National Endowment for the Arts
"••W . . INSTITUTE of . „
of Ivan llyich
FOR THE ARTS
of Ivan llyich
FOR THE ARTS
The National Endowment for the Arts is a public agency dedicated to supporting
excellence in the arts — both new and established — bringing the arts to all Americans,
and providing leadership in arts education. Established by Congress in 1965 as an
independent agency of the federal government, the Endowment is the nations largest
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Additional support for the Big Read has also been provided by the WK. Kellogg
National Endowment for the Arts
1 100 Pennsylvania Avenue, N. W.
Washington, D.C. 20506-0001
Tolstoy, Leo. The Death of Ivan llyich. 1886. Trans. Lynn Solotaroff. New York: Bantam Dell, 1981.
David Kipen, NEA Director of National Reading Initiatives
Sarah Bainter Cunningham, PhD, NEA Director of Arts Education
Writers: Michael Palma for the National Endowment for the Arts, with a preface by Dana Gioia
Series Editor: Molly Thomas-Hicks for the National Endowment for the Arts
Graphic Design: Fletcher Design/Washington D.C.
Cover Portrait: John Sherfhus for the Big Read. Page iv: The Kremlin in Moscow, courtesy of the Library of
Congress Frank and Frances Carpenter Collection; bookcover, courtesy of Bantam Dell, a division of Random
House. Page 1 : Caricature of Dana Gioia by John Sherffius. Inside back cover: © Bettmann/Corbis.
Table of Contents
Suggested Teaching Schedule 2
Lesson One: Biography 4
Lesson Two: Culture and History 5
Lesson Three: Narrative and Point of View 6
Lesson Four: Characters 7
Lesson Five: Stvle and Genre 8
Lesson Six: Svmbolism and Ficnirative Language ^
Lesson Seven: Character Development 1
Lesson Eight: The Plot Unfolds 1 1
Lesson Nine: Themes of the Novella 1 1
Lesson Ten: What Makes a Great Rook? 13
Essay Topics 1 4
Capstone Projects 15
I landout One Russian Names l(->
HandoutTwo: The Code of 1 864 17
Handout Three: The Rebirth of Kan Ilvich IS
Teaching Resources l l)
NCI 1 Standards
The awful, terrible act of his dying
was, he could see, reduced by those
around him to the level of a casual,
unpleasant, almost indecorous
incident... and this was done by that
very decorum which he had served
his whole life long."
— from The Death of Ivan Ilyich
Welcome to the Big Read, a major initiative from the National Endowment
for the Arts. Designed to revitalize the role of literary reading in American
culture, the Big Read hopes to unite communities through great literature,
as well as inspire students to become life-long readers.
This Big Read Teacher's Guide contains ten lessons to lead you through
Leo Tolstoy's classic novella, The Death of Ivan llyich. Each lesson has four
sections: a focus topic, discussion activities, writing exercises, and
homework assignments. In addition, we have provided capstone projects
and suggested essay topics, as well as handouts with more background
information about the novella, the historical period, and the author. All
lessons dovetail with the state language arts standards required in the
The Big Read teaching materials also include a CD. Packed with interviews,
commentaries, and excerpts from the book, the Big Read CD presents
first-hand accounts of why Tolstoy's novella remains so compelling more
than a century after its initial publication. Some of America's most
celebrated writers, scholars, and actors have volunteered their time to
make these Big Read CDs exciting additions to the classroom.
Finally, the Big Read Reader's Guide deepens your exploration with
interviews, booklists, timelines, and historical information. We hope this
guide and syllabus allow you to have fun with your students while
introducing them to the work of a great Russian author.
From the NEA. we wish you an exciting and productive school year
Chairman. National Endowment for the Arts
National I ndowmcnt tor tin
THE BIG READ ■ I
Activities: Listen to the Big Read CD. Read
Reader's Guide essays. Discuss Tolstoy's
preoccupation with death. Write about
personal reaction to a death.
Homework: Handouts One and Two.
Chapters 1-2 (pp. 31-52).*
FOCUS: Culture and History
Activities: Discuss the relevance of Tolstoy's
social criticism of the bourgeois. Practice
patronymics. Write about how llyich's
willingness to ruin the lives of others might
satirize the bourgeois class.
Homework Chapters 3-4 (pp. 53-72).
FOCUS: Narrative and Point of View
Activities: Explore possibilities of alternative
method of narration. Rewrite a brief
encounter in Chapter I from another
character's point of view.
Homework: Chapters 5-7 (pp. 73-88).
Activities: Discuss the issue of conformity
in the novella. Write about a foil to the
Homework: Chapters 8-12 (pp. 89-1 13).
FOCUS: Style and Genre
Activities: Discuss the respective merits of
fantasy and realism. Write about whether
Gerasim is a realistically portrayed character.
Homework: Examine use of metaphors and
symbols in the novella's conclusion.
* Page numbers refer to the Bantam Classics 1 98 1 edition of
77ie Death of Ivan llyich, in the Lynn Solotaroff translation.
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FOCUS: Symbolism and Figurative Language
Activities: Analyze symbols in the final chapter.
Write about use of metaphors in the novella.
Homework: Apply the KLibler-Ross model to
FOCUS: Character Development
Activities: Discuss Ivan llyich as antihero.
Write about Ivan llyich s final epiphany.
Homework: List turning points in the plot of
FOCUS: The Plot Unfolds
Activities: Explore possibilities of an
alternative plotline. Write about Tolstoy's
ability to generate interest and suspense.
Homework: Handout Three. Prepare to
defend Tolstoy's achievement
FOCUS: Themes of the Novella
Activities: Explore Tolstoy's treatment of the
themes of duty, morality, and the purpose of
Homework: Prepare outlines and begin
FOCUS.What Makes a Great Book'
Activities: Evaluate the greatness of the
novella and its most important themes. Write
a defense of the universal relevance of The
Deatii of Ivan llyich.
Homework: Finish essays.
National Endowment tor the
THE BIG READ » 3
The authors life can inform and expand the readers understanding of a
novella. One practice of examining a literary work, biographical criticism,
looks through the lens of an author's experience. In this lesson, explore the
author's life to more fully understand the novella.
Leo Tolstoy was born into an aristocratic family. He lived like many other
young men of his class, enjoying the privileges of wealth and rank while
indulging in the pleasures of youth. Yet, unlike many others of his class,
Tolstoy had a reformer's spirit and a puritan conscience. In the years before
he wrote The Death of Ivan Ilyich, his inner tensions led him to a spiritual
crisis and belief in a radical form of Christianity. Although Tolstoy does not
put forward his religious beliefs in the novella, he does assert his rejection of
vanity, worldliness, and materialism. In addition, the frequent strains in
Tolstoy's own marriage are echoed in the relationship between Ivan Ilyich
and Praskovya Fyodorovna.
Listen to the Big Read CD. Copy and distribute Reader's Guide handouts
"Introduction to the Novella," "Leo Tolstoy (1828— 1910)," and "Tolstoy and
Christianity." Divide your class into groups and assign an essay to each. Have the
groups present what they learned about their topic from the essay and the CD.
Ask your students why they think Tolstoy was so concerned with death. Why
would he choose to write a novella exploring the death process rather than an
Read the first two and half pages in class, ending with "paying the widow a
condolence call" in the middle of page 33. What do we learn about Ivan Ilyich in
these first few pages? What statement does Tolstoy make about human nature by
having the friends react with: 'Well he's dead but I'm alive!'?
Have your students write about an experience of the death. How closely did their
feelings and responses match those of Tolstoy's characters?
Distribute Handouts One and Two. Read Chapters 1-2 (pp. 31-52). Prepare your
students to read approximately 20 pages per night
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Cultural and historical contexts give birth to the dilemmas and themes at
the heart of a work of fiction. Studying these contexts and appreciating the
intricate details of the time and place can assist us in comprehending the
motivations of the characters. In this lesson, use cultural and historical
contexts to begin to explore the novella.
Ivan Ilyich dies in February 1882 at the age of 45. He would therefore haw
come of age in the late 1850s, at the beginning of the reign of Czar
Alexander II. It was a period that saw several major social reforms, yet life
changed very little, if at all, for the vast majority of Russian subjects, and
things remained the way they had for centuries.
In 1848, Karl Marx and Frederick Engels' Communist Manifesto defined
and criticized the "bourgeois" class. This middle class was not part of the
ruling aristocracy, yet held power over production and trade. The Manifesto
argues that the bourgeois gains unjust advantage of the poor or proletariat
through financial and material transactions. Recognizing the value of
individual liberty, Alexander II abolished serfdom in 1861, providing more
wage-earning opportunities for the lower classes. Iolstoy uses Ivan DyidlS
life to explore cultural issues such as economics, civil rights, liberty, and
what it means to lead an honorable, worthwhile life.
Use Handout One to practice Russian patronymics using your students' names
followed by the names of their fathers.
The first two chapters cover Ivan llyich's first 17 years of marriage and the
advancement of his career. Discuss Handout Two. How might the Code of 1864
change the life of a man like Ivan Ilyich? How would it have affected the lower
classes? Identify five "bourgeois" characteristics in llyich's life. By portraying Ilyich as
bourgeois, is Tolstoy making a statement about this lifestyle' Have the students
discuss whether Tolstoy's descriptions in Chapter 2 relate to their own lives and
the lives of their family and friends. If so, do they find any validity in Tolstoy's
criticism of middle class life?
^ Writing Exercise
At the end of Chapter 2. Ilyich reflects on a cultivated aloofness, avoiding his family
and the importance of his "official duties." Ilyich is proud to be able to "ruin
anybody." Write two pages on how this might present a satire of the bourgeois
class. Choose examples from the text to support your argument
Read Chapters 3-4 (pp. 53-72) What does Ivan Ilyich dislike about the doctors'
treatment of him ; Does this feeling lead him. at this point, to any deeper insight'
National Endowment tor the
THE BIG READ ■ 5
and Point of
The narrator tells the story with a specific perspective informed by his or
her beliefs and experiences. The narrator can be a major or minor character
within the novella. The narrator weaves her or his point of view, including
ignorance and bias, into the telling of the tale. A first-person narrator
participates in the events of the novella using "I." A distanced narrator
(often not a character) does not participate in the events of the story and
uses third person (he, she, they) to narrate the story. The distanced narrator
can be omniscient, able to read the minds of all characters within the
novella. Ultimately, the type of narrator determines the point of view from
which the story is told.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich is told from a third-person omniscient point of
view. As early as the second page, Tolstoy presents the unspoken thoughts
of several different characters before focusing on the viewpoint of Pyotr
Ivanovich for the rest of the chapter. Thereafter, the focus is on Ivan Ilyich
himself, at first from the outside, then increasingly in terms of his own
feelings and attitudes. But throughout the book, the narrator shows us the
private thoughts and emotions of other characters — especially Ivan Ilyich's
wife — when it suits his larger purposes to do so.
The tact that Pyotr Ivanovich is the point-of-view character for so much of the first
chapter might make the reader assume that he will be a major figure in the novella,
yet after that opening chapter he is given only a few passing mentions. Why does
Tolstoy give so much attention to his reactions to Ivan Ilyich's death? How do his
private reactions to the situation help to communicate Tolstoys intentions in the
We see Pyotr Ivanovich take leave of Praskovya Fyodorovna (pp. 39-4 1 ), and briefly
encounter her children. Have students imagine this encounter from the point of
view of Ilyich's wife, daughter, or son. Include the character's inner feelings as well as
his or her perception of Pyotr Ivanovich. To go deeper, write this character's
perspective about the dance (Chapter 3) and as he or she witnesses Ilyich's
deepening illness (Chapter 4).
Read Chapters 5-7 (pp. 73-88). We are shown more and more of Ivan Ilyich's
interior life as his illness progresses. Ask students to consider whether they find
themselves growing more sympathetic to him as the novella proceeds, and to
consider the reasons for their responses.
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The main character in a work of literature is called the "protagonist." The
protagonist often overcomes a weakness or ignorance to achieve a new
understanding by the works end. A protagonist who acts with great courage
may be called a "hero." A protagonist of dubious tenacity and questionable
virtue is an "antihero." Readers often debate the virtues and motivations of
the protagonists in the attempt to understand whether they are heroic. The
protagonists journey is made more dramatic by challenges presented by
characters with different beliefs. A "foil" provokes the protagonist so as to
highlight more clearly certain features of the main character. The most
important foil, the "antagonist," opposes the protagonist, barring or
complicating his or her success.
Most of the characters in the novella are, like Ivan Ilyich himself educated
and sophisticated people who profess the same false values he does. The
obvious exceptions — and the characters that most clearly represent the
works positive values of honesty; simplicity, and compassion — are the
servant Gerasim and Ivan llyich's son, Vasily Ivanovich.
Tolstoys most pointed attacks on conformity take place in Chapters 2-3. In
his view, conformity abdicates conscience, moral responsibility, and humane
sensitivity; Perhaps the description of Ilvichs furnishings (pp. 56-58)
provides the most stinging critique. Ilyich is so thoroughly commonplace
that when he tries to be original, he succeeds in becoming like everyone
llyich's foiled bridge game, at the end of Chapter 4. results in a sense that his life is
"poisoned. . .and poisoning others. . on the brink of disaster." He begins to be
terrified of death. In Chapter 7. "the falsity around him. . .did more than anything
to poison his days." What is the falsity that poisons Ilyich? Is it the source of his
illness? Is the falseness related to conformity? Or is it the dawning knowledge that
Ilyich can neither relinquish nor live with his conformist tendencies?
Q Writing Exercise
As Ivan llyich's illness grows worse, he becomes more and more impatient with
people who continue to act as he did when he was well, and finds himself drawn
to completely different modes of feeling and behavior Along these lines, have
students describe how either Gerasim or Praskovya Fyodorovna functions as a foil
to Ivan Ilyich.
Read Chapters 8-12 (pp 89-113). As Ivan Ilyich approaches death, consider
whether he seems to react to his situation in the way that a real person would
National I ndowmcm tor the
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To fully understand and enjoy a work, it is sometimes helpful to know its
historical background and cultural context, including the category or genre
to which it belongs, and the rules or conventions that apply to that
category. Obviously, it would be inappropriate to dismiss Animal Farm on
the grounds that pigs can't talk, or to say that West Side Story is ridiculous
because teenage gang members don't sing and dance down the street.
The Death of Ivan Ilyich belongs to the genre of Realism, which succeeded
the Romantic movement that dominated the first part of the 1 9th century.
A heightened style, epic events, and larger-than-life protagonists, as in
Goethe's Faust or Melville's Mo by-Dick, often characterized romantic
narratives. Fiction in the realistic mode, by contrast, tends to be written in a
straightforward and often plain style, to give precise descriptions of the
surface of daily life, and to focus on ordinary protagonists confronting the
same kinds of problems that we all face. The controlling assumption of
Realism is that an accurate depiction of real life is a solid foundation for an
exploration of its larger significance.
Examining Chapters 8-12, find examples of Realism. Have students break into
groups with each group responsible for one chapter. Have them report examples
to show where the novella embraces Realism or strays from Realism.
Works of fantasy such as Harry Potter and The Lord of the Rings have gained large
audiences. Have students discuss why such books and films acquire such
popularity. Can they think of films that embrace the Realism reflected in the
novella? What do audiences gain from Realist artworks and what do they gain
from non-Realist artworks?
Examining Chapters 8-12, determine whether Gerasim is realistically portrayed.
Explain and defend your conclusion with specific references to the text
Instruct students to pay particular attention to the use of metaphors and symbols
(relatively rare in the novella) to try to capture Ivan llyich's experience of dying —
for example, the "narrow black sack" (p. 99), the "executioner" and "black hole"
(p. 1 1 1), and the "light" (p. 1 13). How effective is this technique in creating a sense of
8 • THE BIG READ
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Writers often use non-literal language to invite readers to visualize events,
view internal conflicts, glimpse social themes, or grasp abstract concepts like
beauty, truth, or goodness. An author uses figurative or non-literal language
to stretch our imaginations, challenging us to decode the references and
meanings bound within images, similes, metaphors, and symbols. Symbols
are interpretive keys to the text. Most frequently, a specific object will be
used to reference (or symbolize) a more abstract concept. The repeated
appearance of an object suggests a non-literal or figurative meaning
attached to the object — above and beyond face value. By decoding symbols,
any reader can reveal a new interpretation of the novella.
Like his great admirer Ernest Hemingway, Tolstoy was renowned for his
clear and direct style, which emphasizes straightforwardness over figurative
description. Also, when he wrote The Death of hum llyich, his artistic
theories were developing toward simplicity of expression in the service of
moralistic themes. Tolstoy is sparing in his use of symbolism, but there are
details that function symbolically in the larger context, such as the
medallion bearing the inscription respice finem (p. 45) or the game of whist
Return to the symbols used in the last chapter — the "executioner," the "black
hole," "the light." How do these usages serve to reinforce Tolstoy's spiritual
message in the novella? Just how spiritual is The Deatli of Ivan llyich?
In his manner of handling his official duties. Ivan llyich is compared to a musical
virtuoso (pp. 59-60), and the "celebrated physician" is compared to a judge
addressing a prisoner (pp. 65-66). How do these comparisons serve to illustrate
the larger themes of the novella?
Acquaint your students with Dr. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross's'Tive Stages of Grief"
Have them apply the Kubler-Ross model to Ivan llyich's experience and |udge how
closely Tolstoy conforms to — or. more properly, anticipates — her conclusions.
National Endowment tor tin-
THE BIG READ ■ 9
Novels and novellas trace the development of characters that encounter a
series of challenges. Most characters contain a complex balance of virtues
and vices. Internal and external forces require characters to question
themselves, overcome fears, or reconsider dreams. The protagonist
undergoes profound change. A close study of character development maps
the evolution of motivation, personality, and belief in each character. Still,
the tension between a character s strengths and weaknesses keeps the reader
guessing about what might happen next, affecting the drama and the plot.
^liile all the other characters in this novella are static and two-dimensional,
Ivan Ilyich himself undergoes as profound a change, or series of changes, as
can be imagined. Through most of the book, he is a thoroughly ordinarv
man. He has no real virtues in any active sense; his positive qualities are
merelv the absence of negative ones: he does not take bribes; he does not
cheat on his wife or mistreat her and their children, etc. Self-centeredness is
his most prominent characteristic, which often manifests itself in pettiness
and irritability, usually directed at his wife. Until very near the end, the
changes he undergoes have less to do with an alteration or enlargement of
his character than with his increasing inability to live as he wishes to. When
he finally acknowledges that his whole life has been wasted in the pursuit of
false and trivial goals (pp. 108-09), his reaction is terror and despair. It is
not until the very last chapter that he achieves true grace, and with it
understanding and peace of mind.
Returning to the terms employed in Lesson Four, generate a class discussion of
Ivan llyich's role as an "antihero" through most of the novella. Then have the class
consider whether or not he has. by the end of the book achieved the status of
Wa Writing Exercise
Define the term "epiphany" to your students and give examples from literature.
Have them write about Ivan llyich's epiphany at the very end of the novella.
Beginning with Chapter 2, have the students page through the book once again
and list as many turning points in the plot as they can find.
I * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
The author artfully builds a plot structure to create expectations, increase
suspense, and inform character development. The timing of events horn
beginning to middle to end can make a novella predictable or riveting. A
plot, propelled by a crisis, will reach a climax, and close with a resolution
(sometimes called denouement). Foreshadowing and flashbacks allow the
author to defy time while telling the story. A successful author will keep a
reader entranced by clever pacing built within the tale, sometimes
confounding a simple plot by telling stories within stories.
Point out to the class that by taking the first chapter and putting it after the last
one, you can give the book a perfectly linear narrative that proceeds from
beginning to middle to end. Have the students imagine that the novella is
constructed this way. (You might want to read them the last few paragraphs of the
last chapter, followed by the first and the last page of the opening chapter.) In what
ways is this version a different book from the one Tolstoy published? Is it a better
book, or a worse one?
Remind your students of the (at that point theoretical) discussion of Lesson One:
How can a work generate interest and suspense when its principal character's
death is announced in the title? Have them write briefly on this subject in the light
of their reading of the book: How successful has Tolstoy been in overcoming the
handicaps he placed on himself?
As Tolstoy himself showed in What Is Art?, even the most sublime work can be
made to sound insipid or ridiculous by summarizing it in a snide way. In the same
fashion, someone might say about 77ie Deatii of Ivan //^ch."A boring bureaucrat
gets sick, feels sorry for himself, and dies. So what ; '* Students should be prepared
to explain why this is an inadequate characterization of Tolstoy's achievement
National Endowment tor the \m
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Profound questions raised by the story allow the character (and the reader)
to explore the meaning of human life and extract themes. Themes
investigate topics explored for centuries by philosophers, politicians,
scientists, historians, and theologians. Classic themes include intellectual
freedom versus censorship, personal moral code in relation to political
justice, and spiritual faith versus rational commitments. A novella can shed
light on these age-old debates, by creating new situations to challenge and
explore human nature.
Discussion Activities and Writing Exercise
Use the following questions to stimulate discussion or provide writing exercises in
order to interpret the novella in specific ways. Using historical references to
support ideas, explore the statements The Death of Ivan llyich makes about the
Ivan llyich is described as a man "strict to carry out whatever he considered his
duty, and he considered his duty all things that were so designated by people in
authority" (p. 44).
Does Tolstoy endorse Ivan llyich's view of what his duty is? What are the dangers
of adhering to such an attitude?
"As a student he had done things which, at the time, seemed to him extremely
vile and made him feel disgusted with himself; but later, seeing that people of high
standing had no qualms about doing these things, he was not quite able to
consider them good but managed to dismiss them and not feel the least
perturbed when he recalled them" (p. 44).
Which of Ivan llyich's reactions to his behavior does Tolstoy imply to be the
proper one? Does the novella support the idea that the most important thing in
life is to feel good about oneself?
The Purpose of Life
Ivan llyich has devoted his whole existence to career advancement, social position,
and material comfort. How well have these things prepared him for his final crisis?
Ask students to begin their essays, using the Essay Topics in this guide. Outlines are
due the next class period.
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Works of fiction illustrate the connections between individuals and
questions of humanity. Great stories articulate and explore the mysteries of
our daily lives while painting those conflicts in the larger picture of human
struggle. Readers forge bonds with the story as the writers voice, style, and
sense of poetry inform the plot, characters, and themes. By creating
opportunities for learning, imagining, and reflecting, a great book is a work
of art that affects many generations of readers, changing lives, challenging
assumptions, and breaking new ground.
Ask students to make a list of the characteristics of a great book. Write these on
the board. What elevates a book to greatness? Then ask them to discuss, within
groups, other books they know that include some of these characteristics. Do any
of these books remind them of The Death of Ivan llyich? Is this a great book?
A great writer can be the voice of a generation. What kind of voice does Tolstoy
create in The Death of Ivan llyich? Does this book speak for more than one man
and his personal concerns? What does this voice tell us about the choices and
responsibilities of life for a middle-class man in 19th century Russia?
Divide students into groups. Have each group determine the single most
important theme of the novella. Have a spokesperson from each group explain the
group's decision, with references from the text Write these themes on the board.
Do all the groups agree?
Ef Writing Exercise
Ask students to write a letter to a friend, perhaps one who does not like to read,
explaining why The Death of Ivan llyich is a good book. The student should make an
argument that explains why the novella has meaning for all people, even those
who have no interest in other times or other places.
Students will finish their essays and present their essay topics and arguments to
riorul Endowment for thi the big read • 13
The discussion activities and writing exercises in this guide provide you with possible essay topics,
as do the Discussion Questions in the Readers 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
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 llyich's life proceeded as
he felt it should — pleasantly and properly" (p.
52). Ones first, instinctive reaction to such
comments might be, "Well, what's wrong with
that?" What, according to Tolstoy, is wrong with
2. What sort of person is Praskovya Fyodorovna?
Why did Ivan llyich 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 llyich's
life" (p. 53). 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 llyich's
character and his values?
4. Like many people in adverse circumstances,
Ivan llyich 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 llyich suffered most of all from the lie, the
lie which, for some reason, everyone accepted:
that he was not dying, but was simply ill..." (p.
86). Why is this "lie" so disturbing to Ivan llyich,
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 llyich's character, and about
Tolstoy's view of human nature in general?
6. As Ivan llyich'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 llyich himself, with
everything presented within the limits of his
own perspective. What might have been gained
by this approach? What would have been lost?
I 4 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
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 assemblv, or
1 . Have the students create a photo gallery of St
Petersburg in the late 1 9th 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 1 979 British
television drama A Question of Faith, which
draws upon both The Death of Ivan llyich 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 llyich'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
4. Have the students write and stage a skit in
which Ivan llyich is the judge on a television
program along the lines of Judge Judy or The
Peoples 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
5. Have the students draw a series of portraits of
Ivan llyich 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" (p. 35). 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 llyich Is
a Tragic Hero
National I nulowmcnt tor tin
THE BIG READ • I 5
Most people who have never read The Death of
Ivan Ilyich probably assume that Ilyich is the
protagonists last name. No doubt many people
who have read it make the same assumption. They
must wonder why Tolstoy always refers to him by
his full name, and so do other characters when
they talk about him and even to him. In fact, as we
learn from the obituary notice on the first page of
the novella, the central characters last name is not
Ilyich at all. His full name is Ivan Ilyich Golovin. It
follows the standard Russian pattern: given name,
patronymic, family name.
The patronymic is derived from the given name
of one's father. Ivan Ilyich's patronymic was
established when his father was born and was
named Ilya. In the same manner, as soon as Ivan
Ilyich was given his first name, the patronymic of
his children was established, as in the case of his
surviving son, Vasily Ivanovich.
The patronymic is usually formed by adding
—ovich or —evich to the father's name, meaning son
of, or by adding —ovna or —evna to the father's
name, meaning daughter of. (In an exception to
the general rule, the patronymic meaning son of
Ilya is Ilyich, not Ilyevich.) A woman is identified
as her father's daughter, not her mother's. Thus, the
patronymic of Praskovya Fyodorovna, Ivan Ilyich's
wife, indicates that her father's name was Fyodor.
But women's last names are given the feminine
form: the obituary notice at the beginning of the
novella refers to her as Praskovya Fyodorovna
First name and patronymic is the polite form of
address in Russian. It is appropriate for Tolstoy's
protagonist to be called Ivan Ilyich not only by his
professional colleagues but also by his servants.
Gerasim shows respect, not familiarity, when he
addresses his master that way. Notice that Gerasim,
like the other servants, has no patronymic; while
patronymics are universal nowadays, they began
among aristocrats and only gradually spread to
other levels of society. It cuts right to the heart of
Tolstoy's intentions that the most truly honorable
character in the book is also the least "respectable"
In more familiar or intimate relationships,
diminutives are used (as with Bill for William or
Betty for Elizabeth). There are different forms for
different relationships. For example, at one point
Ivan Ilyich recalls his childhood, when he "had
been little Vanya." Ivan Ilyich's daughter, who is
called Liza, is affectionately referred to as Lizanka
at several points in the novella. And when he has
secured his new position and higher salary, and
has decorated the family's new apartment in St.
Petersburg, Ivan Ilyich is in such a good mood that
he even thinks of his wife in terms of her
Interestingly, Praskovya Fyodorovna does not use
an affectionate diminutive to address her husband,
which helps to emphasize the coolness of their
relationship. Instead, she calls him Jean, the French
equivalent for Ivan. (Its English equivalent is, of
course, John — yet another way in which Tolstoy
emphasizes the ordinariness of his character; had
the book been written in English, he might very
well have been called John Smith.) Jean not only
sounds less intimate; it also shows an affectation for
French names and phrases that is part of the larger
pattern of falsity and pretension that Tolstoy is
satirizing in the novella.
I 6 ' THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
The Code of 1 864
On page 46 in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, we are
told that Ivan Ilyich "was offered a post as an
examining magistrate and he accepted it." After a
lengthy description of his new duties and the
manner in which he carried them out, Tolstoy
concludes this discussion with the statement: "This
type of work was new, and he was one of the first
men to give practical application to the judicial
reforms instituted by the Code of 1864."
In the mid-nineteenth century, the Russian empire
was still a medieval feudal society. The state
maintained absolute power, and individual rights
were extremely limited. Calls for reform had been
increasing for decades. They were intensified by
Russia's stunning defeat by France, England, and
the Ottoman Empire in the Crimean War (1853-
56), which highlighted the economic and social
backwardness of Imperial Russia.
Czar Alexander II, who had assumed power upon
the death of his father in 1855, saw that reform was
inevitable. He preferred that it come by means oi
limited and controlled expansion of freedom,
instead of by revolution and violent social upheaval.
The first and most famous of his major reforms
came in 1861 with the emancipation of the serfs.
These were millions of rural peasants who were
held in bondage to the private landowners on
whose property they lived and worked. Reforms
were also made in the areas of education, finance.
and local government.
Legal reform was brought about by the Code of
1864, which created a total restructuring of the
judicial system. Previously, there had been separate,
cumbersome legal systems for each of the four
estates of society — the nobility, the clergy, those
who lived in cities and towns, and the rural
peasantry. All of these systems were under the
absolute control of the emperor and administered
by the official bureaucracy.
Under the Code of 1864, everything was unified
into a single system. A bar association was formed.
The judiciary became independent of the executive
power of the emperor. The principle of the equality
of all parties before the law was introduced for the
first time. So was trial by jury, with panels of twelve
jurors to decide guilt or innocence and three judges
to impose sentence. Other reforms included open,
public hearings; the right oi the accused to be
represented by qualified legal counsel: the right of
the accused to present evidence favorable to his or
her case; and an appeals process. When these
reforms were put into practice, there was a sharp
increase in the number of not -guilty verdicts in
National Endowment tor the \ns
THE BIG READ ■ | 7
The Rebirth of Ivan llyich
The Death of Ivan llyich begins with the death of
its main character, a man who is thoroughly
unimaginative, small-minded, self-centered, and
who has devoted his entire existence to comfort
and conformity. How is it that out of such
unpromising materials Leo Tolstoy was able to
fashion one of the greatest novellas in all of world
In line with Tolstoy's larger purposes, the first
chapter does litde to prepare us for what is to
follow, a powerful examination of the most
profound questions of human existence. We smile
at the satirical presentation of human nature, as
Ivan Ilyich's friends and colleagues, and even his
widow, are affected by his death largely in terms of
its interference with their pleasures and comforts.
There are troubling hints — Ivan llyich in his
coffin, with his "expression a reproach or a
reminder to the living;" Ivan Ilyich's son, whose
"eyes were red from crying" — but their significance
will not become fully clear until the end of the
With the onset of his illness, things begin to
change for Ivan llyich, but it is a long and
painful — and thus very realistically portrayed —
process. He notices that the doctors treat him with
the same indifference with which he had treated
prisoners in court, but his sense of the injustice of
his being treated this way does not lead him to re-
examine his own previous behavior. He accepts the
fact of human mortality in the abstract, as shown
in the syllogism of Caius, but he strenuously resists
its application to himself. When he does accept the
fact that he is dying, he bitterly resents the refusal
of his friends and family to openly acknowledge it,
but he cannot see that their attitude proceeds from
the very same values that he has lived by all his life
and still refuses to reject.
In the brief but devastating final chapter, Ivan
llyich arrives, both physically and spiritually, at the
end of his journey. At the conclusion of the
previous chapter, the gnawing voice within him
could no longer be denied, and he surrendered to
the awareness that he had wasted his life. His first
reaction is terror and despair, for now he has
nothing — not only nothing to show for his forty-
five years upon the earth, but also nothing to
sustain him in his final agony. It is only when he
feels his son kiss his hand that he fully experiences
the true meaning of life — honest emotion and
genuine caring for others — and he can triumph
over death and fall into the light.
We are never in suspense about what is going to
happen. The first page — the title itself — has told us
that. But a much more significant suspense has
carried us to the end — how (not physically, but
emotionally and spiritually) will Ivan llyich die,
and what will be the meaning of his life and death?
In the end, Ivan llyich achieves the status of a true
Everyman, not only because death will come to us
all, but on a much deeper level. As harrowing as
the conclusion of the novella is, it is also hopeful: if
even so thoroughly commonplace a person as Ivan
llyich can see the truth at last and find peace and
salvation, then there is hope for everyone.
I 8 * THE BIG READ National Endowment for the Arts
Tolstoy, Leo. What is Art? 1 897.
Kubler-Ross, Elisabeth. On Death and Dying. New York:
Macmillan, Inc., 1997.
Wilson, A. N. Tolstoy: A Biography. 1988. New York WW.
Norton & Company, Inc., 2001 .
The website of Leo Tolstoys home.Yasnaya Polyana.This
site contains a history of the house and the works written
The University of Toronto's Tolstoy Studies Journal. Contains a
gallery of public domain images taken during Tolstoy's life.
The website of the Hermitage Museum in Saint Petersburg.
Russia is an excellent resource for learning about Russian
culture, history, and art.
National Endowment tor the
THE BIG READ ■ | 9
National Council of Teachers of English (NCTE) Standards
1 . Students read a wide range of print and non-
print texts to build an understanding of texts,
of themselves, and of the cultures of the United
States and the world; to acquire new
information; to respond to the needs and
demands of society and the workplace; and for
personal fulfillment Among these texts are
fiction and nonfiction, classic and contemporary
2. Students read a wide range of literature from
many periods in many genres to build an
understanding of the many dimensions (e.g.,
philosophical, ethical, aesthetic) of human
3. Students apply a wide range of strategies to
comprehend, interpret, evaluate, and appreciate
texts. They draw on their prior experience,
their interactions with other readers and
writers, their knowledge of word meaning and
of other texts, their word identification
strategies, and their understanding of textual
features (e.g., sound-letter correspondence,
sentence structure, context, graphics).
4. Students adjust their use of spoken, written,
and visual language (e.g., conventions, style,
vocabulary) to communicate effectively with a
variety of audiences and for different purposes.
5. Students employ a wide range of strategies as
they write and use different writing process
elements appropriately to communicate with
different audiences for a variety of purposes.
6. Students apply knowledge of language structure,
language conventions (e.g., spelling and
punctuation), media techniques, figurative
language, and genre to create, critique, and
discuss print and non-print texts.
7. Students conduct research on issues and
interests by generating ideas and questions, and
by posing problems. They gather, evaluate, and
synthesize data from a variety of sources (e.g.,
print and non-print texts, artifacts, people) to
communicate their discoveries in ways that
suit their purpose and audience.
8. Students use a variety of technological and
information resources (e.g., libraries, databases,
computer networks, video) to gather and
synthesize information and to create and
9. Students develop an understanding of and
respect for diversity in language use, patterns,
and dialects across cultures, ethnic groups,
geographic regions, and social roles.
1 0. Students whose first language is not English
make use of their first language to develop
competency in the English language arts and to
develop understanding of content across the
I I . Students participate as knowledgeable,
reflective, creative, and critical members of a
variety of literacy communities.
1 2. Students use spoken, written, and visual
language to accomplish their own purposes
(e.g., for learning, enjoyment, persuasion, and
the exchange of information).
'This guide was developed with NCTE Standards and State Language Arts Standards in mind. Use these standards to guide and develop
your application of the curriculum.
20 * THE BIG READ
National Endowment for the Arts
The goal of the artist is not to solve
a question irrefutably, but to force
people to love life in all its innumerable,
in an 1865 letter
■ 1 1¥ ■ J 4t, *»»X *»,i
FOR THE ARTS
Ivan llyich's life had
been most simple and
commonplace — and
from The Death of Ivan Ilyich
The Big Read is an initiative of the National
Endowment for the Arts designed to restore reading
to the center of American culture. The NEA presents
The Big Read in partnership with the Institute of
Museum and Library Services and in cooperation
with Arts Midwest.
•tfi . -INSTITUTE ol , .,
A great nation deserves great art.