Places Discussed

(Critical Guide to Settings and Places in Literature)

*Russian provinces

*Russian provinces. Settings in flashback episodes. After a brief introduction set in Petersburg in which it is revealed that Ivan Ilych has died, the story moves rapidly through three anonymous provincial towns of the character’s past. Lacking physical detail, these merge into one another. The very lack of specific character of the places that Ilych inhabits allows Tolstoy to suggest that it is, ironically, the very ordinariness of Ilych’s life that explains its final horror.

As Ilych graduates from the Petersburg School of Law and prepares to take his first post in the “provinces,” Tolstoy announces the story’s moral theme: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”; Ilych “was neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them—an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man.” He has chosen a life of comfort, security, and social conformity, and Tolstoy’s condemnation of this amoral conventionality is the story’s core moral idea.

Ivan Ilych is a fascinating caricature of the ordinary man of competence and duty but of no particular passion, who chooses to lead what a later generation would call an “inauthentic life.” While Ilych performs his professional legal duties, attends the usual social gatherings, has the infrequent love affair, and finally drifts into a marriage of convenience, the settings in which all this occurs are presented with great economy—readers simply “see,” now and then, a comfortable room in which are leather chairs and cigar smoke, or the sparkling lights, the formally dressed men and the well-dressed ladies of a social gathering. That is all, but it is so well done that it conveys, in an ironically...

(The entire section is 747 words.)

Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Tolstoy’s first draft of this story was written in the first-person point of view with Ivan interpreting the events. Probably because of the importance of the theme of the story, Tolstoy later changed to an omniscient point of view, which more clearly shows the attitudes of the other characters toward Ivan’s death. In the opening section, Tolstoy emphasizes the others’ lack of concern over their friend’s death. In describing Piotr’s interview with Praskovya Fyodorovna, he concentrates on the little details of her shawl catching on the end of the table and Piotr’s discomfiture in sitting on a pouf with broken springs, showing their distractions from the important event of Ivan’s death. He thus prepares the reader for the simple, ordinary, and “most terrible” life that Ivan led, as is described in the second section of the story.

The second section is simply a prelude to the climactic death throes of the third part. Ivan’s life is detailed in a straightforward narrative emphasizing his aloofness both with his family and official associates, and, one might say, with his own feelings. All of his attitudes and values seem to come from without, from what society considers the proper thing to do.

Fully half the chapters of the story are devoted to the fatal illness and Ivan’s reactions to his family, friends, and doctors, as they all come to the realization that there is nothing they can do for him and that he is fatally ill. Here, too, Tolstoy describes the alternating feelings of hope and despair that Ivan experiences and the exasperation of his acquaintances with his annoying behavior. The doctors’ treatments are described as perfunctory after they realize that there is nothing they can do; they prefer not to understand his questions. His daughter, dressed in evening clothes, becomes impatient with his illness and resents that he causes her feelings of guilt as she attends the theater. Praskovya Fyodorovna asks after his health not to learn about it but because it is expected of her. Everyone comes to resent him for reminding them of their own mortality.

In the last section, Tolstoy turns to giving Ivan’s reactions to his illness, to describing his feelings and his questioning of the meaning of life and death. In this way, he emphasizes the epiphany that Ivan experiences at the moment of death.

Historical Context

(Short Stories for Students)

Tolstoy’s Russia
In the period during which Leo Tolstoy was writing, Russia was experiencing much turbulence politically,...

(The entire section is 497 words.)

Literary Style

(Short Stories for Students)

Point of View
‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ is narrated by a third-person voice, telling Ivan Ilych’s life story from...

(The entire section is 841 words.)

Compare and Contrast

(Short Stories for Students)

1900s: People in developed countries often die in their own homes before 50 years of age, following a brief illness. Families often...

(The entire section is 149 words.)

Topics for Further Study

(Short Stories for Students)

Compare the philosophical attitudes of Leo Tolstoy’s contemporaries on death. Was a fear of death and its implications for a meaningless or...

(The entire section is 159 words.)

Media Adaptations

(Short Stories for Students)

‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ was adapted for the stage by Myrtle Pihlman Pope and published by Stephen F. Austin State College in...

(The entire section is 23 words.)

What Do I Read Next?

(Short Stories for Students)

In Ambrose Bierce’s ‘‘An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge’’ (1891), Peyton Farquhar is about to be hanged from a bridge because of a...

(The entire section is 297 words.)

Bibliography and Further Reading

(Short Stories for Students)

Further Reading
Citati, Pietro. Tolstoy, Schocken Books, 265 p. Examines Tolstoy’s life and works, with sections...

(The entire section is 180 words.)


(Great Characters in Literature)

Sources for Further Study

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.

Orwin, Donna Trilling, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A collection of essays on Tolstoy’s major works.

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.

Tolstoy, Leo. Tolstoy’s Short Fiction. Edited by Michael R. Katz. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Contains critical essays on The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other Tolstoy stories.