The Death of Ivan Ilych Essay Example

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  • Published: 05 September 2020
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Throughout Leo Tolstoy’s novella entitled “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” the reader can find various examples of meticulously applied writing techniques which aid in providing a coherent and fluent story that is easily understood by anyone who may read it. In analyzing this novella through the Formalist criticism approach, this paper will address how each literary technique used throughout the text contributes to accomplishing the overall goal of building a complete story and making Ivan's warning to the living apparent so the audience can effortlessly read and understand the text.

In doing so, the focus will be on how Tolstoy’s originalities within the overarching themes (living your life fully, the benefits of living simply, and death), writing style (including the way he chose to craft his words, the narrator, and the use of simple characters), and symbolism (in regards to the number 12 in relation to the topic of “wholeness”, the metaphorical black sack Ivan is thrust into, and Ivan being described as the phoenix of his family) come together to support the author’s words and ideologies and have them connect to and be applied in the reader’s real world.

This is especially helpful when viewing Tolstoy’s overarching warning to his readers, as detailed throughout this novella. His advice to the living is for them to lead a life as authentically as they can before their death, so as to not become enlightened too late in their lives that they can not truly appreciate the life that they are currently living, which is the same fate Ivan faced within this text. Because of his literary techniques, his message is able to be widely understood, appreciated, and easily applied in the reader’s current life.

The Core Themes


One theme that is prevalent through this text is the idea of striving to reach a place where we are living our lives truly and genuinely. After undergoing “a severe inward crisis” where his life, the existence of all mankind, and the universe seemed completely futile to him, Tolstoy overcame his low spirits by thinking towards “morality demanding simplicity of daily life, non-violence, and the abolition of government, church, science and industry” and converted to a religion he called Christianity, that he designed as a “combination of all he considered reasonable in all religions and philosophies” (Myers 1). The effects that this conversion had on Tolstoy are evident within his writing of this novella.

At the end of his death and the beginning of his enlightened state of mind, Ivan realizes that he had lived his life “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”, meaning he lived shallowly (pg 83). Remembering his conversion to Christianity, in his opinion, the core beliefs of an enlightened mindset and the general rules of life come directly out of certain scriptures of the Bible. First, he says “do to others as you would have them do to you” (Luke 6:31 NIV). Next, we must “'love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind” and “love your neighbor as yourself” (Mark 12:30-31 NIV). By utilizing similar ideologies that are present in the Bible, Tolstoy is able to create a clear warning that is rooted in age-old ideas.

Drawing from another one of his works, War and Peace, Tolstoy wrote, “there is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness and truth” (Tolstoy 1187). Leading a life that is meaningful and full of “lightheartedness, friendship, and hope” has many benefits (pg 166). Living simply means “stripping away the nonessential and focusing your time and energy on the things that matter the most” in order to find happiness that is true (Brookman 1). To begin, positive emotions help us to “connect with others and build our capacity to cope when things go wrong” (Williamson 1).  Individuals who are happy are proven to be more successful across various life divisions, “including marriage, friendship, income, work performance, and health” (Lyubomirsky 803). However, the premise of happiness is not to deny negative emotions. Happiness is about celebrating the good times, while also helping to “cope effectively with the inevitable bad times” (Williamson 1). People who are happier have “better overall health and live longer” when compared to unhappy people (Williamson 1). They are also “half as likely to catch the cold virus” and have a “50% lower risk of experiencing a cardiovascular event” (Williamson 1). 


Another prevalent theme embedded within the text is that of death. Before the period of his enlightenment, Ivan Ilych lived his life worried about dying, as he thought that once a physical body dies, so does the person. People being reminded of their own mortality and eventual death can create a healthy urgency of life within the living. After his enlightenment, he realized that his physical body may leave, but he is still remaining as his soul will remain immortal. Choosing to write about such a deep and universal topic such as death allows the audience to be diverse and widespread, since death is something that relates to everyone in life at some point. When we accept the fact that one day we will die, only then can we let go and make the best out of our lives.

Overarching Themes

In addition to the overarching themes that appear within this novella, Leo Tolstoy’s writing style further contributes to his goal of warning the audience to live meaningfully while they are still alive. This novella is narrated in an objective third-person perspective. The narrator speaks of the large and small events and the positives and negatives within Ivan’s life in the same tone of voice, which helps to keep their tone consistent and detached for the readers. It is clear to the audience that there are no judgements being made by the narrator, which allows the audience to form their own opinions and eliminates any possible swaying from the influence of the narrator. A clear, consistent, and unbiased tone helps the audience to realize that the narrator is an impartial party who gains and loses nothing by being honest as they are just here to tell the story.

The narrator is honest and straightforward which shows that they have no reason to be deemed untruthful or untrustworthy. This allows the audience to take the narrator’s telling of the story’s events and the lessons throughout the story as objective and unprejudiced. The narrator is a fiçelle. A fiçelle is a term used by Henry James to denote a person who exists to act as the reader’s friend and advance the plot.  When describing Ivan in his coffin, Tolstoy says that “besides. . .[Ivan looking more handsome in death compared to while he was alive, his face had an] expression a reproach and a warning to the living” (pg 79). By writing in such a way, narrator pressure is utilized and the audience’s interest is held so they yearn to keep reading. The utilization of this tactic also enforces the audience's curiosity of what happened to Ivan, what his reproach and warning to the living was, and how they can take the warning into consideration within their own lives.

Adding to the narrator’s style, the method of how Leo Tolstoy chooses to write his story contributes to the clarity of his warning. Keeping the chapters short and detailed allows the story to be easily followed and easily understood. Adding intrigue, this novella is structured in such a way that defies conventional writing flow. Within the first chapter, one of Ivan’s friends exclaim “Ivan Ilych has died!” (pg 77). Conventional flow would be a story starting off with a character being alive, and then ending with them dying, not starting off with them being dead and recalling previous events. This artistic choice is unconventional, but nevertheless easy for the audience to follow. 

Furthermore, Tolstoy uses simple characters to lead his story. The characters we see are part of Russia's middle class. We see them moving into a new house and preparing for a wedding, among many other actions. By doing this, the readers are easily able to relate the characters to their real life in the form of people they may know as the characters and their actions are both normal and can be seen in day-to-day life. Having both writing that is easily followed and understood and characters that are easy to relate to allows Tolstoy's words - including his warning - to reach a broad audience who will understand what he is saying with ease.

As well as both the overarching themes and the writing style, another prevalent and effective writing technique that is utilized throughout this novella is the application of symbolism. “Symbolism can be used to add or represent meaning that goes beyond what is literally being said. The actions and events within the plot can be looked at on one level, while literary symbols within the writing can be considered on another level” (Coconi 1).

For example, this novella is broken down into 12 chapters. The number 12 is a perfect number, which symbolizes wholeness. This shows that the audience is being told the complete story and that Ivan’s entire life is depicted. Connecting back to Tolstoy’s conversion to Christianity, the number also “symbolizes God's power and authority” (Meaning of Numbers 1). By showing the audience that they are receiving the entire story, the warning to the living gains merit since the audience is shown that nothing is left out of the narrative of Ivan's life. 


As another example of symbolism, Ivan Ilych was described as “le phenix de la familia”, which is translated to “the phoenix of his family” (pg 84). The phoenix is a mythological symbol which is depicted as a “large, grand bird, much like an eagle or peacock. It is brilliantly coloured in reds, purples, and yellows” and “symbolizes renewal and resurrection” (Lizleafloor 1). The phoenix is known for “burning itself to death. . .and rising from its ashes” (Wilson 88). This is representative of Ivan’s journey of rising from the dead, enlightened. From the death of his physical body to his soul emerging from his body, Ivan’s true form is his spirit that is now enlightened and fulfilled. His soul, in turn, transcends death. The comparison to the phoenix is evident that he realizes there is no such thing as death, as a person’s soul is who they truly are. The Phoenix is also a symbol that directly mirrors the death of Christ and his resurrection from the dead. 

Lastly, at the end of his life, “for three whole days, during which time did not exist for him, [Ivan] struggled in that black sack” that he was being thrust into by an “invisible, restless force” (pg 121). This black sack is representative of death. While Ivan is fighting with the black sack, the invisible and restless force holding him inside represents his fight between his acceptance of death and his fear of it. Once Ivan stopped struggling with acceptance and began to understand his own mortality, he was able to move on, as evident when he speaks to his family. Before his journey to enlightenment, he held hostility for his family.

However, at the end of his life, as his son held his hand, he turned to his wife and said “sorry for him...sorry for you too” and tried to say “‘forgive me,’ but said ‘forego’ and waved his hand, knowing that He whose understanding mattered would understand” what he had meant (pg 122). His emergence out of the black sack is also representative of his spiritual rebirth out of life’s womb. By describing Ivan's struggle with the acceptance of his death as if he is in a symbolic black sack, the audience is able to visualize and sympathize with the metaphorical feeling of being claustrophobic, stuck, and struggling. This further enforces his warning to the audience, so they do not end up meeting the same fate that he did, which is being afraid of death, living a life that is shallow, and not realizing the mistake until it is too late.


When analyzing text, one method a reader can take is the formalist criticism approach, which details how a story’s elements come together to create a well-rounded and effective piece of literature. Throughout Leo Tolstoy’s novella entitled “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” Tolstoy utilizes various literary elements that come together to contribute to developing a warning to the readers to live a compassionate and authentic life while they are still alive.

The way Tolstoy writes about widely recognizable themes such as death and wanting to live our lives as fully as we can while we are still alive, how he chose to write and structure his story, his use of relatable characters, the narrator, and the strategic use of symbolism throughout his story all allow the story to have the ability to reach a wide and varied audience. By utilizing these tactics, Tolstoy was able to move beyond the text and relate to the here and now of the real world by choosing to write about how the audience should aim to declutter their lives as early on as they can, in order to live an authentic and truly fulfilling lifestyle, similar to the enlightenment Ivan Ilych reached at the end of his life. The idea of, once our current bodies are gone, our souls will still exist, resonates throughout the text, thus stating that the sooner the readers reach the point of living a fulfilling life, the sooner their authentic lives will begin.



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