Study Guide

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

The Death of Ivan Ilyich Summary

Overview (Literary Essentials: Christian Fiction and Nonfiction)

Leo Tolstoy’s tale of Ivan Ilyich begins with his death at age forty-five, which is reported by his law colleagues, who read about his demise in the newspaper. Immediately Ivan’s colleagues begin to wonder how his death might affect their own positions in the court bureaucracy. Several colleagues attend Ivan’s wake, but reluctantly because it interferes with their weekly bridge game.

At the wake, Piotr Ivanovich, Ivan’s closest colleague, is engaged in conversation by Praskovya Fyodorovna, Ivan’s widow, who tells Piotr that Ivan suffered greatly during the final days of the long illness that ultimately took his life. Praskovya then asks Piotr about Ivan’s pension, which she has already calculated, wondering whether she possibly could extract an additional widow’s stipend from the government. When Piotr suggests that Praskovya’s effort probably would not be successful, Praskovya quickly ends the conversation, and Piotr leaves to attend his bridge game.

After this brief opening scene, Tolstoy’s narrator begins to recount Ivan’s life, which he identifies as both ordinary and terrible. Ivan, the son of a Russian government official, has lived a life of relative privilege in nineteenth century Russia. He graduates from the state school of law, then moves up the legal bureaucracy, receiving promotions and accompanying increases in salary. After achieving the position of examining magistrate, Ivan begins to consider marriage, mainly on the advice of highly placed law associates. He marries a woman whose family has property and social position. Initially, Ivan and Praskovya seem happy with each other, but she becomes jealous and demanding during her first pregnancy. To avoid conflicts, Ivan withdraws from family life into his work and bridge games with colleagues. The Ilyich marriage produces five offspring, three of whom die in childhood.

Because his marriage is less than satisfactory, Ivan focuses on his career, driven by the power that he holds over individuals and by his salary, which does not increase as quickly as Ivan desires. When Ivan finally receives a good promotion and substantial salary increase, he seems happy. He purchases a large house and fusses over its furnishings. After Ivan and his family settle into their spacious new home, however, he complains that it is just one room short. Nonetheless, Tolstoy’s narrator describes the life of Ivan Ilyich as...

(The entire section is 990 words.)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich, one of the greatest stories dealing with the subject of death, marked Tolstoy’s return to fiction writing after his religious conversion. In 1881, his imagination was sparked when he heard the story of the death of Ivan Ilich Mechnikov, a judge of the Tula court, who expressed on his deathbed profound regret for the life that he had lived.

As in the real-life story, Tolstoy makes his Ivan Ilyich wake up to the hidden possibilities of life on his deathbed. Before then, Ilyich has lived his life thinking only of himself and his next round of pleasure. In the past, when unpleasant events occurred, such as the death of a few of his children and his wife’s growing irritability, he turned away from these domestic concerns and spent time working at the office. His life continues for seventeen years in this manner, until the fateful day when he falls off a ladder while hanging drapes. He develops symptoms, a queer taste in the mouth and stomach discomfort, and, before he knows it, he is on his deathbed.

From a life built around the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of unpleasant reality, Ivan is suddenly catapulted into the world of sickness and death. He recalls, with irony, an old syllogism that he had learned: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” Never before had he seriously contemplated his own mortality. He tortures himself with the thought, “What if in reality, all my...

(The entire section is 505 words.)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich Summary (Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

This story begins with the news of Ivan Ilyich’s death reported by his closest acquaintance from law school, Piotr Ivanovich. When his coworkers hear the news, their immediate reaction is one of self-centered concern over their possible promotions and other changes that Ivan’s death might bring about in their own lives. Only after these considerations do the dead man’s so-called friends think of the tiresome duties of attending the funeral and consoling the widow.

Giving up his usual nap to attend the wake, Piotr, meeting his bridge partner at the widow’s house, takes the time to arrange for their regular game that evening after viewing the body. Then Ivan’s widow, Praskovya Fyodorovna, escorts him into a room for a private talk, in which she, too, dwells on her own concerns, telling him how much she suffered through Ivan’s screaming for the three days before he died. Her main interest in speaking with Piotr, however, is to find out whether and how she might get extra money from the government because of Ivan’s death. On hearing his opinion that there is nothing she can do, she loses interest in their conversation, and Piotr takes his leave.

The first of twelve chapters sets Leo Tolstoy’s tone, which mixes grotesque humor with the somber reality of death coming to a respected minor functionary—an ordinary death of an ordinary man (the name Ivan Ilyich is as common in Russian as is the name John Smith in English). In describing the family’s and friends’ reactions to Ivan’s death, the narrative concentrates on their obsession with their own lives and petty comforts and their disregard for the deceased.

The next section, chapters 2 through 5, recounts the life and career of Ivan. The second and most successful of three sons of a minor official, he had risen to the position of examining magistrate and married a proper girl as the “right thing” to do. His married life did not, however, meet his expectations: His wife turned unaccountably jealous and ill-humored, and several of his children died. Ivan retreated steadily into his work, becoming progressively more aloof at home.

Finding his only consolation in the dignity and social activities attached to the official world of the magistrate, Ivan suffered a particularly heavy...

(The entire section is 938 words.)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

During a break in a hearing, a group of lawyers gathers informally. One, Peter Ivanovitch, interrupts the good-natured arguing of the others with the news that Ivan Ilyich, a colleague they greatly respect, is dead. Unwittingly, each thinks first of what this death means to his own chances of promotion, and each cannot help feeling relief that it is Ivan Ilyich and not himself who died.

That afternoon, Peter Ivanovitch visits the dead man’s home, where the funeral is to be held. Although he meets a playful colleague, Schwartz, he attempts to behave as correctly as possible under such sorrowful circumstances, as if by observing the proper protocol he can persuade himself into the proper feelings. He looks respectfully at the corpse and talks with Ivan’s widow, Praskovya Fedorovna, but he is continually distracted during his talk by an unruly spring in the hassock on which he sits. While he struggles to keep his decorum, Praskovya speaks only of her own exhaustion and suffering. Peter, suddenly terrified by their mutual hypocrisy, longs to leave; once the widow pumps him for information about her pension, she, too, is glad to end the conversation. At the funeral, Peter sees Ivan’s daughter and her fiancé, who are angrily glum, and Ivan’s little son, who is tear-stained but naughty. Only the servant boy, Gerasim, speaks cheerfully, for he is the only one who can accept death as natural. Peter leaves and hurries to his nightly card game.

Ivan Ilyich was the second and most successful of the three sons of a superfluous bureaucrat. An intelligent and popular boy, he seemed able to mold his life into a perfect pattern. As secretary to a provincial governor after completing law school, and later as an examining magistrate, he was the very model of conscientiousness mingled with good humor. He managed the decorum of his official position as well as the ease of his social one. Only marriage, although socially correct, did not conform to his ideas of decorum; his wife, not content to fulfill the role he chose for her, became demanding and quarrelsome. As a result, he increasingly shut himself off from his family (which grew with two children) and found the order and peace he needed in his judiciary affairs.

In 1880, however, he was shattered by the loss of two promotions. In desperation, he went to St. Petersburg, where a chance meeting led to his obtaining a miraculously good appointment. In the city, he found precisely the house he always wanted, and he worked to furnish it to his taste. Even a fall and a resulting...

(The entire section is 1042 words.)

The Death of Ivan Ilyich Summary

I.
‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ opens with Ivan Ilych’s colleagues discussing cases in Shebek’s private room. Amidst...

(The entire section is 1963 words.)