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The Death of Ivan Ilych

Leo Tolstoy

Study Questions and Essay Topics

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Quiz

Study Questions

Why does Tolstoy choose to place Ivan's funeral in the first chapter?

By placing Ivan's funeral in the first chapter, Tolstoy provides an intimate view of the social milieu Ivan occupied, thereby rendering it susceptible to evaluation and critique. He also establishes contrasting attitudes toward the unpleasant aspects of life, a principal theme in the work. The shallow relationships and the artificial, self-interested behavior of Ivan's wife, colleagues, and friends demonstrate the hypocrisy of his society, and serve to undercut the values by which Ivan lived his life. The fact that Ivan's colleagues are more affected by the professional position opened by his vacancy than by the death of their friend and co-worker is as much an indication of their self-interest as it is of the misguided principles by which Ivan lived. Similarly, Praskovya's indifference toward her husband's death highlights both Ivan's inability to develop a loving relationship with his wife and her own shallowness and falsity. In this way, Chapter I, in part, serves as an attack on the empty and valueless life of the society of which Ivan was a part. The falseness of relations, the insincerity of interaction, and the primacy of self-interest are satirized by Tolstoy, and revealed as inadequate and ultimately unfulfilling.

Yet Chapter I also functions to establish contrasting attitudes toward death. Neither Peter, nor Schwartz, nor Praskovya, nor Ivan's colleagues at work are willing to confront the prospect of their own mortality. They avoid it, ignore it, and gene rally discount its effect on their existence. Thus, the habit of disregarding the unpleasantness of life is a habit of Ivan's society. The peasant servant Gerasim, on the other hand, is the only character that openly acknowledges his own mortality. He confronts death and unpleasantness as inevitable aspects of life. By pitting Gerasim's worldview against the worldview of the members of aristocratic society, therefore, Tolstoy lays the groundwork for an exploration of one of the work's major themes.

Some critics believe that The Death of Ivan Ilych is a work of moral fiction, that it is designed primarily to provide moral instruction to its audience. Discuss this claim and provide evidence from the text to support your opinion.

There is no doubt that a definite moral agenda drives Tolstoy's narrative. The Death of Ivan Ilych is designed to make us question the way we have been living, and ultimately, to conform our behavior to the model of right living presented in the n ovel. Although imparted in the context of a story rather than in a logical argument, Tolstoy's beliefs come across no less clearly. By describing the thoughts, desires, and goals of an average man of moderate means, Tolstoy creates a composite sketch of u s all. In allowing us to identify with the life of the protagonist, Tolstoy also links us emotionally to his suffering and agonizing death. If Ivan's values and goals, not so dissimilar from our own, lead him to a bitter existential crisis at the moment o f death, what will our beliefs do for us? We begin to wonder whether the crass materialism and hypocritical relationships of Ivan's society, so mercilessly satirized by Tolstoy, extend even to our own lives. Ivan's misery and unhappiness suddenly appe ar not so far away. Yet through Gerasim's model and Ivan's death-knell epiphany, Tolstoy points us in the direction of the light. The right life, the authentic life, is one of compassion and self-sacrificing love. It sees others not as means to ends, but as individual beings with unique thoughts, feelings, and desires. The authentic life cultivates mutually affirming human relationships that break down isolation and allow for true interpersonal contact. It fosters strength through solidarity and comfo rt through empathy. It creates bonds and prepares us to meet death. Gerasim is the only character that lives wholly and unambiguously the right way, and it is not a coincidence that he is also the only character unafraid of death and personal involvement. Just as Gerasim teaches Ivan the true meaning of life, so too, Gerasim acts as a moral guide for us. By describing Ivan's incorrect life, consequent suffering, and ultimate rebirth into a moral existence, Tolstoy succeeds in providing us with a roadmap t o morality.

Identify and discuss the narrative and structural devices that Tolstoy uses.

Tolstoy locates his narrative within a shrinking spatial and temporal framework. Space and time both progressively contract throughout the novel until they reach point zero at the moment of Ivan's death. The first four chapters of the novel span more than forty years. Tolstoy relates his account of the life of Ivan from childhood, through the development of his professional career and his marriage, to the onset of his illness. During this time, Ivan moves freely from province to province. His spatial boundaries are virtually unlimited. In the second four chapters, the novel's action spans several months. Ivan's illness develops, and as he struggles to cope with his physiological degeneration he is limited spatially to the confines of his study. The fi nal four chapters of the novel cover less than five weeks. Dedicated to Ivan's decline and agonizing death, they span the shortest amount of time and most severely limit Ivan's spatial dimensions, restricting him to the sofa in his study. This steady shri nking of time and space accentuates the feeling of paralysis, anxiety, and helplessness that Ivan experiences. It reinforces the sensation of imminent death in a subtle and effective way. Yet this device does more than emphasize death, it also allows Tols toy to express a principal theme of the work. As space and time begin to close in on Ivan from all sides, as Ivan's physical existence disappears, Ivan is reborn into a spiritual life. He experiences a single changeless moment, and when Ivan sees the ligh t, he explodes the boundaries of time and space by passing into spirit. Thus, not only does the shrinking spatial/temporal framework enhance our feeling of the protagonist's experience, it also helps Tolstoy explore the theme of the spiritual vs. the phys ical world.

Another of Tolstoy's subtle structural devices deals with the amount of words he uses to describe events. Give or a take a few words, every chapter in the novel is progressively shorter than the chapter before it. While chapter I is approximately 300 line s, chapter VII is 153, and chapter XII is only 73. The decreasing size of the chapters compliments the decreasing time frame and spatial dimensions. It gives the story momentum, and propels the reader toward the inevitable conclusion of Ivan's life.

Suggested Essay Topics

Why does Tolstoy present the story through the eyes of an omniscient narrator?

Discuss the significance of the title. If the work professes to be about Ivan's death, why is it almost entirely dedicated to Ivan's life?

Is the fact that Gerasim is a peasant important to understanding his character and worldview?

Discuss the use of the black bag as a symbol in The Death of Ivan Ilych.

Why is Ivan's method of dealing with life's unpleasantness ultimately unsuccessful?

According to Tolstoy, why is it important to acknowledge one's own mortality?

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tread?

by ndizzles, February 18, 2014

"a judge who chose to tread the newspaper rather than engage in the discussion," you said tread instead of too read

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