Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)


“Ivan’s life had been most simple and commonplace—and most horrifying.” (Chapter Two)


Historical Context:


In 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.


The 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.


In 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”.


  • 1874: Land and Liberty forms.
  • 1879 August:  Land and Liberty splits into the moderate Black Repartition and the radical terrorist group People's Will.
  • 1881 10 March:  Alexander II assassinated by Ignacy Hryniewiecki of the People's Will. His son, Alexander III, becomes tsar.
  • 1882 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.
  • 1894 1 November: Alexander III dies. His son Nicholas II succeeded him as tsar.
  • 1898 1 March: The Marxist Russian Social Democratic Labour Party (RSDLP) holds its first Party Congress.


1886: 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.)


The 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.


The 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.

It is 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.


Tolstoy’s lesson?


Without consciousness of death, we lead lives devoid of any substance.



Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych (1886)

Chapter One:  Ivan Ilych's Funeral (35-48)


Before 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.]


The announcement 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)


What 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?


How 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? (37-46)

  •  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.
  • Why 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.
  • YET…. 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.
  • AND…. 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]


What is Tolstoy up to?


Chapter Two: Ivan's Youth and Early Adulthood (49-60)

  • Describe Ivan’s life as a student.
  • His 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.)
  • Describe 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.)
  • What 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.)
  • What becomes the love of his life? (Hint: It's not his wife.)
  • Why did he marry his wife?
  • 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?
  • How does he respond to the challenges of married life? His new goal?
  • How do we find out about the deaths of two of his children?

Chapter Three: The Crisis of Ivan's Career (61-71)

  • What is the most terrible thing that ever happens to Ivan (before his injury)?
  • How does he bounce back to his feet?
  • How does he decorate his new apartment in the city? (What does the narrator think of the apartment's look?)
  • How 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?
  • What is the first indication of the gravity of his physical situation? (70)

Chapter Four: The Descent (73-83)

  • Describe the first stages in his descent: the taste in his mouth, his mood swings.
  • How quickly do Ivan's polite relations with the people in his life dissolve?
  • How does the doctor treat Ivan when he examines and diagnoses him? (What makes this treatment terribly ironic for Ivan?) (75)
  • What does Ivan do to try to get better?
  • What do all the medical specialists tell him?
  • Through it all, his body never lies to him. What is his body saying? [Quote 80]
  • How do his wife and family respond to all of his ailments?
  • What happens to the great love of his life?

Chapter Five: Recognition (85-92)

Chapter Six: Memory (93-97)

  • As 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?
  • What is Tolstoy doing?
  • When does he realize that he can no longer work? (Quote 94)
  • What should Ivan be doing? What is the best way to die?

Chapter Seven: Comfort (98-105)

Chapter Eight: A Day in the Death (107-116)

  • How do the hours pass for someone who is terminally ill?
  • Describe the boredom and unchanging routine of illness.
  • What is the cruelest thing that the celebrated specialist can say to Ivan? Why does he say it?
  • What 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)

  • How do pain killers like opium make matters worse for a terminally ill patient?
  • Look at Ivan’s prayer. (Quote 117-18)  For what does he wish?
  • What memories come to him?
  • Why 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?
  • How 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)

  • How does Ivan respond to the news of his daughter’s engagement?
  • What moral question tortures him?
  • How does he respond to his wife’s desire that he confess his sins?
  • Is Ivan’s pain relieved? (For how long) What is Tolstoy’s point? What riddle must Ivan solve?

Chapter Twelve: Death Throes (130-133)