Alienation and the City in the Death of Ivan Ilyich

Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy. Specifically it will contain an analysis of alienation and the city in the short novella. Most people think Tolstoy is analyzing life and death in this story, but there are references to other aspects of society, as well. Tolstoy’s use of symbolism in the story indicates how alienated Ivan really is from the world, and how alienated bourgeois society is from each other.

From the very opening of this short story, Tolstoy uses imagery to convey the idea of alienation and isolation. He uses the image of a stark coffin-lid, standing alone in an entryway, to give the reader a feeling of how isolated and alone Ivan was throughout his life. He writes, “Leaning against the wall in the hall downstairs near the cloak-stand was a coffin-lid covered with cloth of gold, ornamented with gold cord and tassels, that had been polished up with metal powder” (Tolstoy 365). This lonely symbol illustrates how disconnected all the characters are from each other, and how alienated they are from the real world. Even in death, they are cold, calculating, and selfish, thinking only about their own needs and wants, rather than the life of the man who has just died. This indicates Tolstoy’s dim view of society, especially the bourgeois, and it shows how he felt people alienate themselves from each other.

Throughout his life, Ivan alienates and distances himself from anything unpleasant. Tolstoy illustrates this when he shows how Ivan attempts to “escape” his wife during her pregnancy. He writes, “At first Ivan Ilych hoped to escape from the unpleasantness of this state of affairs by the same easy and decorous relation to life that had served him heretofore: he tried to ignore his wife’s disagreeable moods” (Tolstoy 376). He wants everything to be “pleasant” and “right” in his world, and cannot deal with discord or any kind of negativity. He has an unusual view of the world, and because of it, he cannot relate to anyone but himself. He is selfish and self-adsorbed, and that is Tolstoy’s point. Later Tolstoy writes about playing bridge, his favorite activity, “He acknowledged that whatever disagreeable incident happened in his life, the pleasure that beamed like a ray of light above everything else was to sit down to bridge with good players” (Tolstoy 384-385). Again, when something unpleasant happens, he does not deal with it, he simply alienates himself from it. All of his friends are the same say, judging from their reaction to his death. They think, “Each one thought or felt, ‘Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!’ But the more intimate of Ivan Ilych’s acquaintances, his so-called friends, could not help thinking also that they would now have to fulfill the very tiresome demands of propriety by attending the funeral service and paying a visit of condolence to the widow” (Tolstoy 363-364). No one seems to really care about Ivan’s death, another clue to their total alienation from one another.

Tolstoy pits the bourgeois of the city against the peasants of the country, and again, the bourgeois show themselves to be selfish and self-adsorbed, while the peasants are shown as more caring and human. For example, the peasant boy Gerasim is the only person who really seems to care about Ivan at the end of his life. Ivan’s wife is only concerned with money, his friends are only concerned about their own ambitions, but Gerasim really seems to care about Ivan and his impending death. He writes, “Gerasim was a clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright. At first the sight of him, in his clean Russian peasant costume, engaged on that disgusting task embarrassed Ivan Ilych” (Tolstoy 399). Gerasim, raised in the country, is the complete opposite of city dweller Ivan. He is healthy, hearty, unafraid of death, and completely content with his life.

Gerasim, beneath notice for all of Ivan’s bourgeois friends, is one of the kindest people in the story, and Ivan begins to realize it. He continues, “Gerasim smiled again and turned to leave the room. But Ivan Ilych felt his presence such a comfort that he did not want to let him go” (Tolstoy 400). The values of the city and country dweller are different, Tolstoy seems to be saying, and the values of this country peasant are far higher and nobler than the wealthy city dwellers who surround Ivan.

Another illustration of Tolstoy’s view of the city and city society at the time is the emptiness of their lives. He writes, “Ivan Ilych’s chief pleasure was giving little dinners to which he invited men and women of good social position, and just as his drawing-room resembled all other drawing-rooms so did his enjoyable little parties resemble all other such parties” (Tolstoy 384). Each person does exactly what is expected of them; there is no spontaneity or change in their society. They are like robots that follow the same prescribed activities that are socially accepted. They are not unique, and they are afraid to be unique. While they enjoy themselves in empty and meaningless activities, the peasants are struggling simply to survive, but that is none of Ivan’s or his friends concern.

Another symbol of his growing alienation from everyone is his move into a separate room. Tolstoy notes, “At eleven o’clock he said goodnight and went to his bedroom. Since his illness he had slept alone in a small room next to his study” (Tolstoy 394). Ivan is not the only character suffering from alienation in this story. His entire family is alienated from him, by his own doing. He distanced himself from them from the start, and has very little part in their daily lives. His wife is actually waiting for him to die, so she is just as alienated in her feelings for him as he is for her.

Ivan’s alienation continues with his thoughts about death and dying, which he keeps to himself. He is frightened and worried about his mortality, but he does not share these thoughts with his family, and he barely acknowledges them to himself. He is frightened and angry, and it would help if he could share these feelings openly with others, but instead, he keeps them inside, where they just fester and grow worse. Of course, the society that he keeps would not really be interested in his feelings, which is another way Tolstoy shows their alienation from one another. They say they are “friends,” but true friends do not treat each other that way.

In the end, Ivan alienates himself from everyone but his son and Gerasim. Tolstoy notes, “Only Gerasim recognized it and pitied him. And so Ivan Ilych felt at ease only with him. He felt comforted when Gerasim supported his legs (sometimes all night long)” (Tolstoy 402). Gerasim is selfless and kind, two things missing from Ivan’s life, and Ivan begins to realize his life has been pointless. Gerasim’s life, on the other hand, seems almost jolly and carefree. He is the one with all the worries according to society, but he is the happiest and most cheerful character in the book. Tolstoy uses him as an example of all that is wrong in Ivan’s society, and as a representation of the differences between city and country life in Russia at the time.

Ivan is suffering, and he wants his family’s pity, but because he has alienated them, they are simply impatient with him. Only his son seems to understand how he feels. Tolstoy says, “His son had always seemed pathetic to him, and now it was dreadful to see the boy’s frightened look of pity. It seemed to Ivan Ilych that Vasya was the only one besides Gerasim who understood and pitied him” (Tolstoy 408). That is a sad testament to life, and Ivan comes to recognize that. By alienating himself and living “pleasantly,” his life really amounted to nothing, and by distancing himself from those around him, when he needs support and understanding, there is no one to fall back on, not even his family.

As Ivan faces his own mortality, he begins to recognize that he cannot escape death, no one can. Sadly, because he has led just a life of creating distance, there is no one to care that he is dying now, at least no one that he has spent his life with or remotely cared about. Tolstoy states, “Now before his eyes there was only a kidney or an intestine that temporarily evaded its duty, and now only that incomprehensible and dreadful death from which it was impossible to escape” (Tolstoy 412). Death then, is the final, ultimate alienation, and Ivan is beginning to recognize that. The lives of those around him will go on, simply without Ivan, and there seems to be little real grief in that realization. Ivan has spent his life alienating himself from everyone and everything unpleasant, and now, he is facing never-ending alienation for eternity.

The city is an underlying element of the story, because as Ivan lies dying, he realizes he is in the middle of a populous city, and yet no one, not even his acquaintances, care about him and his death. The city is full of callous people; the author seems to be saying, all alienated from each other because of their busy, empty lifestyles. The only loyal character in this story is the peasant who takes care of Ivan; in direct contrast to all the people Ivan has chosen to surround himself with throughout his life. Therefore, in simple terms, the city is evil and breeds evil characters, while the country is good and breeds moral characters.

Another aspect of alienation Tolstoy address in the story, and that has a large affect on Ivan’s character, is his alienation from the church. His wife has to beg him to take communion, so obviously he has not been regularly attending church. He is spiritually empty, which may be one reason his life has been so empty. The author states, “When the priest came and heard his confession, Ivan Ilych was softened and seemed to feel a relief from his doubts and consequently from his sufferings, and for a moment there came a ray of hope” (Tolstoy 416). Ivan has alienated himself from spirituality, and so, deep inside, he is empty and lacking a proper soul. That is why he can find no comfort in his life. He has given very little comfort to those around him, so he cannot find any for himself when he needs it.

This is really a tragic story, not because Ivan inevitably dies in the end, but because of what it says about life. Ivan comes to understand that his life has been empty and meaningless, and that he cannot even recall many truly pleasurable experiences. His habit of avoiding anything unpleasant has led to an incredibly dull and meaningless life for himself and his family. Tolstoy is writing in an attempt to get people to recognize this emptiness in their own lives before it is too late. Alienation from those closest to you is merely selfish and self-serving, and Ivan was certainly both of those. He was a member of bourgeois society in a large city, and it was an empty and meaningless existence for everyone. His friends all behaved the same way, so it was the way society was “supposed” to be, but Tolstoy shows just how hollow this way of life can be, and how society really does not care about each other at all. The only bright spot was Gerasim, a peasant from another social class, who was kind, caring, and loyal. Tolstoy’s point is that Ivan chose his friends unwisely, he would have had a much better life had he moved in social circles where people actually cared about each other and each other’s welfare. In the city, people could afford to be detached and aloof, while in the country, people had to depend on each other, often for survival, and so they developed a healthier set of morals and ideals to see them through their lives.

In conclusion, Ivan’s life was so tragic because he went through most of it uninvolved with anyone but himself. He tried to live “pleasantly” at all costs, and he ran away from anything unpleasant or challenging. In the end, this alienation gave him a life that meant nothing. His family did not really care about him, his friends abandoned him, and he ended up solitary, lonely, and depressed during his final days. What was most depressing is that he recognized his life had been meaningless, and that was the worst moment, even worse than his fear of death and dying. Alienation may have been “pleasant,” but it created a terrible life.


Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” In The Oxford Library of Short Novels, ed. John Wain. Vol. 2. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

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