National Endowment of 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.

The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics, as do the Discussion Questions in the Reader’s Guide. Advanced students can come up with their own essay topics, as long as they are specific and compelling. Other ideas for essays are provided here.

For essays, students should organize their ideas around a thesis about the novella. This statement or thesis should be focused, with clear reasons supporting its conclusion. The thesis and supporting reasons should be backed by references to the text.

  1. Several times over the course of the novella, we find statements very much like this one: "So that on the whole Ivan Ilyich’s life proceeded as he felt it should—pleasantly and properly" (Chapter 2). One’s first, instinctive reaction to such comments might be, "Well, what’s wrong with that?" What, according to Tolstoy, is wrong with that?
  2. What sort of person is Praskovya Fyodorovna? Why did Ivan Ilyich marry her? How would you characterize their relationship? Does his attitude toward her seem justified by her personality and behavior?
  3. At the beginning of Chapter 3, we are told that 1880 was “the most difficult year in Ivan Ilyich’s life.” What difficulties does he face, and what does he seek by way of a solution to them? How is the situation resolved, and what are his reactions to that resolution? What does this whole experience tell us about Ivan Ilyich’s character and his values?
  4. Like many people in adverse circumstances, Ivan Ilyich wants to know why he has been afflicted with his illness, what he has done to deserve this cruel fate. Does Tolstoy in fact suggest that there is any cause-and-effect relationship, that his illness is in any way a punishment for the way he has lived? If not, what is the larger thematic function of his illness and suffering?
  5. "Ivan Ilyich suffered most of all from the lie, the lie which, for some reason, everyone accepted: that he was not dying but was simply ill" (Chapter 7). Why is this "lie" so disturbing to Ivan Ilyich, and what does he really want from other people? How consistent is this hatred of delicate pretense with his attitudes before his illness? What does this whole experience suggest about Ivan Ilyich’s character, and about Tolstoy’s view of human nature in general?
  6. As Ivan Ilyich’s illness progresses toward its inevitable end, his two children have very different attitudes and feelings toward him and his situation. What are the reactions of each of his children toward his suffering and impending death? Each one’s feelings align him or her with another, more prominent character. Who are these other characters, and what are the similarities in attitude? Which of these two contrasting responses, the daughter’s or the son’s, does Tolstoy affirm, and why?
  7. Consistent with the omniscient narrative is the tone of the writing, which is authoritative and frequently judgmental. Suppose that, after the first chapter, the authorial voice had confined itself to narration and the omniscience had been limited to Ivan Ilyich himself, with everything presented within the limits of his own perspective. What might have been gained by this approach? What would have been lost?
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