The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich Study Guide

Welcome to the LitCharts study guide on Leo Tolstoy's The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Created by the original team behind SparkNotes, LitCharts are the world's best literature guides.

Brief Biography of Leo Tolstoy

Tolstoy was born the fourth of five children to wealthy Russian aristocrats. Both of Tolstoy’s parents died early in his childhood, and he and his siblings were subsequently raised by relatives on Yasnaya Polyana, the family’s estate. As a young man, Tolstoy studied law at Kazan University; however, he was a poor student and quickly dropped out. As a young aristocrat, Tolstoy worked for the betterment of serfs and was an outspoken proponent for their freedom. Tolstoy soon joined the army and began to write, publishing his first novel, Childhood, in 1852. He later served as an artillery officer during the Crimean War, where he gained a reputation for bravery and courage, rising to the rank of second lieutenant. After the war, Tolstoy traveled Europe extensively before returning to Yasnaya Polyana to marry Sophia Andreevna Behrs in 1862. Tolstoy and Behrs had 13 children between 1863 and 1888, and Tolstoy wrote most of his major works, including War and Peace, during this time. In the 1870s, Tolstoy endured a moral crisis and subsequent spiritual awakening, after which he declared himself a Christian anarchist and pacifist, rejected all material wealth, and dedicated his life to the nonviolent resistance of the State and Russian autocracy. Tolstoy’s radical and outspoken views, along with his desire to give away all his money and inheritance, had a negative effect on his marriage. Behrs objected to many of Tolstoy’s religious and political views, and she grew tired of the many spiritual followers Tolstoy had taken in on their estate. Estranged from his wife, Tolstoy embarked on a journey with his daughter, Aleksandra, in 1910. Elderly and already ill, the journey proved too much for Tolstoy and he died of pneumonia in Astapovo, Russia at the age of 82.    
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Historical Context of The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Leo Tolstoy wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich not long after his religious conversion. This took place shortly after he suffered something of an existential crisis, during which he struggled to see the point of life. Hoping to find answers to his questions, he turned to the Russian Orthodox church, but he found the institution corrupt because of its dealings with the government. By this time in his life, Tolstoy was a pacifist and anarchist, so he disliked the church’s association with the Russian government. Consequently, he fashioned his own spiritual and political beliefs, paving the way for what’s known as the Tolstoyan Movement, which borrowed from Jesus’s teachings but rejected the idea that Jesus performed miracles. Given Tolstoy’s rejection of traditional forms of Christianity, it makes sense that The Death of Ivan Ilyich ends on an ambiguously spiritual note, stopping just short of becoming a fully-fledged religious novella. It also makes sense that the story condemns the life of aristocratic magistrates, since Tolstoy had by that time decided that systems of government were nothing short of tyrannical. However, even though The Death of Ivan Ilyich embodies Tolstoy’s religious and political beliefs, he never issued any straightforward teachings or doctrines, which is why he eventually urged people in the Tolstoyan Movement not to subscribe to his ideas or organize around them, but to think for themselves. 

Other Books Related to The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich falls under the 19th century movement of Russian Realism. Literature in this movement tends to present complex issues—such as those of philosophical dilemma, class struggle, or interpersonal conflict—in a bluntly realistic and truthful manner. Alexander Pushkin's Eugene Onegin, Fyodor Dostoyevsky's The Idiot, and Tolstoy’s own Anna Karenina are other well-known works of Russian Realism. Beyond Tolstoy’s fellow Russian contemporaries, the novella in some ways resembles Kate Chopin’s “The Story of an Hour,” since both pieces feature protagonists whose bodies have turned against them, becoming unwieldy and unpredictable. Both stories also examine mortality alongside love and the institution of marriage, depicting characters who have become disillusioned with the bond they have with their partners. In addition, it’s worth considering that Tolstoy wrote a religious memoir called Confessions just before penning The Death of Ivan Ilyich. In Confessions, he presents the details of his recent conversion to Christianity—a tumultuous conversion that in many ways simply enabled him to dispute Christian ideas from a different angle. In this religious memoir, he idealizes the faith that he believes most peasants have, an appreciation that resurfaces in The Death of Ivan Ilyich when Ivan holds his peasant servant, Gerasim, in high esteem. Furthermore, that Ivan’s apparent religious epiphany in the last moments of his life goes unexplained and remains rather opaque aligns with the fact that Tolstoy himself had a complicated relationship with his own faith.
Key Facts about The Death of Ivan Ilyich
  • Full Title: The Death of Ivan Ilyich
  • When Written: 1882
  • When Published: 1886
  • Literary Period: Realism
  • Genre: Novella, Philosophical Fiction
  • Setting: St. Petersburg, Russia
  • Climax: Having looked into his son Vasya’s eyes and asked for his family’s forgiveness, Ivan Ilyich dies, though he feels that death has turned into “light.”
  • Antagonist: Greed, egotism, and the fear of death
  • Point of View: Third Person

Extra Credit for The Death of Ivan Ilyich

A Gloomy Gift. Tolstoy presented The Death of Ivan Ilyich to his wife, Sophia, as a birthday gift. Despite the novella’s morbid title and depressing content, Sophia was happy to receive it because she had recently been worrying about his dwindling output as a fiction writer.

Exit Interview. As evidenced by The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy was fascinated by the process of dying, which was something he had obviously only ever experienced as an onlooker. Accordingly, he wanted his close friends to pose a set of pre-determined questions to him whenever he himself began to die. But when he was finally on his deathbed, he was unable to speak, and though he had accounted for this by devising a system of communicating with his eyes, his acquaintances forgot to ask him the agreed-upon questions.