The Death of Ivan Ilyich Smert Ivana Ilyicha, Leo Tolstoy
by Leo Tolstoy

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Introduction

(Short Story Criticism)

Smert Ivana Ilyicha Leo Tolstoy

(Full name Count Leo Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoy; also transliterated as Lyof; also Nikolayevich; also Tolstoi, Tolstoj, and Tolstoï) Russian novelist, short story and novella writer, essayist, playwright, and critic.

The following entry presents criticism of Tolstoy's novella Smert Ivana Ilyicha (1886; The Death of Ivan Ilyich). For discussion of Tolstoy's complete short fiction career, see SSC, Volume 9; for discussion of the novella Kreitserova sonata (The Kreutzer Sonata), see SSC, Volume 30; for discussion of the novella Khozyain I rabotnik (Master and Man), see SSC, Volume 45.

Tolstoy's novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich is considered one of the most powerful, harrowing, and affecting stories ever written about dying. The novella was one of the first fictional works Tolstoy wrote after a profound spiritual crisis, which occurred in the mid-1870s. Tolstoy's resulting exploration of religious and theological issues is much evident in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, the story of a man comprehending his own death and his pursual for meaning in the last moments of being. These cosmic themes are perceived as vital to the novella's continued universal appeal. Tolstoy's fiction falls into two diverse thematic and stylistic schools: the realism of the novels Voina I mir (1869; War and Peace) and Anna Karenina (1877), and his mystical, polemical short fiction. Many scholars view The Death of Ivan Ilyich as the ultimate amalgamation of Tolstoy's two artistic stages, astutely combining the two forms, and producing one of Tolstoy's most memorable narratives.

Plot and Major Characters

The introductory chapter of The Death of Ivan Ilyich opens with the announcement and description of the death of Ivan Ilyich, the reaction of his colleagues and family to his demise, and the details of his funeral service. The story then recounts the circumstances of Ivan's life, from his birth in St. Petersburg in 1837, to his comfortable childhood, and graduation with a law degree. In 1859 Ivan begins his career in government as an apprentice official, and his diligent work results in his promotion to prosecutor and eventually to judge. He marries Praskovya Fyodorovna Mikhel in 1866, a socially acceptable marriage that produces a daughter and son. Ivan encounters some trouble at work, eventually being promoted, and is transferred to a new post in a major Russian city. His life seems stable, predictable, and orderly. Yet in 1880, while decorating his new home, he falls from a stepladder and bumps his side. The pain and discomfort from this accident is the harbinger for a serious disease. By January 1882, his condition has severely worsened. At first, he follows the advice of his doctors assiduously, but when the illness does not improve, Ivan begins to lose hope. As his physical condition deteriorates sharply, Ivan contemplates his life as he searches for understanding. He notes the reaction of his family, particularly his wife, who is uneasy in Ivan's presence and limits her contact with him. In fact, the only person who seems comfortable in his presence is the servant, Gerasim, a young, sympathetic man who takes care of Ivan. The dying man tires of the pretense of his family relations and sends his wife and servant away. He begins a comprehensive review of his existence, disturbed by the hypocrisy and unhappiness of his life. As his physical and spiritual suffering reaches its peak, Ivan finds some semblance of peace and understanding. At the time of his death Ivan hears a voice above him say “it is finished,” echoing the Passion narrative of Christ and reinforcing Ivan's new life beyond death, in the spirit.

Major Themes

The title of the novella is both extremely befitting and purposefully beguiling : it fools the reader into thinking, like Ivan himself, that the narrative is chiefly concerned with death, however, at the conclusion the reader, again like Ivan, realizes that death is irrelevant. Dying, spiritual awakening, and redemption are major thematic...

(The entire section is 92,401 words.)