This novella can be fully understood if you know the book of Ecclesiastes. Ivan has lived for only for himself. He strives to be successful in his career, having the best home and furnishings possible, even if he has to go into debt. When he attains much of what he has striven for, he gets sick. Convinced he is about to die, he becomes terrified of death. Does he change or is it too late? Eccles. 12: 6-9 says "Remember Him before the silver cord is broken and the golden bowl is crushed, the pitcher by the well is shattered and the wheel at the cistern is crushed; then the dust will return to the earth as it was, and the spirit will return to God who gave it. 'Vanity of vanities,' says the Preacher, 'all is vanity!'" Ivan knew something in his life was wrong, but never figured it out. He never read Eccles. 12: 13-14, which says, "The conclusion, when all has been heard, is: fear God and keep His commandments, because this applies to every person. For God will bring every act to judgment, everything which is hidden, whether it is good or evil.