What It Means to be Human

Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”


Community. Language. Love. All are easily recognizable and essential elements of human civilization. However, how authors addressed these three issues morphed over time. Pre-modern authors tended to focus on the big picture: man’s relation to the supernatural, vast heroic adventures, morality, the Fall, and war.

In contrast, modern authors were increasingly concerned with what it meant to be human rather than with humanity’s cosmic purpose or the pursuit of the good life. They wanted to know what made man ‘man.’ It was a focus on the individual, the businessman in his fancy suit, the clerk at the local drugstore, the woman at home, the servant. The great Russian novelist, Leo Tolstoy, was an author in the transition period between premodern and modern, but his notable work, “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” focuses on the individual. A central question running through this work is why communication is essential for relationships and human interaction.

Before you continue… 

If you are not familiar with the story, click on the following links for a summary of the tale and a PDF translation (not the exact one cited in this post): 

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Communication, Relationships, and a Meaningful Life

In “Ivan Ilyich,” Tolstoy highlights the importance of communication and relationships to human beings as vital to a meaningful life, a deterrent from modernity, and a way of discovering truth. It matters whether or not Ivan Ilyich makes genuine friends because real relationships are necessary for human happiness and satisfaction. Love is a basic need of humanity.

Amidst a setting of incredibly shallow, materialistic individuals, Gerasim, a servant, and Vladimir, Ivan’s son, shine forth as brilliant examples of tender compassion. These two characters demonstrate deeper emotions than the others and are the only people able to show pity and kindness to Ivan Ilych in his last days, a time in which Ivan struggles with life’s deception. His entire life has been a process to make him a “man of today,” to whom all joys have been “melted away before his eyes and [been] changed into something worthless and vile” (1475).

Before Gerasim, Ivan does not genuinely communicate with his friends, family, or colleagues, but puts on a show of inference. Through Gerasim, Ivan renews contact with another human being. He reverses the lifelong process of self-enclosure that has characterized his behavior. During the times between prolonged sufferings, Ivan wants badly, though ashamedly, someone to pity him as a sick child. He “wanted them to caress him, to kiss him, to cry over him as one caresses and comforts children” (68).

Due to Gerasim’s loving devotion, Ivan becomes capable of extending compassion to his wife and son. Vladimir steals into the sickroom—everyone else avoids it—and presses his father’s hand to his lips, weeping, in hopes of relieving the dying man who is “crying out despairingly and waving his arms” (78). Gerasim and Vladimir love the sick man, and through this experience, he realizes that love is what he must return. Tolstoy seems to urge the reader to this realization, that he too may discover the beauty found in being loved and loving before it is too late. As he told his daughter, “The more a man loves, the more real he becomes” (Frattarola).

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Communication, Relationships, and Modernity

Relationships and communication are crucial to Tolstoy as obstacles to materialism, selfishness, isolation, and deception. At the beginning of the tale, the reader learns that Ivan’s friends are not truly his friends, and they all think of his death regarding promotions, money, and obligations. The actual impact of their colleague’s death evokes “a complacent feeling that it was ‘he who had died, not I’” (1442).

Tolstoy terms these men “the so-called friends of Ivan Ilyich” (42). They consider his death a burden, as they must fulfill “tedious requirements of etiquette and go to the requiem service and pay a visit of condolence to the widow” (42). Even Pyotr Ivanovich, Ivan’s closest and longest friend, feels it an obligation to honor the dead. When inside Ivan’s home for the wake, Schwarz and Pyotr are more concerned with “where they should play vint today” than with honoring the deceased (42). Tolstoy implies, however, that if these men had had real friendships, they would gladly attend the funeral, as love destroys self-interest and materialism.

Love also annihilates loneliness and deception. Tolstoy reveals that relationships break class barriers and unjust social standards, helping people to confront the deeper issues of life, particularly death. When Gerasim shows Ivan unconditional love, an experience entirely new to the dying man, Ivan reacts with both gratitude and hatred. At first, Ivan is embarrassed that Gerasim has to perform the repulsive job of tending to a sick man. Ivan faces inevitable death, which isolates him from most, but Gerasim, who has “the joy in living shining out from his face,” also understands that “We’ll all die” one day, and so sympathizes with Ivan (66, 68).

Because of this pity, Ivan longs for Gerasim’s company. Whereas in all other people Ivan “was offended by health, strength, high spirits,” Gerasim’s “strength and high spirits” offer him serenity, a refuge from the constant lie that he is only ill not dying (67). It is this lie “all around him and inside him” which poisons his last days “more than anything” (68); an honest servant brings him hard truth, death brings him community, and Ivan finds peace.

Ultimately, genuine relationships serve to take one out of oneself and to destroy isolation, instead encouraging love and community. Relationships matter because they make one human.

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Failure to Communicate

Despite the significance of relationships, given humanity’s fallen nature, perversion taints all interactions. Thus, we now turn to the question of what happens when we fail to communicate or cannot communicate. Ivan experiences great difficulty in relating to others. However, is this inability due to a fault of his own, or to society and others? Tolstoy suggests that both modernity and Ivan’s actions impact his subsequent isolation. He mercilessly satirizes the falseness of relations, the insincerity of interaction, and the primacy of self-interest.

First, Ivan Ilyich lives as the Everyman, representing the average modern aristocrat, entirely selfish, materialistic, and superficial. Ivan embodies the modern paradox between individuality and corporate identity; he wants to be his own man but also covets the approval of those in higher classes. Ivan is the second-born son of an aristocratic family, and “le phénix de la famille” (1447). He receives good marks in Law School, becoming a “capable, cheerful, good-natured and sociable man,” but he only does his duty, which he considers “to be everything that it was considered to be by his superiors” (1447).

This paradox between being unique and following cultural patterns appears in the very décor of Ivan’s apartment. In reality, the drawing room is like those of “all people who are not so rich but want to be like the rich and so are only like one another” (1454). Despite this commonality, the house “looked somehow special” to Ivan (1454). Significantly, Ivan’s worship of decorum and public approval eliminate the ability to experience intimate relationships. At work, he learns “to exclude anything raw and vital,” for it would destroy the formal nature of the job (1455). One could not permit “any human relationships, except official ones; the occasion for a relationship had to be solely official and so had the relationship itself” (1455).

Even in marriage, Ivan prizes decorum, wedding Praskovya Fryodorovna because society deems matrimony ‘appropriate.’ Ivan is callously treated after his death because he treats others callously. Angela Frattarola notes that it is not until his last days that Ivan consider his life with an urgency which “colors every conscious minute due to the proximity of death.” His consistent pursuit of selfish career advancement at the expense of human relationships is not only unfulfilling but “very awful” (1446).

Modernity Destroys Relationships

The superficiality of modernity also destroys meaningful relationships for Ivan. Throughout the novel, Tolstoy uses the words ‘pleasant,’ ‘proper,’ and ‘decorous’ to refer to the accepted norms of social life. Ivan’s extreme concern with propriety and decorum indicates that he lives the artificial rather than the authentic life. He prioritizes external appearance instead of internal substance, the appearance of truth rather than actual truth. The shallowness of Ivan, his colleagues, and wife are haunting; their superficiality and mundane worries absorb them, choking out honesty and denying community.

In fact, the modern man views relationships as burdens: investing in friendships would hamper one’s ability to easily severe ties, as loving opens one up to pain and suffering. Thus, Ivan closes his heart to human connection to assure a comfortable, pleasant life. Initially, he believes that marriage will “not destroy the character of an easy, pleasant, cheerful life,” but will enhance such a life (1450). However, after his wife’s first pregnancy and her subsequent temperament change, Ivan becomes horrified and believes that marriage will destroy his pleasant and decorous life.

Since “it was essential to protect himself from this destruction,” Ivan ignores his family (1450). He fences in a world for himself outside of the family, moving the “gravity of his life more and more into his official work” and requiring of family life convenience and “that decorum of external appearances which were defined by public opinion” (1451). The sporadic tender moments of love and relationships are islands in a “sea of hidden animosity” which expresses itself in alienation (1451).

For Ivan, the important thing is his official work, for “all the interest of life was concentrated in that official world. And this interest absorbed him” (1451). In the end, though, all of the artificiality and pleasantness of modernity culminates in a lie, an effort of others to deceive Ivan regarding his illness. They invent a deception to “bring down this terrible solemn act of his death to the level of all their visits and curtains and sturgeon for dinner,” inflicting horrible pain on Ivan (1467). The decorum he served in life degrades the significance of death.

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Modernity Leads to Isolation

“The Death of Ivan Ilyich” uncovers the ugly consequences of modernity; namely, the destruction of meaningful human relationships and the isolation of the individual. Ivan becomes adept at establishing barriers and closing himself off from the unseemly and indecorous qualities of life, as he reduces potentially emotional and personal situations to cold externals. With his professional life strictly professional, and his personal life far from personal, one begins to wonder which of Ivan ever genuinely lives.

By closing himself off from everything, Ivan closes himself off from life. Especially during his illness, Ivan finds himself in a profound loneliness “which could not be more absolute anywhere, either at the bottom of the sea or underneath the earth” (1474). Only when he recognizes the evils of his life and opens his heart that Ivan speaks the one word that has thus far evaded him: joy. The lesson is that “a day should be spent wisely and sincerely, being honest with oneself and those with whom one comes in contact” (Felps). Ultimately, the man who chooses not to concern himself with the opinions of high society, who disregards the pleasant and decorous for the real, the true, and the genuine is the man who genuinely lives.

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Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” in exploring communication and relationships, concludes that community, love, and language are vital elements of what it means to be human and to live a meaningful life. The story’s emphasis on the individual is characteristic of modernist works, but such a focus does not diminish their findings but serves to personal their conclusions. Try as we might, we cannot control the circumstances under which we are born, and in this life, we cannot control other people’s actions. We order our lives in a fashion we are pleased with, but the people around us interfere, and they affect our plans and progress in life. Our response should not be conformity, selfishness, fear, hatred, to any other capitulation to the sinful inclinations of man and society; instead, we must strive to love and serve others, investing in our family, friends, and community.

Works Cited

Felps, Maryann. “How to Live? What We Can Learn from Ivan Ilych’s Death.” The English Journal 102.1 (2012): 52-56. JSTOR. National Council of Teachers of English. Web. 15 Mar. 2017.

Frattarola, Angela. “An Overview of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych.” Gale Online Encyclopedia, Gale, 2017. Literature Resource Center. Web. 8 Apr. 2017.

Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” Trans. Peter Carson. The Norton Anthology of Western Literature. Ed. Martin Puchner. 9th ed. Vol. 2. New York: W.W. Norton, 2014. 1441-479. Print.

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