The Death of Ivan Ilych
life had been most simple and commonplace—and most horrifying.”
the spring of 1874 the Narodnik
intelligentsia left the cities for the villages, "going to the people",
attempting to teach the peasantry their moral imperative to revolt.
They found almost no support.
Imperial secret police responded to the Narodniks'
attempt with repression: revolutionaries and their peasant sympathizers
were beaten, imprisoned and exiled. In 1877, the Narodniks
revolted with the support of thousands of peasants. The revolt however
was swiftly and brutally crushed.
response to this repression Russia's first organized revolutionary
party formed: Narodnaya Volya ("People's Will"). It favored secret
society-led terrorism, justified “as a means of exerting pressure on
the government for reform, as the spark that would ignite a vast
peasant uprising, and as the inevitable response to the regime's use of
violence against the revolutionaries”.
Land and Liberty forms.
August: Land and Liberty splits into the
moderate Black Repartition and the radical terrorist group People's
10 March: Alexander II assassinated by Ignacy Hryniewiecki
of the People's Will. His son, Alexander III, becomes tsar.
3 May: Alexander III introduces the May
Laws, which expel Russian Jews from rural areas and small towns and
severely restricted their access to education.
1 November: Alexander III dies. His son Nicholas II succeeded him as
1 March: The Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP)
holds its first Party Congress.
Tolstoy is fifty-eight years of age (he would live another twenty-four
years): we are after War and Peace, after Anna
Karenina. The Death of Ivan Ilych
was his first published work after his conversion to Orthodoxy and a
decade long immersion in theological reflection and writing. During
these years Tolstoy deliberately avoided writing fiction.
(Interestingly, Tolstoy would be excommunicated from the Eastern
Orthodox Church a few years later.)
style of The Death of Ivan Ilych
stands in stark contrast to his earlier fiction. The miracle
of Tolstoy’s great novels is in the way they generate a sense of real
time passing. Reading Anna Karenina, you feel as if in
the presence of living, breathing people amid the dense detail and
complicated circumstances of real life.
Death of Ivan Ilych
distills experience down to its essentials. Tolstoy is deliberately
writing a parable, shorn of details of time and place. This story can
be read on many different levels and can be usefully interpreted as both a
psychological study and a political statement.
also a masterful work of art built around one stunning insight into
life. Initially, we watch a man make choices which sap all the meaning
from his life. Amid all the material pleasures of career, family and
society, Ivan’s personal life possesses no substance. Then a miracle
happens. He accidentally injures himself as, slipping from a ladder, he
bumps his side his side, hard, against a door knob-- and he has three left months to live.
Then, gradually, through experiences of horror and profound physical
suffering, Ivan achieves a new birth into consciousness within moments
of his death. Tolstoy would argue that Ivan achieves salvation only in the last moments of his life.
consciousness of death, we lead lives devoid of any substance.
The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)
Chapter One: Ivan Ilych's
the chronicle of Ivan Ilych’s life, we
learn what it was worth and how it should be judged by observing the
reaction of people who knew him to the news of his death. [Irony is
Tolstoy’s weapon against vanity, and he is absolutely clear in his
judgement of Ivan and his colleagues, friends and family. Their
predatory self-interest is only barely concealed beneath the routine
expressions of condolence.]
comes during one of those respites from judicial labor
that Ivan loved so much: people are smoking, drinking tea, talking
office politics-- the latest official appointments and the like… (35)
is the first
reaction of his colleagues to the news of his death? (35-37)
- Hey, glad it’s not me, and
then, “Hmmmm…..” What effect will Ivan’s
death have on transfers and appointments?
do the details Tolstoy reveals of Ivan’s funeral and wake reflect the
substance of Ivan’s life: its atmosphere, values and modes of behavior?
- friendship? His
childhood friend Peter Ivanovich is in a hurry to get to a whist game.
(Ivan Ilych’s passion for cards…)
- marriage? Ivan
took from his wife Praskovya Fyodorovna only the conveniences of room and
board, so she is now only concerned with the monetary conveniences to
be gained from his death.
all the furniture?
Tolstoy dwells on descriptions of the furniture-- the material
commodities of Ivan’s life are inventoried: the upholstered sofa in
pink cretonne with green leaves, the creaky low pouffe, the antique clock, etc. All were more important to Ivan
than the people in his life.
- Emotion? The
conventional expressions of sorrow precisely correlate to the actual
emotions Ivan felt in his own life. We know Ivan Ilych’s
life will be as shallow and impersonal as his friends’ and family’s seeming sorrow.
There is a thirteen year
old boy crying beneath the stairs, and there is a
highly efficient servant
briskly spreading incense: “It’s God’s will, we
shall all come to it someday.”
There is that terrifying description of Ivan’s body. [Quote
39] and there are the casual mentions of some of the harrowing details of
his death: [Quote 43]
is Tolstoy up to?
Chapter Two: Ivan's Youth and Early
Ivan’s life as a
first act after graduation? (Note the medallion inscribed 'repice finem' that he hangs on his watch chain as a memento of this time in his life.)
his life style
during his early career. (Note the silver cigarette-case his friends give him as a memento of this first phase of his career.)
about his new job
does he find most interesting? (Note that to mark this new phase in his existence, Ivan Ilych decides to grow a beard.)
becomes the love of his
life? (Hint: It's not his wife.)
did he marry
- Note the perfection of this sentence: "The preparations
for marriage and the beginning of married life, with its conjugal caresses,
new furniture, new crockery, and new linen, were
very pleasant... until his wife became pregnant." (55) In a work of genius,
its central idea is reflected in every particular detail. How is
that true here?
- Why does Ivan’s marriage go so quickly awry?
does he respond to the challenges of married life?
His new goal?
- How do we find out about the deaths of two of his
Chapter Three: The Crisis of Ivan's Career
is the most terrible
thing that ever happens to Ivan (before his injury)?
does he bounce back
to his feet?
does he decorate
his new apartment in the city? (What does the narrator think of the apartment's look?)
is he injured? What makes this event symbolically perfect? (66)
- What are his first reactions
to his injury?
- How does Ivan treat the petitioners and lawyers with whom he interacts at work? Describe
Ivan’s theory of
propriety. How has Ivan nearly 'refined' people out of existence?
is the first indication of the gravity of his
physical situation? (70)
Chapter Four: The Descent (73-83)
the first stages in his descent: the taste in his mouth, his
- How quickly do Ivan's polite relations with the people in his life dissolve?
does the doctor
treat Ivan when he examines and diagnoses him? (What makes this treatment terribly ironic for Ivan?) (75)
does Ivan do to try to get
- What do all the medical specialists tell him?
it all, his body never lies to him. What is his body saying?
do his wife and family
respond to all of his ailments?
happens to the great
love of his life?
Chapter Five: Recognition (85-92)
Chapter Six: Memory (93-97)
Ivan gradually comes to grips with the fact that he is going to die,
something completely unexpected happens: memories from his
childhood—un-thought of for years—start to recur in amazing
clarity. What does he remember?
is Tolstoy doing?
does he realize that he can no longer work? (Quote 94)
should Ivan be doing? What is the best way to die?
Chapter Seven: Comfort (98-105)
Chapter Eight: A Day in the Death
do the hours pass for someone who is terminally ill?
the boredom and unchanging routine of illness.
is the cruelest thing that the celebrated specialist
can say to Ivan? Why does he say it?
is cruel about
the family’s visit to Ivan before they go to the theatre?
- Who alone understands
what is happening to him?
Chapter Nine: Opium Dream (117- 120)
do pain killers like opium make matters worse for a
terminally ill patient?
at Ivan’s prayer.
(Quote 117-18) For what
does he wish?
- What memories come to
does he begin to think that he did not live a
good life even though he did everything he was supposed to do?
Chapter Ten: Answers (121-124)
- What answers does Ivan
receive to his prayers? Not health, but truth.
- What reason exists for his
torment? (Quote 121)
- What memories flood him
once he has accepted his pain?
does he describe the way he understands the trajectory of his life
now that he is convinced that he will die?
Chapter Eleven: Moral Agony (126-129)
does Ivan respond to the news of his daughter’s
- What moral question
does he respond to his wife’s desire that he confess his sins?
Ivan’s pain relieved? (For how long) What is Tolstoy’s point? What
riddle must Ivan solve?
Chapter Twelve: Death Throes (130-133)