Why does Tolstoy begin with Ivan's death?
This is an intriguing question, and one that is not easy to try to answer. Tolstoy was one of the world's very greatest writers. He wrote with that "high seriousness," which the English critic Matthew Arnold said was a sign of great genius. It may seem presumptuous to try to read such a great mind as that of Leo Tolstoy. But here are some suggestions.
The opening is obviously very effective. The description of the dead man is especially striking.
The dead man lay, as dead men always lie, in a specially heavy way, his rigid limbs sunk in the soft cushions of the coffin, with the head forever bowed on the pillow. His yellow waxen brow with bald patches over his sunken temples was thrust up in the way peculiar to the dead, the protruding nose seeming to press on the upper lip. He was much changed and grown even thinner since Peter Ivanovich had last seen him, but, as is always the case with the dead, his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than when he was alive. The expression on the face said that what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly. Besides this there was in that expression a reproach and a warning to the living. This warning seemed to Peter Ivanovich out of place, or at least not applicable to him. He felt a certain discomfort and so he hurriedly crossed himself once more and turned and went out of the door -- too hurriedly and too regardless of propriety, as he himself was aware.
All of this description can be taken as foreshadowing. We will understand it better after we have read the whole story. And how can we not read the whole story after reading this introduction?
Any young person who has not yet had the experience of making a duty call on a dead person in a funeral home or elsewhere has quite an uncanny experience in store for him! It can be both frightening and interesting at the same time. The relentlessly honest Tolstoy expresses the thought that occurs to most people when they have to look at a body at a funeral.
Each one thought or felt, "Well, he's dead but I'm alive!"
Tolstoy evidently wanted to establish beyond a doubt that Ivan Ilyich was dead. Otherwise, the reader could have developed sympathy for the poor man and kept hoping that he might somehow recover. This tends to be melodramatic, and Tolstoy did not want that effect. He was too serious a writer, too great a writer, too sincere.
Tolstoy also wanted to show the reactions to Ivan Ilyich's death by some of the people who knew him. They do not take his death itself seriously. They are wrapped up in their own petty, mercenary affairs. Several men speculate about how Ilyich's death will open opportunities for themselves or relatives. But Tolstoy intends to show that death is a very serious matter. He takes the reader through Ilyich's long period of suffering and mentally agonizing until death itself seems like a vast relief. We ourselves die along with Ivan Ilyich. That makes it pretty serious indeed. It makes us wonder, as Tolstoy intended, about the lives we ourselves are leading.
We see all the mistakes Ilyich made during his lifetime because of vanity and other familiar foolishness. We realize how he had only one life to live and he had squandered most of it--as so many of us do--with trivialities. All this would not have been so impressive if we did not know for sure that he was going to die. Even though Ivan Ilyich does not, and cannot, recover, the story still has what might be called a happy ending. That is one of the things that makes it so moving. Everybody has to die, including us, but maybe it won't be so bad when it happens--especially if we can learn something from this story.
And suddenly it grew clear to him that what had been oppressing him and would not leave him was all dropping away at once from two sides, from ten sides, and from all sides....He sought his former accustomed fear of death and did not find it. "Where is it? What death?" There was no fear because there was no death.