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.

  1. Why might Tolstoy begin The Death of Ivan Ilyich with the funeral of the main character? How would the effect differ if it were told chronologically?
  2. What are the comic elements in the opening chapter, and how do they function?
  3. What is your initial impression of Ivan’s wife? Does your opinion of her change as the story progresses?
  4. Chapter Two begins with an important claim: “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and commonplace—and most horrifying.” Why might Tolstoy consider Ivan’s “simple and commonplace” life to be “horrifying”?
  5. As Ivan rises in his career, he fails in his personal life. What might Tolstoy be suggesting here? Why does Ivan find so much pleasure in playing bridge?
  6. Why does Ivan marry Praskovya Fedorovna? Why does their marriage deteriorate? Does either husband or wife receive your sympathy?
  7. Why do you think Ivan is comforted by the presence of the peasant boy, Gerasim? How does his attitude contrast with Ivan’s other visitors, especially the doctors?
  8. Compare the conduct of Ivan’s daughter with Ivan’s son. Why is this 13 year-old boy crucial to the novella’s final chapter?
  9. After three days of excruciating physical and mental pain, Ivan realizes that despite a futile life, he can still make amends. Is he right? Does he accomplish this?
  10. How do you interpret the light that Ivan sees at the very end? What might this light symbolize or suggest?
  11. Writer Cynthia Ozick says, “This novella is about learning, finally, that you have been living a lie, that you’ve failed to be true to yourself, that you’ve failed to be true to others around you, and that you failed. And it is about exploring the rupture of the lie.” Do you agree? Why or why not?
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