"Easily, Pleasantly, and Decorously": Psychological Defenses and Cognitive Distortions of Tolstoy's Ilych

by Michelle C. Conan

June 8, 2013


Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilych is used to compare psychological defense mechanisms with cognitive distortions. The main character, Mr. Ilych, displays narcissistic personality traits throughout his life and in his confrontation with death from an unknown illness. Faced with his own mortality, he suffers what can be viewed as either a narcissistic injury (from a psychodynamic perspective) or a narcissistic insult (from a cognitive perspective) to which he responds through the use of the narcissist’s characteristic defense mechanisms or cognitive distortions, respectively. Both conceptualizations, which are functionally similar but conceptually different, account for Mr. Ilych’s life trajectory.


“Easily, Pleasantly, and Decorously”: Psychological Defenses and Cognitive Distortions of Tolstoy’s Ilych

Michelle C. Conan, Joe Enright, and Kayla Truswell

University of Saskatchewan




Author Note

Michelle C. Conan, Department of Psychology, University of Saskatchewan;

Joe Enright, Department of Psychology, University of Saskatchewan; Kayla Truswell, Department of Psychology, University of Saskatchewan.

            Correspondence concerning this article should be addressed to Michelle C. Conan, Department of Psychology, University of Saskatchewan, Saskatoon, SK S7N5A5.

Email: michelle.conan@usask.ca


“Easily, Pleasantly, and Decorously”: Psychological Defenses and Cognitive Distortions of Tolstoy’s Ilych

Leo Tolstoy is commonly considered one of the world’s greatest novelists. While he is best known for his novels War and Peace (1869/1978) and Anna Karenina (1877/1954), his novella The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886/2012) is one of his most successful later works. According to Kaufman (2011), The Death of Ivan Ilych has been widely studied and is one of the most read of Tolstoy’s works in American colleges, second only to Anna Karenina. Scholars have focused not only on literary analyses and interpretation (Freeman, 1997; Hustis, 2000; Olney, 1972; Pachmuss, 1961), but also on lessons of life and death for students and medical professionals (Charlton & Verghese, 2010; Charmaz, 1983; Felps, 2012). Less has been done to examine the novella from a psychological perspective (e.g., Feldman, 2004). The following conceptualizes evidence of Tolstoy’s depiction of Ilych’s narcissism from both the psychodynamic and cognitive perspectives, with a specific focus on defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions. First, the novella is summarized and narcissistic personality traits are defined and identified in Tolstoy’s portrayal of Ilych. Second, narcissistic defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions are explained. Third, Tolstoy’s representation of Ilych’s use of both defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions are presented together, allowing for comparison. Lastly, a conclusion is drawn regarding the two theories’ functionally similar but conceptually different conceptualizations as offered here.

The Story of Ivan Ilych

The Death of Ivan Ilych is based on the life and death of Ivan Ilych Golovin. The novella begins with the announcement of Ilych’s death and funeral, and then goes back to the beginning of his life. Ilych grew up to be a likeable man and, after finishing law school, spent his early career increasing both his social status and professional standing. He eventually became a magistrate and married Praskovya Fëdorovna Mikhel, although he did not really love her. Ilych’s life was happy and carefree until his wife became irritable during her first pregnancy. His dislike of her increased and he spent more time attending to his work. When Ilych was 40 years old he received a more prestigious position in Petersburg and subsequently took a great interest in the interior decorating of his family’s new home. One day while he was showing the upholsterer how he would like to arrange the curtains, he “made a false step and slipped [and] … knocked his side against the knob of the window frame” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 114). Over time, Ilych developed a “queer taste in his mouth and … discomfort on his left side” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 118), which resulted in “ill humour [and] … irritability” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 118). Consequently, his relationship with his wife deteriorated further.

Ilych visited several doctors, all of whom provided different diagnoses and none of whom would tell him the seriousness of his condition. Ilych’s pain worsened and when he was no longer able to work, he spent each day in bed. As he faced the possibility of his death, he realized that the only truly happy part of his life was his childhood. He wondered if his life had been meaningless, but rejected the idea because he had lived his life in accordance with society’s conventions. As Ilych came closer to death, his physical and mental agony was so great that he screamed for three days. On the last day, he accepted that his life had been a failure and experienced sadness over the suffering he caused his family. He realized that he could only end their suffering with his death and, with this thought, feared death no longer and died with joy. Prior to this realization and selfless last moments, Tolstoy’s portrayal of Ilych demonstrates several narcissistic personality traits throughout his life.


Personality Traits and Narcissism

In the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (4th edition, text revision, DSM-IV-TR, American Psychiatric Association, 2000), personality traits are defined as “enduring patterns of perceiving, relating to, and thinking about the environment and oneself that are exhibited in a wide range of social and personal contexts” (p. 686). Personality traits are “expressions of a proneness toward various sets of behaviors which, going beyond a cutoff point, become pathological manifestations” (Alarcón & Sarabia, 2012, p. 16). In the DSM-IV-TR (4th ed., text rev.; American Psychiatric Association, 2000), characteristics of personality, including traits and disorders, have been divided into categories, one of which is narcissism.

Excessive vanity and pride have been warned against throughout human history. In fact, the term narcissism was derived from the Greek god Narcissus, who fell in love with his own reflection (Ogrodniczuk, 2013). Havelock Ellis, a British psychologist, first used the term in a psychological sense in 1898 to describe self-love (Alarcón & Sarabia, 2012). Since then, narcissism has become a widely used term to describe personality traits and disorder (i.e., narcissistic personality disorder or NPD). More specifically, narcissistic personality traits and NPD are characterized by a grandiose sense of self-importance, a preoccupation with fantasies of success and power, the belief that one is unique and should associate with only high-status people, the need for excessive admiration, a sense of entitlement, interpersonal exploitation, a lack of empathy, arrogant behaviours and/or attitudes, and envy of others and/or thoughts that others are envious of one (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Narcissistic individuals also display vulnerability in self-esteem, which makes them sensitive to both criticism and defeat (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Their vulnerability is associated with coldness, social avoidance, and exploitability (Ogrodniczuk, 2013). Narcissistic individuals’ vulnerability may alternate with periods of grandiosity and dominance, vindictiveness, and intrusiveness (Ogrodniczuk, 2013). These attributes, in combination with their sense of entitlement, need for admiration, and lack of empathy tend to result in impaired interpersonal relations (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). As previously stated, some of these narcissistic traits and related vulnerability are evident in Tolstoy’s depiction of Ilych.

Tolstoy’s Illustration of Narcissism in The Death of Ivan Ilych

            Based on the conceptualization of narcissistic personality traits above, Tolstoy’s Ilych displays four such traits. First, Tolstoy portrays Ilych as preoccupied with the power he holds. For example, in his early career when police officials and some sectarians were dependent on him, he treated them politely in order to let “them feel that he who had the power to crush them was treating them in this simple, friendly way” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 105). Additionally, once he became an examining magistrate, he “felt that everyone without exception, even the most important and self-satisfied, was in his power” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 105). Therefore, Tolstoy’s depiction of Ilych demonstrates an obsession with power.

Second, Tolstoy describes Ilych as believing he is unique and should therefore associate with only high-status people. At the beginning of the novella, Tolstoy differentiates Ilych from his father and two brothers because he was the only family member to fulfill his duty as defined by those in authority. Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes of Ilych’s father: “Such was the Privy Councillor and superfluous member of various superfluous institutions, Ilya Epimovich Golovin” (p. 102). In describing the rest of Ilych’s family, Tolstoy (1886/2012) continues:

The eldest son was following in his father’s footsteps only in another department, and was already approaching that stage in the service at which a similar sinecure would be reached. The third son was a failure. He had ruined his prospects in a number of positions and was now serving in the railway department. … His sister had married Baron Greff, a Petersburg official of her father’s type. Ivan Ilych was le phénix de la famille as people said. He was neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them – an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man. (p. 102)

In addition to setting Ilych apart from his family in terms of career, Tolstoy also uses a French phrase to further differentiate Ilych, a technique he uses several times in the novella. Specifically, Tolstoy (1886/2012) describes Ilych using the French phrases “bon enfant” (p. 104; the good child) and “comme il faut … man” (p. 104; a proper man) later in the novella, which further distinguishes Ilych as special.

 Tolstoy continues to promote Ilych’s belief in his own uniqueness. Upon finishing law school, Tolstoy describes Ilych as wearing only the most fashionable clothing, eating at only the top restaurants, and going to only the best shops. Later, he married “the most attractive, clever, and brilliant girl” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 106). Furthermore, when he knocks himself against the knob of a window, he thinks to himself: “Another man might have been killed, but I only knocked myself” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 115). Additionally, both Ilych and his family spent time with only the best people in their social circles. Tolstoy (1886/2012) states that Ilych and his family “kept at arm’s length and shook off the various shabby friends and relations … and only the best people remained in the Golovins’ set” (p. 118). Tolstoy thus depicts Ilych as believing that he is unique and demonstrates his belief by having him associate with only high-status people.

Third, Tolstoy depicts Ilych as lacking empathy. Throughout his life, Tolstoy has Ilych focus on his own happiness and success, with little regard for others. When Ilych perceived his wife as becoming “irritable” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 108) during her first pregnancy, he withdraws from their family life and spends a greater amount of time doing his “official work” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 108). Additionally, Tolstoy describes Ilych’s hardest year, 1880, in terms of himself, even though he had previously lost three children and despised his wife. Of 1880, Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes:

It was then that it became evident on the one hand that his salary was insufficient for them to live on, and on the other that he had been forgotten, and not only this, but that what was for him the greatest and most cruel injustice appeared to others a quite ordinary occurrence. (p. 111)

Tolstoy also depicts Ilych as disregarding his wife’s and children’s feelings throughout his illness. While he is sick, he wishes to be left alone and does not notice that his family is also suffering due to his condition.

            Lastly, Tolstoy’s portrayal of Ilych includes a sense of entitlement. Ilych is represented as believing that his life should be easy, pleasant, and decorous. When Ilych’s wife first became irritable, Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes that:

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, continued to live in his usual easy and pleasant way, invited friends to his house for a game of cards, and also tried going out to his club or spending his evenings with friends. (p. 107)

Thus, Tolstoy’s Ilych was accustomed to an easy and pleasant life and sought ways to continue his experience. However, Tolstoy (1886/2012) further describes how Ilych “now realized that matrimony … was not always conducive to the pleasures and amenities of life, but on the contrary often infringed both comfort and propriety, and that he must therefore entrench himself against such infringement” (p. 108). Tolstoy then describes Ilych as increasingly withdrawing to his official work in order to avoid the unpleasantness of his wife. In describing the result of Ilych’s actions, Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes: “on the whole Ivan Ilych’s life continued to flow as he considered it should do – pleasantly and properly” (p. 110). Thus, Tolstoy depicts a sense of entitlement in Ilych, a narcissistic personality trait.

In summary, Tolstoy’s Ilych displays a preoccupation with power, the belief that he is unique and should therefore associate with high-status individuals, a lack of empathy and a sense of entitlement. These traits can be conceptualized from both a psychodynamic and cognitive-behavioural perspective, two of psychology’s major theoretical approaches to personality.

Psychodynamic Theory

Psychodynamic theory focuses on unconscious processes and unresolved conflict. From this perspective, narcissistic individuals are theorized to unconsciously hold an inferior, bad, or damaged self-image (Horowitz, 2009). They also have an intolerance for certain affects, especially shame, which can be triggered by this damaged self-image coming to awareness. Thus, narcissistic individuals are made vulnerable by this fragile self-image (Horowitz, 2009), and so they defensively split their self-image in such a way that inferior/negative views of self are denied and positive self-views are enhanced (Kernberg, 1970). The term ‘narcissistic injury’ has been used to describe the experience of threat to the positive self-image, leading to feelings of shame, anxiety, depression, and inadequacy (Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010). In an attempt to protect against narcissistic injuries, the fragmented self-image is maintained through use of defense mechanisms (Perry, Presniak, & Olson, 2013).


Defense Mechanisms

            Defense mechanisms were first proposed by Freud (1894/1962) as the means by which the ego defended itself against unacceptable impulses (i.e., sexual or aggressive drives). The concept of defense mechanisms has been expanded from early psychoanalytic theories to focus on the maintenance of self-esteem (Cooper, 1998) and currently the DSM-IV-TR (4th ed., text rev., American Psychiatric Association, 2000), defines defense mechanisms as automatic psychological processes that protect against anxiety and the awareness of internal or external stressors. Defense mechanisms provide a means to mediate an individual’s response to stressors and emotional conflicts. Individual defenses have been divided into levels based on conceptual and empirical relatedness, such as disavowal and minor image-distorting defenses (American Psychiatric Association, 2000).   

Defense Mechanisms and Narcissistic Traits

            Personality disorder traits and features have been linked to the use of specific defense levels (e.g., Cramer, 1999; Clemence, Perry, & Plaktun, 2009). Related to Tolstoy’s (1886/2012) Ilych, empirical research has linked individuals with NPD or narcissistic traits with defenses at the disavowal and minor-image distorting levels (Cramer, 1999; Perry & Perry, 2004; Clemence et al., 2009; Perry, et al., 2013). These defenses help to maintain the fragmented self-image (i.e., negative and positive self-views) created through the use of the defense splitting (Kernberg, 1970). Disavowal defenses (e.g., denial, projection, and rationalization) are characterized by blocking the awareness of unacceptable or unpleasant stressors, impulses, ideas, affects, or responsibility with or without a misattribution to external causes. Minor image-distorting defenses (e.g., devaluation, idealization, and omnipotence) are characterized by distortions in the image of the self, body, or other people that may help regulate self-esteem (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). The specific defenses that will be outlined in regards to Tolstoy’s (1886/2012) novella are idealization, omnipotence, denial, and projection. These defenses have all been associated with individuals with NPD or narcissistic traits, as they help to maintain a fragile self-image (Horowitz, 2009)

            Idealization occurs when an individual copes with stress or conflict by attributing exaggerated positive qualities to other people (American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Although individuals with NPD tend to devalue others, they have also been shown to use idealization as a defense (Clemence et al., 2009). Horowitz (2009) argued that an objectively less-talented person with NPD might cling to an idealized other to obtain positive reflection and avoid shame. Individuals who perceive a lack of external evidence for their own positive qualities may seek connections to idealized others. The positive reflections gained from being in the company of idealized others may be related to utilization of the defense referred to as omnipotence. 

            Individuals use omnipotence when they cope with stressors or conflict by feeling or acting as if he or she possesses special powers or abilities and superiority over others (4th ed., text rev.; DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). This defense reflects the need for these individuals to enhance their self-esteem in the face of perceived failure, loss, or activation of negative self-images (Clemence et al., 2009). Omnipotence has been associated with individuals with NPD (Perry & Perry, 2004; Clemence et al., 2009; Perry et al., 2013). In order to support an omnipotent or grandiose self-view, the defenses of denial and projection are used to disavow any threats to the positive self-image.

            Denial is a defense occurring when an individual copes with a stressor or conflict by refusing to acknowledge a painful aspect of their external reality or subjective experience that would be discernible to others (4th ed., text rev.; DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Cramer (1999) found that narcissistic personality prototype scores were significantly associated with the use of denial. Furthermore, a recent study by Perry et al. (2013) found that a majority of NPD individuals make use of denial as a defense mechanism. Denial fits theoretically with narcissism, as these individuals may deny from awareness any negative aspects of self in order to maintain a positive self-image and avoid experiencing shame (Horowitz, 2009). This positive self-image is also maintained through projection. 

Individuals use projection when he or she falsely attributes his or her unacceptable feelings, impulses, or thoughts to another (4th ed., text rev.; DSM-IV-TR; American Psychiatric Association, 2000). Cramer (1999) found that narcissistic personality prototype scores were significantly associated with the use of projection. Other research has also demonstrated an association between NPD and defensive projection (Perry & Perry, 2004; Perry et al., 2013). 

            Given the association between individuals with NPD or related traits and the defenses of idealization, omnipotence, denial, and projection, one can examine the use of these defenses in Tolstoy’s (1886/2012) novella. An examination of Ilych’s life will demonstrate his use of defenses and their ultimate breakdown after experiencing the ultimate narcissistic injury in facing his own mortality. Prior to this, however, we will first discuss narcissism from the perspective of cognitive theory and the concept of cognitive distortions.

Cognitive-Behavioural Theory (CBT)

            The basic theory behind the CBT perspective posits that a given individual’s thoughts or cognitions are a primary influence on the development and maintenance of how he or she responds emotionally and behaviourally to life situations (Beck, 1963; Beck & Beck, 2011). According to cognitive theory these influential cognitions are considered to be largely automatic processes such as the perceived meanings, judgments, appraisals, and assumptions associated to a life event (Gonzalez-Prendes & Resko, 2011). The theory further suggests that the content of these cognitive processes stems from the individual’s developmentally formed and deeply rooted core beliefs and assumptions about the world. Faulty or maladaptive core beliefs may lead to inaccurate automatic cognitions (judgments, appraisals, etc.) commonly known as cognitive distortions. More specifically, cognitive distortions are defined as consistent errors in thinking due to a systemic bias in cognitive processing (Beck & Beck, 2011). Cognitive distortions can generally be traced to between 12 and 20 general fallacies of thinking (for lists see, Beck & Beck, 2011, and Felgoise, Nezu, Nezu, & Reineke, 2005). Individuals much like Tolstoy’s (1886/2012) protagonist Ilych, who demonstrate problematic personality traits such as those found in Narcissistic Personality Disorder (American Psychiatric Association, 2000), are believed to possess a common set of faulty core-beliefs and to typically be more prone to demonstrate certain characteristic distortions over others (Beck, Freeman, & Davis, 2004).

Narcissism and CBT

Aaron Beck and colleagues (2004) posit that the primary core belief at the root of narcissism is the belief that the self is inferior or unimportant. This core belief is masked by an overt attitude of superiority stemming from a number of deeply rooted compensatory beliefs including: “I am a rare and special person” and “Other people should recognize how special I am,” which serve the purpose of maintaining self-esteem through self-aggrandizement (Beck et al., 2004; Miller, Widiger, & Campbell, 2010). Beck and colleagues (2004) further detail a number of assumptions related to these compensatory beliefs, which guide the perception of incoming information from life situations, experiences, and events to ensure they are congruent with the individuals’ compensatory beliefs. This congruency is vital to the narcissist, as any affront to their self-esteem/self-image is poorly tolerated and likely to incite a harsh response such as becoming overly defensive, angry, and insulting, and further devaluing others, and potentially the self (Beck et al., 2004). These affronts or threats to the narcissist’s self-image are referred to as “narcissistic insults” by Beck and colleagues (2004), and the narcissist’s cognitive distortions serve to protect against threats via selective interpretation of environmental cues. It is in this way that the narcissist’s cognitive distortions function much like the defense mechanisms described previously, that is, to shield the individual from unwanted distress/anxiety. Should the narcissistic insult(s) become severe and/or persistent enough so as to overwhelm attempts at distorting the threatening message they present, the narcissist may become depressed, devaluing, highly critical and punitive of the self (Beck et al., 2004).   

Narcissistic Assumptions and Cognitive Distortions

The number of assumptions and related cognitive distortions are associated with narcissistic personality traits. These include faulty, overgeneralized, or exaggerated assumptions in regards to: what qualifies as evidence of superiority; the purpose and utility of interpersonal relationships; the relationship between power and entitlement; the importance of preserving physical and social image; estimation of the extent to which they are noticed by others; the extent of their contributions and gauging of others’ needs; and finally, their tendency to overestimate the implications of negative emotions (i.e., sadness, guilt, uncertainty; Beck et al., 2004). In terms of cognitive distortions, individuals with narcissistic traits are believed to demonstrate the following personal biases: dichotomous thinking, magnification of self, selective abstraction, minimization of others, justification, jumping to conclusions, and labeling (Beck et al., 2004; Millon & Davis, 2000; Young & Flanagan, 1998).

One assumption common to those with narcissistic traits includes the belief that certain assets or achievements validate and are evident of one’s superiority and importance (Beck et al., 2004). Material possessions, awards, social status, professional positions and credentials, and economic status are believed by the narcissist to be coveted by all, and thus obtainment and/or demonstration of such things is to communicate their superiority to others. This assumption that being personally valued requires successfully obtaining these believed “markers” of superiority may produce several cognitive distortions, but may be most related to the distortion referred to as dichotomous thinking (Millon & Davis, 2000; Young & Flanagan, 1998). Dichotomous thinking refers to the tendency for polarized thinking; perceiving one’s self, others, and experiences as only falling into one of two possible categories (i.e. black or white as opposed to shades of grey, good or bad, negative or positive, etc.; Beck & Beck, 2011; Beck et al., 2004; Burns, 1989). An example of this distortion would be the thought, “If I am not successful, than I am not worthwhile” (Beck et al., 2004).

            Another assumption of narcissists tends to be that others and their relationships with them are but means to an end, with the goal for the narcissist to distinguish and elevate him- or herself (Beck et al., 2004). Beck and colleagues (2004) suggest that individuals with narcissistic traits are thought to frequently compare themselves with and judge the value of others around them, idealizing those that may bring them distinction in some way, and dismissing or exploiting those that are deemed average or inferior. This assumption is closely linked to the cognitive distortions of magnification of self (and sometimes others) and minimization of others (Felgoise, et al., 2005; Millon & Davis, 2000; Young & Flanagan, 1998). The magnification of self/other cognitive distortion refers to the tendency to exaggerate the importance or greatness of one’s (or ideal other’s) trait or ability, accomplishment, event, or circumstance (Burns, 1989; Beck & Beck, 2011). Conversely the minimization of the other refers to the tendency of the narcissistic individual to discount the traits, abilities, accomplishments, or circumstances of others (Burns, 1989; Beck & Beck, 2011).

            Narcissists are also believed to be prone to the cognitive distortion known as jumping to conclusions. This error in reasoning refers to the tendency to draw conclusions in the absence of supporting evidence (Beck & Beck, 2011; Burns, 1989). Additionally, they tend to demonstrate the distortion termed selective abstraction, being the tendency to focus on one aspect of a given event, experience or circumstance, and magnifying the importance of that particular aspect while ignoring other potentially contradictory details (Beck & Beck, 2011; Burns, 1989). For example, narcissists may key in on a compliment while ignoring criticism, thus skewing the overall perception of how they had been noticed by others. Finally, individuals with narcissistic traits tend to justify harsh treatment of others based on their perceived self-superiority over those who they have maltreated, as well as find excuses for apparent shortcomings (Millon & Davis, 2000). This form of cognitive distortion will be simply termed justification.

Narcissistic Defense Mechanisms and Cognitive Distortions of Ilych

            Tolstoy’s character, Ilych, demonstrates several characteristic behaviours of narcissism before he is forced to reexamine his life and self-perception as he is faced with the prospect of his death. These behaviours can be interpreted in terms of psychological defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions, functionally similar but conceptually different constructs. Additionally, Ilych’s impending death can be viewed as a narcissistic injury from a psychodynamic perspective, which is synonymous to the cognitive theory concept of the narcissistic insult. The following offers both seemingly compatible, if not analogous, perspectives of the narcissistic behaviour of Tolstoy’s portrayal of Ilych.

Pre-Illness Defenses and Distortions

In the second chapter of the novella, Tolstoy (1886/2012) begins with: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible” (p. 102). This statement alludes to Tolstoy’s attempt to present Ilych as a person desiring to be anything but “ordinary.” Tolstoy depicts Ilych as idealizing individuals in positions of power and as regarding their approval as the guiding standard of fulfillment: “he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 103). Such behaviour is indicative of idealization in terms of both defenses and distortions.

Similarly conceptualized, Tolstoy portrays Ilych as idealizing those above him in status through cognitive magnification of their perceived positive attributes, with the aim that his own status and superiority should be enhanced via emulation, association, and reflection. Furthermore, Tolstoy shows that Ilych used their standards to rationalize his own actions that he initially deemed horrid, excusing his behaviour because people of high status acted in a similar manner. For example, Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes that affairs were “all done with clean hands, in clean linen, with French phrases, and above all among people of the best society and consequently with the approval of people of rank” (p. 104). This dismissal, or in defensive terms, “rationalization” of Ilych’s maltreatment of others, could also be considered an instance of the narcissist’s use of the distortion justification. Tolstoy shows that as Ilych surrounded himself with these idealized individuals and subsequently moved up the ranks, he gained a sense of power, and his omnipotent self-view was enhanced. That is, as his use of the idealization defense progressed, he demonstrated the use of the omnipotence defense. Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes:

The consciousness of his power, being able to ruin anybody he wished to ruin, the importance, even the external dignity of his entry into court, or meetings with his subordinates, his success with superiors and inferiors, and above all his masterly handling of cases, of which he was conscious – all this gave him pleasure and filled his life. (p. 110)

From a cognitive perspective, this type of thinking or sense of omnipotence is clearly equated to the distortion of magnification of the self. Tolstoy demonstrated that Ilych has clearly aggrandized his own abilities and self-importance.

Consistent with the highly compatible concepts of narcissistic injury and narcissistic insult, any threats to Ilych’s perceived superiority/magnified omnipotence were viewed negatively. For example, when another man was offered a position that Ilych was expecting to be offered, Tolstoy depicts Ilych as becoming irritable and arguing with his superiors. Anger is a common reaction to the stress of rejection or degradation in narcissistic individuals (Horowitz, 2009). Tolstoy (1886/2012) continues, “it became evident … that he had been forgotten” (p. 111), a prospect also distressing to individuals with a grandiose self-view. Not obtaining this prestigious employment position that he coveted likely threatened Ilych’s self-view, in accordance with a narcissistic injury according to psychodynamic theory (Pincus & Lukowitsky, 2010). Similarly, these threats to the self-image also qualify as a cognitive insult (Beck et al., 2004). In response to this injury/insult, Tolstoy’s Ilych took a leave of absence for what he rationalized/justified were “financial reasons”; Tolstoy has Ilych experience apathy and depression for the first time in his life, emotions he found intolerable as illustrated by Tolstoy. Milrod (1988) argued that depression can result from narcissistic injury, and Beck and colleagues (2004) posited the same for narcissistic insults. Also consistent with Tolstoy’s portrayal of Ilych’s behaviour, Beck et al. (2004) described an intolerance for negative emotion by the narcissist as they perceive such feelings as a sign of weakness and inferiority, and thus incongruent with their self-image of strength and superiority. In fact, the authors posited that negative feelings themselves pose the threat of narcissistic insult.   

Once Tolstoy has Ilych regain a prominent work position, largely through fortunate circumstance, he has Ilych attribute the negative work-related experience to others in order to spare himself from admitting personal weakness or inferiority. Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes:

He told of how he had been fêted by everybody in Petersburg, how all those who had been his enemies were put to shame and now fawned on him, how envious they were of his appointment, and how much everybody in Petersburg had liked him. (p. 112)

Tolstoy’s depiction of Ilych’s convenient ignorance of evidence of personal failing is a clear example of the defense mechanism denial and the analogous cognitive distortion selective abstraction, which are both hallmarks of the narcissist’s efforts at self-image maintenance (Horowitz, 2009; Beck et al., 2004). Additionally, Tolstoy (1886/2012) describes how Ilych appeared to demonstrate these maintenance strategies in his perception of other negative experiences in his life (e.g., marital or employment problems): “on the whole his life ran its course as he believed life should do: easily, pleasantly, and decorously” (p. 115).

Facing the Narcissistic Injury and Insult of Mortality

After Tolstoy has Ilych first physically injure himself in a fall, Ilych’s use of the omnipotence defense/magnification of self-distortion was still evident. Tolstoy (1886/2012) has Ilych think: “It’s a good thing I’m a bit of an athlete. Another man might have been killed, but I merely knocked myself” (p. 115). Tolstoy’s portrayal of Ilych’s air of invincibility also represents further utilization of denial/selective abstraction as he was initially unwilling to admit that his physical discomfort was a sign of ill health. Ilych’s selective discounting of evidence of his physical fallibility was further displayed, when, even after Tolstoy allows Ilych to become aware of the possibility of a serious physical problem, Ilych tries to deny the thought, for example saying: “perhaps it isn’t so bad after all” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 121).

Tolstoy has Ilych maintain his perception of good health and therefore his self-image, unless something or someone in his life agitated him (i.e., threatened his sense of omnipotence or self-perception as being superior, and induced shame), such as a lack of success at work.  However, as Tolstoy has Ilych’s illness progress, he has Ilych’s physical pain provide a constant reminder of his vulnerability. Ilych’s ability to continue ignoring his illness via denial/selective abstraction then started to break down. Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes: “There was no deceiving himself: something terrible, new, and more important than anything before in his life was taking place within him of which he alone was aware” (p. 123-124). Tolstoy’s portrayal that Ilych’s perception of being susceptible to negative happenings and not invulnerable as “new,” further illustrates the pervasiveness of his use of defenses and distortions.

As Tolstoy describes how Ilych’s defenses were overwhelmed and as a newfound awareness occurred, Ilych seemed to project his desire to deceive himself about the illness onto other people. For example, he indicated that he wished his family members would stop lying to him about his condition and “forcing him to participate in that lie” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 137). In terms of cognitive distortions this may be demonstrative of the previously described jumping to conclusions distortion and/or the similar mind reading distortion, which is the assumption one knows the unspoken motives, feelings, and thoughts of others. Additionally, as Tolstoy continues to portray Ilych as unable to successfully reconcile his negative feelings regarding his health with his inflated self-view, Ilych persists in his use of projection/jumping to conclusions/mind reading. For example, he imagined what a member of his support staff was thinking. Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes: “He wants to tidy up the room, and I’m in the way. I am uncleanliness and disorder” (p. 138). Tolstoy has Ilych similarly deal with his unconscious self-blame and dislike of himself. He perceived that his wife and daughter were annoyed with his depression and demanding behaviour and that they blamed him for his own illness. Tolstoy (1886/2012) has Ilych believe that “he was an obstacle in their path” (p. 124).

Sledge and Gold (2010) posit that the discovery of illness is a narcissistic injury to most people; one could argue that narcissistic individuals may be even more damaged by such a discovery. Illness demands that people reevaluate their self-views (Strain & Grossman, 1975), such as perceived invulnerability. Narcissistic individuals often experience illness as a threat to their self-view of perfection and invincibility. Furthermore, these individuals are more susceptible to experiencing shame when confronted with illness (Groves & Muskin, 2005). Tolstoy’s depiction of Ilych’s omnipotence or magnified self-image was further tested when Ilych noticed the change in his physical appearance, making him appear older. Aging, in general, can be seen as a narcissistic injury/insult with no possible recovery and narcissistic individuals often have a difficult time with changes in appearance associated with aging (Garner, 2002).

As time went on, Tolstoy’s Ilych appeared to alternate between periods of hopeful denial or ignorance via selective abstraction of his illness (e.g., “There, I really don’t feel it. It’s much better already,” Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 128), and periods of distressing acceptance and despair in response to the overwhelming injury/insult his condition presented him (e.g., “Yes, life was there and now it is going, going and I cannot stop it,” Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 128). These fluctuations between optimistic and depressed moods are characteristic of narcissistic individuals who can easily be disappointed when they perceive a decrease in attention and support. When the sought-out reinforcement falls short of satisfactory, disappointment follows, creating cycles of omnipotence and narcissistic injuries (Silver, 1992). Indeed, one of these cycles in Ilych coincided with one of his staff members leaving the room. Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes: “Ivan Ilych dreaded being left alone. ‘How can I keep him here?’ … Left alone Ivan Ilych groaned not so much with pain, terrible though that was, as from mental anguish” (p. 139). In terms of cognitive theory, it could be said that when Ilych’s magnification of self is contradicted by his environment and condition, he experiences a narcissistic insult, which results in negative feelings, further exacerbating the insult. 

Tolstoy has Ilych first contemplate his own mortality in chapter five. He thought: “It’s not a question of appendix or kidney, but of life and … death. … Why deceive myself? Isn’t it obvious to everyone but me that I’m dying?” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 128-129). However, with his omnipotent/magnified and thus skewed self-view, he could not entirely grasp the concept of his being mortal: “Death is essentially the ultimate narcissistic wound, bringing about not just the annihilation of self, but the annihilation of one’s entire existence, resulting in a form of existential shame” (Harris, 2010, p. 78). Kernberg (2008) notes that although the denial of death may be almost universal, in narcissistic individuals it becomes grossly exaggerated. When discussing a syllogism, Tolstoy (1886/2012) has Ilych think to himself:

Caius really was mortal, and it was right for him to die; but for me, little Vanya, Ivan Ilych, with all my thoughts and emotions, it’s altogether a different matter. It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible. (p. 131)

Despite this obvious display of denial or magnification of the self/minimization of the other, the shame of this narcissistic injury slowly eroded Ilych’s defenses. The periods of successful employment of defenses/distortions became shorter, while the periods of acceptance and despair lengthened. As his denial/selective abstraction of mortality started to break down, his attempts to maintain his self-image via defenses/distortions became less unconscious/automatic as he tried to consciously banish the thought from his mind, but to no avail. The pain in his side was an ever-present reminder of his impending death and threat to his self-image or compensatory beliefs, which could no longer be denied from his awareness as it had been prior to the onset of his illness.

Later in the novella, Tolstoy finally allows Ilych to experience the full despair of mortality, having him weep over his helplessness and loneliness. As previously noted, illness demands a reevaluation of one’s self view or in cognitive terms the illness has forced a restructuring of compensatory beliefs. Terminal illness increases the salience of this demand, often leading to a reflection on one’s life. Although Tolstoy allowed Ilych to be aware of marital issues on a superficial level prior to the illness, his focus on work allowed him to deny/selectively abstract feelings of loneliness. Kernberg (2008) discusses narcissistic individuals who have a long, successful career that has provided adequate narcissistic gratification. They later suffer considerably when their power and recognition is lost with illness or retirement. Kernberg (2008) states: “the sense of a lack of lived experiences … is an important aspect of their sense of emptiness and fear, an intuition of the waste of time” (p. 303). Ilych’s belief that he lived “well and pleasantly” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 147) was disproven upon realization that the joys of his adult life had really been worthless and trivial:

It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 148)

Kernberg (2008) notes that because of the lack of emotionally meaningful experiences in narcissistic individuals’ lives, they often have a perception later in life that nothing memorable has occurred in the past. This is a sort of reversal of the cognitive distortion to the opposite extreme, from magnifying to minimizing the self and one’s experiences, and seeing only the ongoing effort to stoke one’s self-esteem and confirm superiority. 

Although Tolstoy’s scene of realization showed the breaking down of Ilych’s denial of a wasted life, Tolstoy allows only a brief epiphany. He has Ilych quickly dismiss the thought that he may not have lived properly, again having Ilych resort to selective abstraction. This back and forth on Ilych’s part may be a demonstration of the cognitive distortion dichotomous thinking characteristic of narcissists. Dichotomous thinking is evident in Ilych’s apparent inability to simultaneously contend with two contradicting thoughts concerning how he has lived his life, and is thus unable to come to the compromise that he may have lived properly in some regards and wasted life in others. The alternation of defense/distortion and acceptance/accuracy shows the increasing instability of his self-view/core belief. Tolstoy (1886/2012) writes: “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” (p. 149). The realization that he did not live as he ought to have done was incredibly painful, as it threatened his omnipotent or magnified self-view of perfection. He eventually conceded to the idea, and Tolstoy (1886/2012) has Ilych suddenly realize “all that for which he lived … it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death” (p. 152). He came to the conclusion that his early impulses to struggle against the ideals of those in positions of power might have been the real thing, while the rest of his life was false. In cognitive terms, this realization is perhaps evidence of a permanent restructuring or dissolution of his core compensatory belief that he must be successful and superior, and thus he had no further utility for the narcissistic distortions. Kernberg (2008) notes that narcissistic individuals “often find themselves ‘waking up’ at age 40, 50, or 60 with a desperate sense of years lost” (p. 301).           

 At the end of the novella, Tolstoy depicts Ilych as finally able to allow himself to incorporate negative aspects or experiences into his self-image, shattering his narcissistic traits, and removing the necessity for rigid defenses. Thus, he no longer had to project his own feelings of self-hatred and deception onto his family members, and was able to feel pity for them. His final act was to “release them and free himself from these sufferings” (Tolstoy, 1886/2012, p. 155) by accepting death. Once his narcissistic defenses/distortions had been removed, death was no longer seen as a narcissistic injury or insult, and his fear disappeared. Tolstoy (1886/2012) states that: “in place of death there was light” (p. 156).


            Tolstoy’s portrayal of Ilych includes narcissistic behaviours before his impending death forces him to reflect on his life and self-view. While defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions arise from different theoretical perspectives, namely psychoanalytic/psychodynamic and cognitive theories, respectively, both can account for Ilych’s behaviour because they are functionally similar; both defend the individual from anxiety. Defense mechanisms function to protect the individual against anxiety and the awareness of stressors (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) while cognitive distortions protect against threats to self-image and prevent the individual from experiencing anxiety (Beck et al., 2004). Additionally, both defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions tend to occur automatically. The functional similarity of defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions is even more obvious after the examination of Tolstoy’s illustration of Ilych’s use of both.

            Throughout the analysis of his behaviour, the idealization and/or omnipotence defense and the magnification of self or others cognitive distortion accounted for the same behaviour (e.g. Ilych’s enhancement of his own status and superiority). Similarly, Ilych’s excuse for his horrible behaviour toward others could be interpreted by both the rationalization defense and justification distortion. Additionally, denial, from psychodynamic theory, and selective abstraction, from cognitive theory, accounted for the same behaviour (e.g., Ilych’s unawareness of negative work-related performance when he is finally given a promotion to Petersburg). Lastly, the projection defense and the jumping to conclusion distortion both accounted for Ilych’s belief that other people were denying that his illness was fatal and were lying to him about it.

            Although both defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions accounted for Ilych’s behaviour, they offer conceptually different accounts. Defense mechanisms are unconscious psychological coping strategies that allow the individual to protect the self (American Psychiatric Association, 2000) by keeping anxiety-causing material out of the individual’s awareness. Alternatively, cognitive distortions stem from the individual’s core beliefs. They are automatic cognitive processes: consistent errors in the individual’s thinking (Beck et al., 2004). Thus, defense mechanisms can account for a variety of Ilych’s behaviours while cognitive distortions are focused on his thoughts.

            A comparison of Tolstoy’s portrayal of Ilych’s narcissistic defense mechanisms and cognitive distortions reveals that both conceptualizations can account for the same instances of his behaviour. The functional similarity of defenses and distortions allows for analogous accounts of Ilych’s life. Although the theoretical basis for the two conceptualizations of narcissism presented here differ, both defense mechanisms, rooted in psychoanalytic/psychodynamic theory, and cognitive distortions, embedded in cognitive theory, satisfactorily explain Tolstoy’s portrayal of Ilych’s functioning not only throughout life but also in death.



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To cite this article, use this bibliographical entry: Michelle C. Conan ""Easily, Pleasantly, and Decorously": Psychological Defenses and Cognitive Distortions of Tolstoy's Ilych". PSYART: A Hyperlink Journal for the Psychological Study of the Arts. Available http://psyartjournal.com/article/show/conan-easily_pleasantly_and_decorously_psychol. July 19, 2024 [or whatever date you accessed the article].
Received: April 15, 2013, Published: June 8, 2013. Copyright © 2013 Michelle C. Conan