What is the exposition, complication (rising action), climax, anti-climax, and denouement of The Death of Ivan Ilyich?

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mstultz72 eNotes educator| Certified Educator

Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Illych follows the following plot outline:

Exposition: We see Ivan's life as "climbing a ladder."  He's a "cog in a machine," a good member of a Czarist Russian bourgeoisie, getting married, having children--but totally unhappy, spiritually unfulfilled.

Complication: We realize he's dying spiritually.  We realize that he's been living a life based only on social expectations, an unfulfilled life, never developing meaningful relationships with family or friends.  It's all about money, status, possessions.

Turing point: He falls while CLIMBING A LADDER and HANGING DRAPES, symbolic that his life has been a climbing of the rungs of the social ladder.  There's a shift in the verb tense from past to present. Death becomes real. Life is being lived for the first time, ironically, in death.

Anti-climax / falling action: the doctors and his friends are no help; they only make suffering worse.

Resolution: Ivan must come to terms with the fact that his senseless life caused his ridiculous death.

Denouement: Tolstoy presents his worldview:

  • Ivan must let go of all justification of his life.
  • He has a major revelation
  • He starts to feel universal compassion for people whom he had been hating.
  • He dies content--this compassion sets him free from the hate, jealousy, and pettiness that had been holding him back.
  • The moral center of the work is the servant, Gerásim, a member of the peasant class
  • This works as a metaphor for Tolstoy's brand of Christianity
Read the study guide:
The Death of Ivan Ilyich

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