Places: The Death of Ivan Ilyich

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: “Smert Ivana Ilicha”, 1886 (English translation, 1887)

Type of work: Novella

Type of plot: Psychological realism

Time of work: 1880’s

Asterisk denotes entries on real places.

Places Discussed*Russian provinces

*Russian Death of Ivan Ilyich, Theprovinces. Settings in flashback episodes. After a brief introduction set in Petersburg in which it is revealed that Ivan Ilych has died, the story moves rapidly through three anonymous provincial towns of the character’s past. Lacking physical detail, these merge into one another. The very lack of specific character of the places that Ilych inhabits allows Tolstoy to suggest that it is, ironically, the very ordinariness of Ilych’s life that explains its final horror.

As Ilych graduates from the Petersburg School of Law and prepares to take his first post in the “provinces,” Tolstoy announces the story’s moral theme: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”; Ilych “was neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them–an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man.” He has chosen a life of comfort, security, and social conformity, and Tolstoy’s condemnation of this amoral conventionality is the story’s core moral idea.

Ivan Ilych is a fascinating caricature of the ordinary man of competence and duty but of no particular passion, who chooses to lead what a later generation would call an “inauthentic life.” While Ilych performs his professional legal duties, attends the usual social gatherings, has the infrequent love affair, and finally drifts into a marriage of convenience, the settings in which all this occurs are presented with great economy–readers simply “see,” now and then, a comfortable room in which are leather chairs and cigar smoke, or the sparkling lights, the formally dressed men and the well-dressed ladies of a social gathering. That is all, but it is so well done that it conveys, in an ironically understated way, Tolstoy’s passionate moral condemnation of modern middle-class conventionality.

*St. Petersburg

*St. Petersburg. Russia’s nineteenth century capital is identified only as “Petersburg” in this story, but its identification is not of great importance. The Petersburg of the story could be any great Russian city of its era. Like the “provinces,” it is treated primarily as an artificial and “unnatural” place in which life is reduced to petty bickering and social climbing. The story opens here and, after the interlude in the provinces in which Ilych establishes himself in his legal trade, returns to focus on his last months of life and the “absurd” accident that leads to his slow, debilitating, and painful death.

At the end, Ilych is middle-aged and increasingly dissatisfied with his life: he and his wife squabble constantly, his relations with his children are strained, and he is stalled in his career. To escape his disillusionment, he undertakes the repair of the family’s new home in Petersburg. Taking an irrational delight in the task, he imagines that the house marks him as a man of exceptional taste and intelligence. Tolstoy underscores the delusion of Ilych’s happiness, however, and, in the only descriptive scene of any length in the story, writes that

In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich . . . : there were damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes. . . . His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.

This image of pretentious clutter is the story’s single lengthy description, and it conveys Tolstoy’s moral condemnation of modern materialism. This is clear at the end, when Ilych’s illness–caused by a fall he has taken while refurnishing his new house–causes him endless and intense pain, leading him to question the conduct of his whole life. He comes to the conclusion that the intensity of his despair is the result, finally, of the false values by which he has led his life. He has not “lived well” and realizes that, indeed, in living for comfort and pleasure, he has not lived at all; his effort to be as conventional as possible has resulted in a wasted and even, Tolstoy suggests, a “sinful” life. To underscore this point, Tolstoy creates a counterpoint character, the peasant Gerasim, a servant whose simplicity, kindliness, and unaffected selflessness stand in stark contrast to the socially successful and conventionally dutiful but ultimately selfish and amoral members of Ilych’s “sophisticated” middle-class circle. It is Gerasim’s example which at last persuades Ilych to accept the “rightness” of his fate.

Sources for Further StudyChristian, R. F. Tolstoy: A Critical Introduction. London: Cambridge University Press, 1969. Discusses The Death of Ivan Ilyich and compares the novella with Franz Kafka’s The Trial (1925). Also relates the plot and structure of The Death of Ivan Ilyich to the works of later writers whom it may have influenced.Courcel, Martine de. Tolstoy: The Ultimate Reconciliation. Translated by Peter Levi. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1988. A thorough discussion of Tolstoy. Explains the social and political atmosphere at the time of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. Finds many parallels between it and Tolstoy’s life.Jahn, Gary R. “The Death of Ivan Ilich”: An Interpretation. New York: Twayne, 1993. Includes an extensive chronology of Tolstoy and the literary and historical context of the work. Presents critical reception, social, psychological and philosophical issues, as well as a section on structure and style. Also gives an extensive reading of the plot.Noyes, George Rapall. Tolstoy. New York: Dover, 1968. Discusses the interconnection of Tolstoy’s many works and refers to biographical information pertinent to the understanding of his writings. Finds The Death of Ivan Ilyich to be more intense and focused than other works by the author.Orwin, Donna Trilling, ed. The Cambridge Companion to Tolstoy. Cambridge, England: Cambridge University Press, 2002. A collection of essays on Tolstoy’s major works.Rowe, William W. Leo Tolstoy. Boston: Twayne, 1986. Contains a chronology of Tolstoy’s life, bibliography, and index. Chapters include biographical information and treatments of several novels and stories. An excellent companion for the Tolstoy reader. Discusses the structure and main character of The Death of Ivan Ilyich.Tolstoy, Leo. Tolstoy’s Short Fiction. Edited by Michael R. Katz. New York: W. W. Norton, 1991. Contains critical essays on The Death of Ivan Ilyich and other Tolstoy stories.
Categories: Places