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•.•.«. Museum,n<iLibrary 



The Death 
of Ivan llyich 






The Death 
of Ivan llyich 



•/.. MuseunriandLibrary 




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Published by 

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Washington, D.C. 20506-0001 
(202) 682-5400 


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. 

Image Credits 

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 

Introduction 1 

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 
fiction genre. 

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 

"^j&AAu H^ 

Dana Gioia 

Chairman. National Endowment for the Arts 

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Day One 

FOCUS: Biography 

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).* 


Day Two 

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). 


Day Three 

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). 


Day Four 

FOCUS: Characters 

Activities: Discuss the issue of conformity 
in the novella. Write about a foil to the 
main character. 

Homework: Chapters 8-12 (pp. 89-1 13). 


Day Five 

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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Day Six 

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 
Ivan llyich. 


Day Seven 

FOCUS: Character Development 

Activities: Discuss Ivan llyich as antihero. 
Write about Ivan llyich s final epiphany. 

Homework: List turning points in the plot of 
the novella. 


Day Eight 

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 


Day Nine 

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 


Day Ten 

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. 

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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. 

Discussion Activities 

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!'? 

Writing Exercise 

Have your students write about an experience of the death. How closely did their 
feelings and responses match those of Tolstoy's characters? 

[7] Homework 

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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Culture and 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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 

23 Homework 

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' 

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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. 

Discussion Activities 

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 

Writing Exercise 

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). 

C3 Homework 

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 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

n Homework 

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 

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Style and 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

Examining Chapters 8-12, determine whether Gerasim is realistically portrayed. 
Explain and defend your conclusion with specific references to the text 

EJ Homework 

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 
that experience? 


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Lesson Six 




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 
(p. 61). 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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? 

rj Homework 

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. 

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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. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

2J Homework 

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. 

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Lesson Eight 


The Plot 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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? 

Writing Exercise 

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? 

ET] Homework 

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 

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Themes of 
the Novella 

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 
following themes: 


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? 

U3 Homework 

Ask students to begin their essays, using the Essay Topics in this guide. Outlines are 
due the next class period. 


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What Makes 
a Great 

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. 

Discussion Activities 

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. 

H Homework 

Students will finish their essays and present their essay topics and arguments to 
the class. 

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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 
a bookstore. 

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 
losing parties. 

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 



Russian Names 

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 
diminutive, Pasha. 

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. 


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 
criminal trials. 

National Endowment tor the \ns 



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 . 

Web sites 



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 


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 
communicate knowledge. 

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. 


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, 

inexhaustible manifestations." 

in an 1865 letter 


■ 1 1¥ ■ J 4t, *»»X *»,i 



Ivan llyich's life had 
been most simple and 
commonplace — and 
most horrifying." 

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 , ., 

•:.:. MuseurriandLibrary 


A great nation deserves great art.