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The Death of Ivan Ilyich Critical Essays

Leo Tolstoy


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Critical Evaluation

(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich is quite short, but it is one of the greatest pieces of fiction in any language. In it, Leo Tolstoy examines the hollowness of bourgeois existence. Ivan Ilyich is a successful member of the state bureaucracy. Throughout his life he has carefully adjusted his conduct so as to please his superiors and to arrange a life that runs smoothly and without complication. He is the perfect example of the conforming, “other-directed” man. Only shortly before his death does he discover the horror that lies behind his seemingly successful life.

The story opens in an unusual but significant way. Rather than tell the reader of Ivan’s early years, Tolstoy presents the dead Ivan stretched out at home, attended by his wife and closest friend, Peter Ivanovitch. The behavior of the mourners indicates more about Ivan’s life than any chronicle could. Rather than grieve over his death, they are worried about their own affairs. His wife asks Peter Ivanovitch about her pension, hoping to persuade him to help her arrange for an increase, while he frets about missing the bridge game he had planned. They both pretend to feelings of grief they do not feel. The work proceeds to answer the question what was it about Ivan’s life that could have resulted in so little concern for him after his death. This portion of the novella dramatizes the statement that opens the second section: “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”

Ivan’s progress from law school to the position of examining magistrate is marked by careful obedience to authority both in legal matters and in matters of taste and style of life. His early pangs of conscience at youthful actions are overcome when he sees people of good position doing the same thing without qualms. Still, he never becomes a rake or hell-raiser; he is, rather, anxiously correct and proper. He makes a proper marriage—one that serves to advance him—and then gradually proceeds to alienate his wife and children by avoiding domestic complications in the name of his job. In this separation between his private life, with its potential for affection, and his public duties, he furthers the process of fragmentation within himself. He becomes punctilious at home as well as at work. All of his life takes on an official and artificial character, from which only the natural process of dying can release him as it educates him. In the opening scene, readers are told that “his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than when he was alive.” His death is a form of rescue.

His job is a game that he had played with great…

(The entire section is 1,088 words.)

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich Homework Help Questions

  • In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” why did Ivan conclude his life ”was not the real thing”?

    As Ivan Ilyich moves closer and closer towards his death, he begins to realise more about his life and the way that he has lived it. His concluding realisation, that his life was not “the real…

  • What are the similarities between “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and The Metamorphosis?
    As we know…

    These two stories are similar in terms of theme, main character, and, not least importantly, tone. The Metamorphosis begins with a fantasy event – the changing of a man into a giant bug – while…

  • Describe the character development of Ivan Ilych.

    Ivan a judge in the high court with a child and a wife is found to be living a good and simple life, or so he thought. He begins to feel sick and finds out that he is terminal. It is at this point…

  • In “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” how does Ivan come to achieve redemption in spite of his…

    It is clear that what allows Ivan Illyich to achieve redemption, if indeed redemption is what he achieves, is a recognition of how he has wasted his life by focusing on the material alone. His…

  • According to Tolstoy, what is terrible about a simple and ordinary life in the novel The Death…

    Chapter 2 of the novel The Death of Ivan Ilych opens with one of the most famously-quoted phrases in Russian literature

    Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most…

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