The Death of Ivan Ilyich Questions and Answers
by Leo Tolstoy

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How could one write a critical essay on Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich?

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Thanh Munoz eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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In writing an essay on Tolstoy's novella, I would suggest focusing on the following themes:

I would first try to place The Death of Ivan Ilyich in the context of what you can learn about Tolstoy's life and work overall. How is it similar in its viewpoints and themes to War and Peace and Anna Karenina, and how is it different?

In the latter part of his life, Tolstoy became devoted to a form of Christian rationalism, rejecting worldly concerns. He eventually renounced the copyrights to his books and tried to live as simple a life as possible, going to work in the fields alongside his farm laborers. His writings had always been critical of the Russian upper classes and their amoral lifestyles. In the later works, beginning with Ivan Ilyich, this moralistic streak becomes more pronounced, almost to the exclusion of other themes. How, you might ask (and answer) in your essay, does Ivan Ilyich's illness relate to, or symbolize, man in general being "punished" for not leading a sufficiently moral or spiritual life? Or is the illness (and are such misfortunes in general) random and meaningless? You need to take into account that Ivan Ilyich has essentially been a good man throughout his life. This is one of Tolstoy's major themes: that his central character has had an unremarkable life, has married and raised two children, and has been a success, albeit in the "material" world. And yet, when he is still relatively young, his life falls apart with the sudden onset of an incurable illness. His family and others around him, with the one exception of his aide Gerasim, all act as if what he's experiencing is somehow remote from them, and that they are "safe." A main theme appears to be that most people, so long as they are not gravely ill themselves, act as if death is not going to touch them, though death is the one certainty in life. How does this fact, and Tolstoy's observation of it, relate to the other themes discussed above?

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