" There may be some of Tolstoy's own poisoned marriage described in these passages here between Ivan and Prokovya. She decided at a certain point in her husband's illness, the attitude she would take to it: "that is was his own fault and was another of the annoyances he caused her." Her selfishness is made very repugnant to the reader. At one point she is depicted going out to enjoy the opera, as her husband wastes away at home. There is a falseness to the marriage, and a void or gulf between the married couple, which will not be rectified in the story: in the end Ivan merely learns to "pity her."
Vasya is Ivan's young "school-boy" son. He appears very little in the story, but plays a very important role in Ivan's struggles. During his final agonizing fits, it is his son that seems to provide a bridge between life and death, light and darkness, pain and love. His son catches his father's flaying hand, holds it and kisses it, and cries. Tolstoy writes that "at that very moment Ivan Ilych fell through (the black sack) and caught sight of the light, and it was revealed to him that though his life had not been what it should have been, this could still be rectified."
Both the stories of Bal Shem Tov and the biblical tale of Elisha in Damascus offer a perspective to interpret the spiritual journey that Ivan Ilych undertakes. We learn that in order to achieve a "good" end, we must go through a harrowing experience. The Israelites will be set on the right path only after much pain and suffering has been endured. And so it is with Ivan Ilych. To achieve his final "enlightenment" he must go through a baptism of fire. He must, just as Rabbi Zusya did, lay himself bare to feel the total power and terror of his God. And ironically it is in this "total surrender" to "His Will," that a true "freedom" is achieved. Elimelech must also learn, after he wonders how his God can remain silent in the face of atrocities, that what on the surface may appear to be evil is actually (through God's plan) a mercy.
What is also interesting about this story by Tolstoy is how well it fits the stages of death as laid out by Kubler-Ross in her book "On Death and Dying." She claims that most dying patients go through certain phases in their death journeys. They are in order: Denial and Isolation, Anger (anger at God "Why me?"), Bargaining, Depression, and finally, Acceptance. Ivan Ilych goes through each of these steps on his way to his final "enlightenment." He realizes the emptiness of his former pursuits (cards, home decorating, lusts of the body) and finally renounces the flesh, and lets go of his body. The narrator says that "what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides." He sees that ironically it was the body that was "death" and "darkness" and by letting it go, he was embracing something much larger than his world of petty cares and fears: "There was no fear because there was no death. In place of death there was light ....Death is finished ... It is no more!" It is interesting (and ironic) that it was a "fall" downwards off the ladder (during a frivolous decorating pursuit, hanging draperies: a symbol of darkness, or of light covered) that starts Ivan Ilych's spiritual journey upwards…