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.
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.
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.