Places Discussed (Cyclopedia of Literary Places)
*Russian provinces. Settings in flashback episodes. After a brief introduction set in Petersburg in which it is revealed that Ivan Ilych has died, the story moves rapidly through three anonymous provincial towns of the character’s past. Lacking physical detail, these merge into one another. The very lack of specific character of the places that Ilych inhabits allows Tolstoy to suggest that it is, ironically, the very ordinariness of Ilych’s life that explains its final horror.
As Ilych graduates from the Petersburg School of Law and prepares to take his first post in the “provinces,” Tolstoy announces the story’s moral theme: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”; Ilych “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.” He has chosen a life of comfort, security, and social conformity, and Tolstoy’s condemnation of this amoral conventionality is the story’s core moral idea.
Ivan Ilych is a fascinating caricature of the ordinary man of competence and duty but of no particular passion, who chooses to lead what a later generation would call an “inauthentic life.” While Ilych performs his professional legal duties, attends the usual social gatherings, has the infrequent love affair, and finally drifts into a marriage of convenience, the settings in which all this occurs are presented with great economy—readers simply “see,” now and then, a comfortable room in which are leather chairs and cigar smoke, or the sparkling lights, the formally dressed men and the well-dressed ladies of a social gathering. That is all, but it is so well done that it conveys, in an ironically...
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Style and Technique (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
Tolstoy’s first draft of this story was written in the first-person point of view with Ivan interpreting the events. Probably because of the importance of the theme of the story, Tolstoy later changed to an omniscient point of view, which more clearly shows the attitudes of the other characters toward Ivan’s death. In the opening section, Tolstoy emphasizes the others’ lack of concern over their friend’s death. In describing Piotr’s interview with Praskovya Fyodorovna, he concentrates on the little details of her shawl catching on the end of the table and Piotr’s discomfiture in sitting on a pouf with broken springs, showing their distractions from the important event of Ivan’s death. He thus prepares the reader for the simple, ordinary, and “most terrible” life that Ivan led, as is described in the second section of the story.
The second section is simply a prelude to the climactic death throes of the third part. Ivan’s life is detailed in a straightforward narrative emphasizing his aloofness both with his family and official associates, and, one might say, with his own feelings. All of his attitudes and values seem to come from without, from what society considers the proper thing to do.
Fully half the chapters of the story are devoted to the fatal illness and Ivan’s reactions to his family, friends, and doctors, as they all come to the realization that there is nothing they can do for him and that he is fatally ill. Here, too, Tolstoy describes the alternating feelings of hope and despair that Ivan experiences and the exasperation of his acquaintances with his annoying behavior. The doctors’ treatments are described as perfunctory after they realize that there is nothing they can do; they prefer not to understand his questions. His daughter, dressed in evening clothes, becomes impatient with his illness and resents that he causes her feelings of guilt as she attends the theater. Praskovya Fyodorovna asks after his health not to learn about it but because it is expected of her. Everyone comes to resent him for reminding them of their own mortality.
In the last section, Tolstoy turns to giving Ivan’s reactions to his illness, to describing his feelings and his questioning of the meaning of life and death. In this way, he emphasizes the epiphany that Ivan experiences at the moment of death.
Compare and Contrast
Topics for Further Study
What Do I Read Next?
Bibliography and Further Reading
Bibliography (Cyclopedia of Literary Characters, Revised Third Edition)
Sources for Further Study
Christian, R. F. Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Discusses The Death of Ivan Ilyich and compares the novella with Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Also relates the plot and structure of The Death of Ivan Ilyich to the works of later writers whom it may have influenced.
Courcel, Martine de. Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation. Translated by Peter Levi. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988. A thorough discussion of Tolstoy. Explains the social and political atmosphere at the time of The Death of Ivan...
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