the city, where he can buy and decorate a large house. While decorating, he falls and hits his side. Although he does not know it at the time, this injury will facilitate the illness that eventually kills him. He becomes bad tempered and bitter--he refuses to come to terms with his own death. Through his final illness, Gerasim (a peasant)stays beside the his bed and becomes his friend and confidant.
He agonizes over this, unable to break away from his belief that the kind of man he became was the kind of man he should have been. Then he sees a bright, white light. He begins to feel sorry for all those around him, realizing that they are still too involved in the life that he has left to understand that it is artificial and ephemeral. He dies in a moment of exquisite happiness.
A number of themes come up through the novella. The first is the importance of living a good life, and what that might involve. Tolstoy believed that the simpler a man lived, the better his life would be. That is the reason he often incorporated peasants into his novel. He suggests that the peasant way of living made them closer to God.
With The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy also makes a quite stringent attack on the hypocritical morals and pointless lives of the upper-middle classes. As Ivan dies, his family and friends are consumed with greed and thoughts of personal gain--not because they are naturally evil or wrong, but because they cannot understand what Ivan came to see. They don't understand that the ups-and-downs are nothing compared to the power of the soul and of God.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is fervent in its idealism, and also very human. The novella is as intimate and caring as some of Tolstoy's other works were epic. Philosophical and ferociously intelligent, the great Russian writer brings his considerable talent to one of the most important moments in a man's life--his passing away from it.