The Death of Ivan Ilyich
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.
(The entire section is 503 words.)