The Death of Ivan Ilyich

book by Leo Tolstoy

annotation by Stephanie Quinn Westphal

Leo Tolstoy’s novella The Death of Ivan Ilyich is considered a classic for its brilliant structure. By opening with a protagonist who is already dead, Tolstoy gives himself a difficult technical challenge. By putting the “end” at the beginning, Tolstoy removes the possibility for normal suspense. The novel’s tension no longer resides in the outcome, but rather in what led to this particular ending. The central question shifts from “Will Ilyich die?” to “What kind of a man ends up dying so un-mourned?”

Tolstoy replaces traditional suspense over the outcome of the plot with psychological suspense about the nature of the dead man’s life. We are propelled to read his story by our questions (Why is Ilyich so alone?), our emotional prurience in the real feelings of the man’s so-called friends and family (Why did they despise him or think of him as merely useful?) and a morbid interest in the details of his death. After dispensing with the classical means of engaging the reader – a compelling plot and/or a likeable protagonist—Tolstoy lures the reader in by his sheer technical genius. And in a central way, death isn’t the focus of the story, despite its title, but rather a lens Tolstoy uses to examine life and how it is lived well or poorly.

What stood out for me most was Tolstoy’s brilliant use of characterization in the novel (which is deftly interwoven with his use of structure). He begins with three colleagues outwardly responding to news of Ilyich’s death and inwardly revealing their rather shockingly self-centered reactions. Tolstoy skillfully manipulates his characterization of Ilyich’s three colleagues to build the personality of the dead man, to create the social world of the story, and to evoke the common frailties of being human. The narrator doesn’t comment much, but instead reveals the gaps between what the characters say and what they actually think and feel. In fact, their reactions contain more irritation or glee than sorrow or regret; this not only makes them seem shallow, self-absorbed and duplicitous, but also raises essential questions about the personality of the dead protagonist. What sort of man makes so little a mark on the people who share his life?

Tolstoy took this approach to create a negative impression of Ilyich, to paint him as mercenary and selfish by virtue of the company he keeps and what little they think of him. We quickly conclude that Ilyich seems to be a man whose relationships are not emotionally close or genuine, but rather built on propinquity or mutual benefit. After Tolstoy quickly and effectively sketches these characters, he extends his critique outward in a larger ring to show the hypocritical society in which Ilyich worked and lived.

The coldness and detachment of the three lawyers is echoed in another friend that Pyotor encounters at the funeral, an event that he goes to more out of duty than love: “His closest acquaintances, Ivan Ilyich’s so-called friends, couldn’t help thinking that they would now have to fulfill some tedious social obligation such as attending the funeral and calling on the widow to express their condolences.”

After setting up the dead man’s personality and milieu, Tolstoy directs our attention to the man’s life. We read Ilyich’s story as a cautionary tale.
With some disgust, we learn how Ilyich abused his power as a judge. We recoil as we see how he dismissed people’s real suffering and “granted” them mercy only as a way to increase his feelings of self-importance. And we critique him for how he barely cared for his family, but instead saw them as props in his stage show of “The Unique and Important Story of the Caesar-Like Ilyich.” We also, it must be said, stand back as if we are completely free of such small-minded, selfish tendencies, an effect that Tolstoy surely intended as well.

As Ilyich stumbles from being a self-satisfied, successful judge to a mortally ill, essentially friendless man, he is forced to question his own life. Ilyich rails against the unwelcome necessity that presses itself on him, almost as unwelcome as his fatal illness and impending death.

Self-examination was a task he avoided until he became sick. When he dismisses some of the conclusions that visit him like unwelcome guests, he reveals the depth of his self-delusion, his smugness and his lack of insight.

Through this rather detestable, but very human character, Tolstoy creates a masterful portrayal of a common human flaw, a bug in our mental software: we are often so consumed with our own needs, desires and self-centered concerns that we fail to live in real relationship to others, discarding the biggest joy of life –the chance to love and be loved.

In addition, Tolstoy uses inversion to show how life is a series of reversals of elemental roles: baby to old person, child to parent, judge to victim, and powerful to helpless. When he switches roles, Ilyich must face his own arrogance and false belief in his uniqueness. When the judge’s body sickens, the famous doctor won’t slow down enough to treat Ilyich like an intelligent human being. Ilyich’s wife and daughter see his illness and impending death as irritating impositions on their plans. If he can’t be pater familias, he’s not welcome as dying, needy dad. His friends wish he’d just hurry up and die already. Without death gnawing on him, Ilyich would never have faced how he misspent his life. He confused his roles in life with his essence, foolishly believing outward success conferred real value. He bought the illusion that his social position and professional trappings made him good, lovable and important, and not his actions or the way he treated people.

Tolstoy does an impressive job of using the particular to convey the universal. He creates a specific man in the prime of his life who must confront his own imminent death, must bear with being humbled and terrified, and must face the ramifications of how he structured his life. If Ilyich had died of a heart attack, in his sleep, or even as an old feeble man, he might have managed to remain deluded about his specialness and his importance to others. But since Tolstoy makes Ilyich die a slow, painful death by cancer, he must at least glance at the withering away of his abilities and his abandonment by others. Ilyich’s suffering is thus made even greater. In this novella, Tolstoy shatters our perception of how significant our deaths “should be.” There is nothing momentous about Ilyich’s death.

Tolstoy does offer a small measure of hope when he has his protagonist almost awaken as he nears his death. But in the end – and, in this case, in the beginning—Ilyich does not change the way he lives in time to connect with others. The way Tolstoy played with the gap between appearance and reality inspired me to explore those elements in my own writing. I will try to use the lies my characters tell the world to reveal their inner conflicts and doubts.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s