The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich

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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 503

Tolstoy’s narrative opens with the revelation to a group of Ivan Ilyich’s friends that Ivan Ilyich has died. As he presents the reactions of Ivan’s friends and family to this event, Tolstoy exposes the hypocrisy and egocentricity that prevails in the cultured society of late nineteenth century Russia. He then provides an account of Ivan’s life, showing how this ordinary individual, a kind of Everyman, became caught in the pursuit of material well-being and career success. Finally, Tolstoy narrows his focus to Ivan’s psychology, closely examining the dying man as he tries to come to terms with his inescapable death.

Dominating this psychological portrait is Ivan’s struggle against the inevitability of death. As he clings to life, and particularly to the kind of life he has led up to this point, Ivan finds himself in unbearable suffering. Only when he eases his grip on life and realizes that one must live a life of selfless giving, not selfish grasping, does he discover that dying is painless and that there is no death but merely light.

Tolstoy’s story is a masterpiece of narrative art. The gradual narrowing of focus from the thoughts of Ivan’s friends to the character’s own psychology steadily draws the reader into the innermost realms of human experience. Tolstoy also fills his story with suggestive and symbolic detail; every element of the tale, including plot and setting, contributes to the message of the work, a message typical in Tolstoy’s late fiction: One must live for others, not for oneself.


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 than other works by the author.

Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Contains a chronology of Tolstoy’s life, bibliography, and index. Chapters include biographical information and treatments of several novels and stories. An excellent companion for the Tolstoy reader. Discusses the structure and main character of The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

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Critical Evaluation


Critical Overview