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Major Works AP Review: The Death of Ivan Ilych by Leo Tolstoy

Leading up to the AP Lit test now in May, knowing our classic literature is going to be of upmost importance. So, our teacher had us fill out these Major Works Data Sheets throughout the year. So I’m posting a slightly edited version for people to use to help them study if they want!

Title: The Death of Ivan Ilych

Author:  Leo Tolstoy

Date of Publication: 1886

Genre: Fiction / Philosophy

Biographical information about the author (for my knowledge only, but very helpful):

Leo Tolstoy was born in Russia in 1828. His first novel, War and Peace, come out in the 1860s. He also wrote Anna Karenina. He is the youngest of four, his mother died when he was two, and his father died when he was seven, which lead him to idealize his childhood memories in his writing. After failing degrees in both languages and law, and failing at being a farmer, he joined the army at his brother’s suggestion. His novels fictionalize parts of his life.

Information about the literary period (for my knowledge only, but very helpful):

Tolstoy wrote in Russia, during the literary period of Realism, a late-19th-century movement based on a simplification of style and image and an interest in poverty and everyday concerns. Both his most acclaimed novels illustrate the themes of realism well, focusing on the lives of peasants. He wrote not just of the characters, but about society, and people’s roles in society as well. Realism emphasizes writing life as it was really lived, and not idealized, which is how Tolstoy wrote his characters.

Plot summary:

The opening chapter is Ivan Ilych’s funeral, and the novella continues with the chronicle of how he died. Ivan lived his life well, he went to law school, got a good job, married a woman of decent social standing who he deemed acceptable, and was continually focused on doing what society that was correct. He withdrew into his work when his home life was less than perfect, such as the loss of three of his children. When Ivan gets a higher paying job, he sets about setting up a perfectly furnished home. While preoccupied with window curtain, he falls on the ladder and bangs his side into the window frame. As the pain grows, he goes to see a doctor. The doctor cannot give him a straight answer as to the severity of the injury, but says it is either a floating kidney, appendicitis, or chronic catarrh. Everything losses its appeal to Ivan, as the pain grows with, and no medication or treatment seems to help. He is plagued by thoughts of his own mortality, and Gerasim the sole person who is able to comfort Ivan. Ivan realizes that he may have lived correctly, but he did not live the life he should have, because he has not been happy since childhood. When he finally accepts this, he is overcome with joy, that he will at last end his family’s suffering, and he dies.

Memorable quotations significant to meaning:

  1. Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.
  2. ‘Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,’ it suddenly occurred to him. ‘But how could that be, when I did everything properly?’ he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.
  3. Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light…Just then his schoolboy son had crept softly in and gone up to the bedside. The dying man was still screaming desperately and waving his arms. His hand fell on the boy’s head, and the boy caught it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry.
  4. For three whole days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible, resistless force
  5. That very justification of his life held him fast and prevented his moving forward, and it caused him most torment of all.

Significance of opening scene:

The opening scene is Ivan’s funeral. Told from the perspective of Peter, a friend of Ivan’s. Peter is uncomfortable throughout, and much conversation revolves around matters such as what he has left his wife. Peter spends the funeral wishing to leave to go play cards, and when news first reached the courthouse of his death, his coworkers were more frustrated that they would have to make the trek to his house to pay condolences than truly sad of his passing. They were concerned with who would take his position. The scene is telling, because we learn Ivan lived for material and societal standards, but not for cultivating relationships, and this chapter shows the consequence of living that life – no one seems to truly care that he has died.

Significance of closing scene:

Ivan screams terribly for three days, struggles in agony against the “black sack” of death. When Ivan sees Vasya cry at his bedside, he accepts the realization that his life has not in fact been good, and realizes the best thing he can do is die, to relieve his family of their suffering. When he decides this, the pain fades away from him. Ivan’s pain is replaced with light, and he experiences no pain only joy for his last two hours, before he stretches out and dies. His pain was caused by his fighting against death, once he accepted what ad caused it, and its inevitability, it stopped causing him pain.


1-Ivan Ilych – Protagonist, the novella chronicles his death and his realizations on his death bed. Materialistic, fixated on society’s standards and expectations.

2-Gerasim – Ivan’s sick nurse and the butler’s assistant. Gerasim serves as a foil to Ivan: healthy, vigorous, direct, strong, he is everything that Ivan is not. He is the only one who comforts Ivan, and is the catalyst for Ivan’s realization that he didn’t live life as you should have.

3-Peter Ivanovich – One of Ivan’s closest friends and co-workers. While he appears only briefly, his character is telling, as he cares only about leaving to go play cards at Ivan’s funeral. High social standing. He is representative of the relationships Ivan had, which were not particularly close or warm.

4- Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina – Ivan’s wife. Ivan’s finds her nagging, and frustrating, and she is self-centered, concerned for her own trouble in terms of Ivan’s illness and death rather than his suffering. Two of her children survived, three died.

5-Vasya – Ivan’s son. Sensitive and quite, not yet enamored with the life style of his parents and sister or preoccupied with social standing. He reminds Ivan of himself as a child, from when he was happy.


The early chapters of the book (2-3) cover most of Ivan’s life in 19th-century Russia. The main bulk of the story taking place in the Russian capital of St. Petersburg, mostly in Ivan’s house as he is homebound, between the years 1883-1884 (the year Ivan dies).


  • The pain in Ivan’s side that poisons his life and gives him a bad taste in his mouth is a symbol for how his materialism overall poisoned his life.
  • The Black Sack: This is how Ivan views death as a black sack he cannot escape (“For three whole days, during which time did not exist for him, he struggled in that black sack into which he was being thrust by an invisible, resistless force.”)

Themes for discussion:

  • Living the “Right Life”: Ivan is fixated on living life to society’s standards. His house must look a certain way, he must make a certain salary, etc.
  • The Inevitability of Death: Ivan cannot come to terms with his own mortality throughout much of his illness, cannot comprehend that he will in fact die. But his death is inevitable, he dies before the story even begins.
  • Inner Life vs. Outer Life: Ivan’s life was focused on the artificial, on the outermost aspects, on appearances, etc. But he ignored the things that may have made him happy. When he accepts this as truth, his physical pain is overtaken by inner joy that he will at last find peace.


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