The Death of Ivan Ilyich by Leo Tolstoy

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Critical Overview

(Short Stories for Students)

Though ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ was Tolstoy’s first piece of fiction after his spiritual conversion, and many critics have thought his post-conversion writing to be less art and more moralizing, this particular short novel has been respected as an intriguing work. Dennis Vannatta confirms this view when he states that, in ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych,’’ ‘‘the two phases meet in one of the most memorable short stories ever written.’’ This deeply affecting story has been Tolstoy’s most-praised post-conversion work, a topic of discussion, along with Tolstoy’s other major works, in literary courses and critical discourse. As Edward Wasiolek remarks in Tolstoy’s Major Fiction, ‘‘The story is great enough to support the weight of different critical perspectives. It has the ‘transparency’ that Roland Barthes has put forth as a mark of the greatest works of literature, permitting us to speak about it with the different critical languages of time, place, and critical intelligence.’’ The fact that ‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ is still meaningful today and is discussed within modern literary theory once again demonstrates its artistic merit.

The last moments of Ivan Ilych’s life seem to be a common focus for many critics. What is the light that Ivan Ilych sees as he is about to die? Most critics agree that after Tolstoy takes such pains in structuring the narrative, demonstrating the pathetic shallowness of Ivan Ilych’s existence only after ironically depicting the same shallow attitudes of his colleagues and wife, his last dying moments take on a much more significant meaning than when one first reads of his death through Peter Ivanovich. Irving Halperin traces Ivan Ilych’s struggle with death in his essay ‘‘The Structural Integrity of ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’’; he describes Ivan’s death as ‘‘the route of his metamorphosis . . . from despair (the black hole) to love (the son’s kiss) to redemption (the light). Thus Ivan Ilych’s dialectical direction, so to speak, is from nothingness to meaning: he has learned that the one thing necessary for a man is to be.’’ Dennis Vannatta similarly concludes, ‘‘The most somber and forbidding of stories, ‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’ is also the most optimistic. It shows that a man can live his entire life in darkness but in the final moment be resurrected into the light.’’ Wasiolek comments in Tolstoy’s Major Fiction that ‘‘it is the consciousness and acceptance of death that reveals the significance of life. . . . Without the consciousness of death, the things themselves become spectral, as indeed they become with...

(The entire section is 657 words.)