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An Examination of Religious Ambivalence in The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy Essay

Updated on May 8, 2013
Leo Tolstoy
Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy's Work

Leo Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich in 1886 shortly after his religious enlightenment. Tolstoy struggled with religion and was an atheist for many years. This was also during the time of the Tsar Alexander III’s reign over Russia. The novel begins at the end, the death of Ivan Ilyich. The rest of the novel tells, in chronological order, the events that led up to his eventual death. Tolstoy’s own religious values and struggle shine through in the characters of Gerasim, Ivan, and Ivan’s wife Praskovya.

Gerasim and Peasantry

Gerasim is Ivan’s sick nurse and comes from a humble background. Gerasim represents the peasantry in Russia. He is simple yet understanding. He is also faithful regardless of the unpleasantness of Ivan’s death. The working class in Russia was one of faith and humility. This is something that Tolstoy admired that is evident in his following of the philosophy of Jean Jacques Rousseau who was a philosopher and believer of asceticism (Taylor 300). This love for the peasantry is very clear in the novel as Gerasim, the peasant, is the only person that Ivan can take solace in having around while he is dying.

This caring for the sick mentality is a product of religion for the peasants. The class systems are obliterated in the eyes of religion. Everyone is equal in God’s eyes. Therefor Gerasim has no problem helping take care of someone who is above his own class because to him all men are equal. Gerasim also has no qualms with death. This is because of his strong faith in God. After Ivan’s death after Peter Ivanovich mentions that Ivan’s death is sad, Gerasim replies, "It's God’s will. We shall all come to it someday," (Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan 8). This understanding from the beginning is an understanding that Ivan didn’t have until the very end. It is the grace of God that redeems the soul and pleasure can only be found through the understanding of the spirit and not through the material, which everyone is focused on but Gerasim.

In a Peasants House by I. Kulikov
In a Peasants House by I. Kulikov

The Black Sack Metaphor

One major metaphor in the work is the black sack and Ivan’s struggle with the meaning of existence. The black sack seems to symbolize his life and understanding of how he spent it. When Ivan dreams of the black sack, he is unable to reach the bottom. He suffers while he dreams and wants to fall through the sack, even though he was frightened (Tolstoy, “The Death of Ivan” 46). In Tolstoy’s A Confession when he is pondering whether or not there are falsehoods in his religious beliefs he has a dream. In his dream he is lying on a bed on his back. He slips from the bed and is dangling above a black abyss and under an infinite space. He is saved by looking up into the infinite and into the light and removes the fear of the abyss (“A Confession” 47-49). With both of these examples he seems to be making a point of heaven and hell. When he is dangling between the abyss and the infinite, he removes his fear by looking to the infinite or heaven. When Ivan finally has his epiphany he is thrust out of the sack and into the light. He has clarity through faith. He forgives his family and even feels bad for putting them through so much. He piously takes pity on them, even though he is the dying man. He is only able to do this because he has given up on the material world and recognizes his soul’s well-being and salvation of his soul are more important than the longevity of his life.

The Struggle for Ivan Ilyich

The interactions between Praskovya and Ivan are representative of the discord between the faith seeking and the material focused. While Ivan struggles with death, Praskovya annoys him constantly. Even before he gets sick, his wife is constantly more concerned about the material things in their life, such as shopping or going to plays, than spending time together and enjoying life enriching their souls. When he was dying both his wife and his daughter, “were annoyed that he was so depressed and so exacting, as if he were to blame for it.” (Tolstoy “The Death of Ivan” 27). This contrast between them demonstrates how the search for meaning in the spiritual may be seen by others as annoying who don’t see the point of it and only focus on the material, as represented by Praskovya and his daughter.

In the final hours of Ivan’s life he is rewarded with the fact that when he passes, life will be better for his family because they won’t have to deal with his suffering. When he tried to make amends with his family and ask for forgiveness he misspoke but recognized that “He whose understanding mattered would understand.” (Tolstoy “The Death of Ivan” 55). This religious epiphany towards the end suggests that he found his faith and his spirit before his death. When he is waiting for death he recognizes that death is no longer scary to somebody who has made amends in his life and has a clean spirit. Instead of darkness such as the black bag or the abyss he finds light, symbolic of heaven. Ivan is pleased with the light and then dies. This almost mirrors Tolstoy’s own religious awakening except instead of finding his own awakening through dreams, Ivan could only find it through the process of death.

Other Hubs in this Series

This hub is one of a series of hubs on Religion and Atheism in 19th and 20th century Russia and Russian Literature. Please visit the other hubs in this series:

Atheism and Religion in 19th and 20th Century Russia

Religious ambivalence in One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich by Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Religious ambivalence in Babi Yar: A Document in the Form of a Novel by Anatoli Kuznetsov

Works Cited

Taylor, Susan. "The Gerasim Model of Caregiving: Reflections on Tolstoy’s Novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich." Death Studies. (1997): 299-304. Print.

Tolstoy, Leo. "A Confession." A Confession. A Confession by Leo Tolstoy:. The Literature Network. Web. 30 Mar. 2013. <>.

Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Bantam Dell, 2012. Print.


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