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...
(The entire section is 747 words.)
Want to Read More?
Subscribe now to read the rest of this article. Plus get complete access to 30,000+ study guides!
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....
(The entire section is 397 words.)
In the period during which Leo Tolstoy was writing, Russia was experiencing much turbulence politically, socially, and economically. In the 1880s, the assassination of Alexander II and the reign of Alexander III facilitated violent reactions to the government and a period of autocracy within the government. Alexander III was extremely conservative and imposed many new rules upon the people of Russia to guard against revolution. His regime also saw a new campaign of Russification and anti- Semitic legislation. While industrial growth stagnated during this time, the first Trans-Siberian Railroad was built, which eventually aided in Russia’s development.
The hardships endured by the peasantry at this time, including a famine in 1891 and a cholera epidemic in 1892, were severe. One can read in Tolstoy’s writing the deep respect which he held for the peasants of his time who worked in harmony with the land and were not obsessed with material success. The character of Gerasim in ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ demonstrates Tolstoy’s fascination with and romanticizing of Russian peasantry. Tolstoy devoted time before the writing of ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ to improving the lot of the Russian serfs. He even organized relief for the starving population of the eastern ‘‘backlands,’’ which consisted of twenty provinces and forty million peasants, in 1891 and 1892. Even in the 1850s, before he began his...
(The entire section is 497 words.)
Point of View
‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ is narrated by a third-person voice, telling Ivan Ilych’s life story from what often seems like an objective point of view. The narrator speaks of the events in Ivan Ilych’s life, both great and small, in the same tone. Ivan’s marriage, his new house, the deaths of three of his children, the birth and education of two, and his fall while fixing the curtains are described in impersonal, quick paragraphs. Events that seem as though they should be more significant in his life are often thrown together with matters that are trivial, bringing all in Ivan Ilych’s life down to the same superficial level. As paragraphs start with ‘‘So . . . ,’’ they sweep away years of Ivan Ilych’s life that are pleasantly and inconsequentially lived. Because Ivan Ilych treats all aspects of his life, from his work to his friends and family, in the same decorous and proper manner, everything within his life floats past him and is met with the same air of indifference.
The first section of ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ takes place in Shebek’s private room, where Ivan Ilych’s colleagues first learn of his death and immediately think of the promotions that they are bound to receive. It orients the reader to a setting in which Ivan Ilych himself is later said to have enjoyed many breaks during the workday, and it connects the shallow mentality of his colleagues with his own...
(The entire section is 841 words.)
Compare and Contrast
1900s: People in developed countries often die in their own homes before 50 years of age, following a brief illness. Families often gather around the deathbed, a ritual in which much importance is placed on the dying person preparing for death.
1990s: Most people in industrialized countries die after age 65. The average person spends about 80 days in a hospital or nursing home during the last years of life.
1882: Tolstoy publishes A Confession, in which he documents his spiritual crisis and repudiates much of his earlier work. He undergoes a radical religious conversion which greatly influences his subsequent works.
1990s: The Celestine Prophecy, by James Red- field, predicts a spiritual renaissance and renews interest in spiritual matters for many readers.
1800s: Social conventions discourage unhappy couples from divorcing. Divorce is frowned upon and even illegal in many nations.
1990s: Statistics show that more than half of all marriages end in divorce.
(The entire section is 149 words.)
Topics for Further Study
Compare the philosophical attitudes of Leo Tolstoy’s contemporaries on death. Was a fear of death and its implications for a meaningless or more meaningful life a common preoccupation during the time Tolstoy was writing? What ideas of death are made more lucid in Tolstoy’s ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ which where also being explored by contemporary philosophers?
Explore Tolstoy’s ideas about social conventions and their effect on human development in comparison with Franz Kafka’s portrayal of Gregor in ‘‘The Metamorphosis.’’ Could any of Freud’s works elucidate what these authors are trying to convey?
Are Tolstoy’s allusions to religious ideologies in ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ (such as his use of Ivan Ilych’s fatal fall and the Biblical fall, and his reference to Ivan seeing the light before he dies) too dependent on a framework which has faith in God? Do Tolstoy’s religious undertones detract from the narrative of Ivan’s death?
(The entire section is 159 words.)
What Do I Read Next?
In Ambrose Bierce’s ‘‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’’ (1891), Peyton Farquhar is about to be hanged from a bridge because of a military crime. The rope breaks, he escapes by swimming away, and he reviews the events of his life—all in a hallucination in the instant before his death.
In Kate Chopin’s ‘‘The Story of an Hour’’ (1894), Louise Mallard receives news that her husband has died in a train wreck. Tearlessly, she retreats to her room and reviews the course of her married life. She comes to recognize that she has gained great personal freedom with his death. When her husband suddenly walks in the door— he was not on the train after all—she drops dead. Her family and physician assume she died of joy.
‘‘The Metamorphosis’’ by Franz Kafka, published in 1937, depicts the transformation of Gregor Samsa from a responsible young man to a bug. Kafka’s emotional portrayal of Gregor and his family create insight on the facade of social propriety and one’s need to escape the dominating roles of society.
In Thornton Wilder’s play Our Town, written in 1938, the central character, called the Stage Manager, reviews the histories of the lives of various inhabitants of Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire.
Joan Didion’s ‘‘Some Dreamers of the Golden Dream,’’ published in 1966, mingles fact and fiction. It is the real account of a real woman, Lucille Marie Maxwell Miller....
(The entire section is 297 words.)
Bibliography and Further Reading
Citati, Pietro. Tolstoy, Schocken Books, 265 p. Examines Tolstoy’s life and works, with sections specifically addressing his short fiction.
Magarshack, David. Afterword to ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych,’’ New American Library, 1960, pp. 295- 304. Discusses the story focusing on the circumstances under which it was written and the extensive revision process Tolstoy employed.
Maude, Aylmer. Preface to ‘‘Ivan Ilych,’’ ‘‘Hadji Murad,’’ and Other Stories, Oxford University Press, 1935, pp. vii-xiv. Introduces the story, describing the actual events from which it originated.
Olney, James. ‘‘Experience, Metaphor, and Meaning: ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’,’’ in Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, Vol. 31, No. 1, Fall, 1972, pp. 101–14. Olney suggests that it is the innocence of the characters Gerasim and Vasya in Tolstoy’s ‘‘ Ivan Ilych’’ that leads Ivan to the realization of divine love.
Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy, Twayne, 1986, 143 p. Biographical and critical study with sections devoted to Tolstoy’s short fiction.
Simmons, Ernest J. Introduction to Leo Tolstoy: Short Novels, Modern Library, 1965, pp. v-xv. Examines Tolstoy’s short stories, citing them as examples of his realism and as forerunners to his novels.
(The entire section is 180 words.)
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 Ilyich. Finds many parallels between it and Tolstoy’s life.
Jahn, Gary R. “The Death of Ivan Ilich”: An Interpretation. New York: Twayne, 1993. Includes an extensive chronology of Tolstoy and the literary and historical context of the work. Presents critical reception, social, psychological and philosophical issues, as well as a section on structure and style. Also gives an extensive reading of the plot.
Noyes, George Rapall. Tolstoy. New York: Dover, 1968. Discusses the interconnection of Tolstoy’s many works and refers to biographical information pertinent to the understanding of his writings. Finds The Death of Ivan Ilyich to be more intense and focused...
(The entire section is 297 words.)