The Death of Ivan Ilyich Smert Ivana Ilyicha, Leo Tolstoy - Essay

Leo Tolstoy


(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 concerns in The Death of Ivan Ilyich. As illustrated in the novella, death is the ultimate reality that every human must confront and accept. For Ivan, the inevitability of his death inspires a spiritual crisis and renunciation of his life. In accordance with Tolstoy's personal beliefs, Ivan rejects the shallowness of his old existence and embraces more numinous values, particularly a sense of love and acceptance. Critics have emphasized the vacuity of Ivan's pursuit of materialism and comfort, a life that is revealed as hypocritical and devoid of spiritual depth. This attack on privilege and greed is a dominant theme in much of Russian literature, and a recurring motif of Tolstoy's later work. Additionally, The Death of Ivan Ilyich has been discussed from a psychological perspective, as critics explore Ivan's alienation from his colleagues and family during his illness and his tendency to withdraw from human contact at difficult times in his life. His reliance on his servant, Gerasim, is thus interpreted as Ivan's attempt to make significant human contact in the few weeks before his demise. Other principal themes of the novella are notions of health and disease, as Ivan's terminal illness signals a spiritual deterioration as well. The recurring image of the dark sack has inspired several interpretations, as critics suggest that it represents Ivan's physical death and spiritual rebirth. Stylistically, commentators have underlined Tolstoy's repetitive phrases and words, which reinforce the motifs of monotony and the inevitability of death.

Critical Reception

At the time of its publication, reviewers focused on the literary value of the novella and viewed the story as a biting satirical account of upper-class Russian culture. According to this perspective, Ivan's disease is deemed an indicator of the sickness of bourgeois nineteenth-century society. Later criticism centered on the treatment of death in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, interpreting the story as a reflection of the common mortality of all people. The narrative is also perceived as an embodiment of Tolstoy's post-conversion philosophical concerns, particularly his search for meaning and his thoughts on humankind. Some scholars consider the story to be exemplary of Tolstoy's deft utilization of verisimilitude, as it represents a moment every human will eventually encounter. Yet, others view the story as a prime example of Tolstoy's didacticism and dogmatic morality. Moreover, autobiographical analyses have examined parallels between Tolstoy's ideological and theological works and The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Structurally, critics have speculated as to the placement of the first chapter of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Several commentators have related Ivan's death to the stages of death described in Elizabeth Kübler-Ross' On Death of Dying. Reviewers have found similarities between Tolstoy's novella and Charles Dickens's The Christmas Carol, Ernest Hemingway's “The Snows of Kilimanjaro,” Franz Kafka's The Trial, and Tolstoy's own work, particularly the essay Ispoved (1882; A Confession). Various literary critics conclude that although The Death of Ivan Ilyich is at once a bleak and forbidding tale, it is also eminently optimistic.

Principal Works

(Short Story Criticism)

Detstvo [Childhood] 1852

Otrochestvo [Boyhood] 1854

Sevastopolskiye rasskazy. [Sevastopol Sketches] 2 vols. 1855-56

Yunost [Youth] 1857

Semeinoe schaste [Family Happiness] 1859

Kazaki [The Cossacks] 1863

Polikushka [Polikouchka] 1863

Smert Ivana Ilyicha [The Death of Ivan Ilyich] 1886

Kreitserova sonata [The Kreutzer Sonata] 1890

Khozyain I rabotnik [Master and Man] 1895

Otetz sergii [Father Sergius] 1898

The Novels and Other Works of Leo N. Tolstoi. 22 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, plays, essays, and sketches) 1899-1902

Khadzhi Murat [Hadji Murád] 1911

L. N. Tolstoi: polnoe sobranie proizvedenie. 90 vols. (novels, novellas, short stories, plays, essays, and sketches) 1928-58

Nine Stories, 1855-1863 (translated by L. and A. Maude) 1934

Tales of Army Life (translated by L. and A. Maude) 1935

Fables and Fairy Tales (translated by Ann Dunnigan) 1962

Short Novels: Stories of Love, Seduction, and Peasant Life (edited and introduced by Ernest J. Simmons; translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude and J. D. Duff) 1965

Ivan the Fool, and Other Tales (translated by Guy Daniels) 1966

The Great Short Works of Leo Tolstoy (translated by Louise and Aylmer Maude; introduced by John Bayley) 1967

Short Stories 1968

Master and Man, and Other Stories (translated and introduced by Paul Foote) 1977

The Kreutzer Sonata, and Other Stories (translated by L. and A. Maude) 1983

A Prisoner in the Caucasus, and Other Stories (translated by Angus Roxburgh and Margaret Wettlin) 1983

Tolstoy's Short Fiction (edited and with revised translations by Michael R. Katz) 1991

Divine and Human, and Other Stories (edited and translated by Gordon Spence) 2000

Voina I mir [War and Peace] (novel) 1869

Anna Karenina (novel) 1877

Ispoved [A Confession] (essay) 1882

V chiom moya vera [What I Believe] (essay) 1884

Vlast tmy [The Dominion of Darkness] (play) 1888

Plody prosvesh cheniya [The Fruits of Enlightenment] (play) 1889

Chto takoe iskusstvo [What Is Art?] (essay) 1898

Voskresenie [Resurrection] (novel) 1899

I svet vo tme svetit [The Light That Shines in Darkness] (unfinished drama) 1911

Khadzhi Murat (novel) 1911

Zhivoy trup [The Living Corpse] (play) 1911

Tolstoy's Letters. 2 vols. (letters) 1978

Rima Salys (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Salys, Rima. “Signs on the Road of Life: ‘The Death of Ivan Il'ič.’” Slavic & East European Journal 30, no. 1 (spring 1986): 18-28.

[In the following essay, Salys investigates the function of objects, imagery, and metaphorical language in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, contending that “although objects and language both point the way to Ivan's destination, the central metaphor for his physical decline and spiritual renewal is the road of life and related directional body movement.”]

The narrator of The Death of Ivan Il'ič tells his hero's story with relentless and devastating assurance. He relates the steps leading to Ivan's...

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George J. Gutsche (essay date 1986)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Gutsche, George J. “Tolstoi's ‘The Death of Ivan Il'ich.’” In Moral Apostasy in Russian Literature, pp. 70-98. Dekalb, Ill.: Northern Illinois University Press, 1986.

[In the following essay, Gutsche explores various Christian and moral interpretations of The Death of Ivan Ilyich.]

“So that's it!” he suddenly pronounced aloud. “What joy!”

Tolstoi is a towering figure in Russian literature and culture. Much of his prominence derives from the moral passion and earnestness of his search for the right way to live and from his efforts to bring the news to others when he had found it. It is hard...

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Jerome A. Miller (essay date 1987)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Miller, Jerome A. “Vertigo and Genuflection: A Philosophical Meditation.” Modern Age 31, nos. 3-4 (summer-fall 1987): 369-77.

[In the following essay, Miller provides an existentialist perspective on Tolstoy's novella.]

Edmund Burke observes in his essay on our experience of the sublime and the beautiful “that height is less grand than depth; and that we are more struck at looking down from a precipice, than at looking up at an object of equal height.”1 Yet he immediately confesses, “I am not very positive about this.” Modernity is not known for its images of the beautiful. But we know all about precipices. Whatever faults one might find...

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Philip Rogers (essay date 1988)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Rogers, Philip. “Scrooge on the Neva: Dickens and Tolstoj's Death of Ivan Il'ič.Comparative Literature 40, no. 3 (summer 1988): 193-218.

[In the following essay, Rogers considers the influence of the work of Charles Dickens on Tolstoy's fiction, particularly upon The Death of Ivan Ilyich.]

Writing to Dickens in 1849, Irinarx Vvedenskij, his first Russian translator, informed him that he was “read with great zeal from the banks of the Neva to the remotest limits of Siberia” (Katarskij 1). Among his zealous Russian readers of that time was the 23-year-old Tolstoj, who first encountered Dickens—a Russian translation of David...

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Edward Engelberg (essay date 1989)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Engelberg, Edward. “Tolstoy's ‘The Death of Ivan Ilyich’: The Dying Life, Chekhov's ‘A Dreary Story’: The Living Death.” In The Elegiac Fictions: The Motif of the Unlived Life, pp. 87-96. University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 1989.

[In the following excerpt, Engelberg establishes parallels between Tolstoy's novella, Anton Chekhov's tale “A Dreary Story,” and Franz Kafka's Metamorphosis.]

Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich preceded in date of publication Chekhov's less well-known “A Dreary Story” by three years: 1886 and 1889. Chekhov's tale has been called a response to the challenge laid down by Tolstoy's....

(The entire section is 4808 words.)

David Patterson (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Patterson, David. “The Life of Ivan Il'ich.” Thought 65, no. 257 (June 1990): 143-54.

[In the following essay, Patterson maintains that “Ivan's difficulty lies not in saying yes to death but in distinguishing between life and death, that is, in perceiving the substance of spiritual life.”]

In an article on Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Il'ich, Gary Jahn asserts that “there are, in fact, few stories whose intended meaning is so abundantly clear” (237). But, judging from the varied reaction to the tale, nothing could be so abundantly false. Indeed, Jahn's article itself represents a misunderstanding of the work. Mistakenly supposing that...

(The entire section is 6095 words.)

Joanne Trautmann Banks (essay date 1990)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Banks, Joanne Trautmann. “Death Labors.” In Literature and Medicine: Volume Nine, Fictive Ills: Literary Perspectives on Wounds and Diseases, edited by Peter W. Graham and Elizabeth Sewell, pp. 162-71. Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1990.

[In the following essay, Banks compares the portrayal of illness in Tolstoy's novella and Tillie Olsen's “Tell Me a Riddle.”]

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time.

—T. S. Eliot, “Little Gidding”

They look so different on the page, these two seemingly similar...

(The entire section is 4730 words.)

Gary R. Jahn (essay date 1993)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Jahn, Gary R. “A Reading: Pattern and Structure, Themes and Confirmations.” In The Death of Ivan Ilich: An Interpretation, pp. 76-107. New York: Twayne Publishers, 1993.

[In the following essay, Jahn offers a thematic and stylistic analysis of The Death of Ivan Ilyich and places it within the context of Tolstoy's post-conversion works.]

Most readers of The Death of Ivan Ilich would probably agree with the view expressed by William Edgerton: “As we finish the story, we suddenly realize that its ending illuminates its title: the meaningless physical life of Ivan Ilich was really his death, and his physical death marked the beginning of his...

(The entire section is 10614 words.)

David S. Danaher (essay date 1995)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Danaher, David S. “Tolstoy's Use of Light and Dark Imagery in The Death of Ivan Il'ič.Slavic and East European Journal 39, no. 2 (summer 1995): 227-40.

[In the following essay, Danaher asserts that Tolstoy's utilization of light and dark imagery in The Death of Ivan Ilyich: “serve a narrative function in the text, entering systematically into an extended, figurative motif which comes to reflect the text considered as a whole.”]

In a recent study of the aesthetics of Tolstoy, Rimvydas Šilbajoris asserts that an examination of the use of detail in Tolstoy is central to an understanding of his art, writing. “The secret of his power as a...

(The entire section is 6809 words.)

Harriet Hustis (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Hustis, Harriet. “‘Three Rooms Off’: Death and the Reader in Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych.LIT: Literature Interpretation Theory 11, no. 3 (2000): 261-75.

[In the following essay, Hustis examines the relationship between death and Tolstoy's narrative, contending that The Death of Ivan Ilych allows readers to circumvent the subjectivity of death and view it in aesthetic and more participatory terms.]

Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilych overtly casts the crisis of human death in textual form. This affinity between death and narrative is by no means unique; in fact, many nineteenth- and twentieth-century novelists and theorists...

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Dennis Patrick Slattery (essay date 2000)

(Short Story Criticism)

SOURCE: Slattery, Dennis Patrick. “Rebellious Things and Deepening Wounds in the Life of Ivan Ilych.” In The Wounded Body: Remembering the Markings of Flesh, pp. 157-76. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2000.

[In the following essay, Slattery considers the literal and metaphorical significance of wounds and disease in Tolstoy's novella.]

The gods have become diseases; Zeus no longer rules Olympus but rather the solar plexus, and produces curious specimens for the doctor's consulting room.

—Alchemical Studies, 37

With all of the various criticisms that have explored Tolstoy's...

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Further Reading

(Short Story Criticism)


Borker, David. “Sentential Structure in Tolstoy's Smert' Ivana Il'iča.” In American Contributions to The Eighth International Congress of Slavists: Linguistics and Poetics. Vol. 1, edited by Henrik Birnbaum, pp. 180-94. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1978.

Analyzes the variation of sentence length in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Cain, T. G. S. “The Fruits of Conversion.” In Tolstoy, pp. 137-64. London: Paul Elek, 1977.

Categorizes and discusses Tolstoy's post-conversion work, including The Death of Ivan Ilyich.

Comstock, Gary. “Face to Face with It: The...

(The entire section is 362 words.)