Ivan Ilych, from Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych, is “the most simple and most ordinary” (Tolstoy 2441) person. Although a simple life is generally considered a virtue, Ivan’s life is simple in the wrong way. Ivan led a self-centered, materialistic, and shallow life, with little care for genuine human relationships. He conformed to the values and expectations set by his social superiors. He chose his friends based on their social standing. Ivan’s life is barren of individuality and true relationships. In another way, Ivan is a robot. Due to this “ordinary” nature of Ivan’s life, Ivan becomes ill and dies. Ivan’s course to death is a long and agonizing one. In his last three days, Ivan screams day and night. He knows that death is imminent, yet he has not resolved his questions and doubts about how fulfilling his life was. In his last moments, Ivan finally realizes that blinded by the expectations of the society, he had been racing opposite of the intended direction. All he ever lived for was falseness and deception.
Climbing up the ladder of social position has not led to joy, fulfillment, and a pleasant life, but to misery, emptiness, and death. Throughout Ivan’s life, he has isolated himself from genuine human relationships, whether by plunging himself into his work, playing a game of bridge, or finding other escapes from life’s unpleasantness. It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself… There was nothing to defend (Tolstoy 2473).
With this realization came a “sensation of grinding and shooting pain and a feeling of suffocation” (Tolstoy 2474), which is what precipitated Ivan’s three days of nonstop screaming. Once again, “some force struck [Ivan] in the chest and side” (Tolstoy 2475), and he struggles through a black sack and into a bright light. The moment Ivan falls through the black sack and into the bright light, the questions and doubts that have been haunting Ivan since the beginning of his illness becomes fully resolved. Ivan realizes that even though his life is not what he intended for it to be, it can still be corrected. Ivan asks himself, “What is the right thing?” He feels pity for his son and his wife. With this awakening and spiritual rebirth, Ivan is freed from death and excruciating spiritual suffering – which led to his three days of screaming – is over.