National Endowment for the Arts - The Big Read
The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

by Leo Tolstoy

The goal of the artist is not to solve a question irrefutably, but to force people to love life in all its innumerable, inexhaustible manifestations.


Teachers may consider the ways in which these activities may be linked to other Big Read community events. Most of these projects could be shared at a local library, a student assembly, or a bookstore.

  1. Have the students create a photo gallery of St. Petersburg in the late 19th century, with both exterior and interior scenes, to give a sense of what the outer circumstances of life were like in the world that Tolstoy is describing. If possible, try to include scenes and persons reflective of the novella: an apartment of a well-to-do family, a law court, a judge in his uniform, and so on. Display the gallery in the classroom or school library.
  2. Show your class the DVD of the 1979 British television drama A Question of Faith, which draws upon both The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Tolstoy’s own life. Following the screening, lead a class discussion to explore the accuracy of the portrayals of the novella and the novellaist, in both detail and spirit.
  3. Divide the class into groups, and have each group prepare one of the following: a speech by one of Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues at a testimonial dinner for him; a eulogy to be delivered at his funeral; a detailed New York Times-style obituary of him. In each instance, the idea is to give a serious and respectful summation of his life and character as he appeared to the outside world, not the private man that Tolstoy portrays for us.
  4. Have the students write and stage a skit in which Ivan Ilyich is the judge on a television program along the lines of Judge Judy or The People’s Court (have him portrayed, however, as he is described in the novella, not in the smirking and hectoring manner of many TV judges). The skit should include not only the presentation of the case and the verdict, but also the exit interviews with the winning and losing parties.
  5. Have the students draw a series of portraits of Ivan Ilyich at various stages of his life: the happy child; the idealistic adolescent; the young man just embarking on his career and marriage; the prominent and prosperous judge; the middle-aged man troubled by the onset of his illness; the gaunt and agonized sufferer at the point of death; the dead man in his coffin whose expression was “a reproach or a reminder to the living.” Display these “Stages of a Life and Death” in the classroom.
  6. If your class has previously studied Greek or Shakespearean tragedy, and is familiar with the conventions of the genre, select two teams of three students each and stage a formal debate with the following topic: Resolved, Ivan Ilyich Is a Tragic Hero.
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