Analysis of Leo Tolstoy’s Novella “The Death of Ivan Ilyich”
Leo Tolstoy’s novella, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, is about exactly what the title painfully suggests. The story of one man’s final months: an ordinary, reasonably prosperous, and successful middle-aged Russian judge. He, at first, seemed to have lived a decent life, but then comes to the realization that his life was actually not at all what he thought. Tolstoy’s first draft of this novella was written using first-person perspectives. Then he switched it to the third person. If Tolstoy would have never switched his perspectives, the readers would have missed out on so many different thoughts and feelings from all the different characters.
The novella starts off when Peter Ivanovich, Ivan’s closest friend, finds out that Ivan has passed away by reading the obituaries during an interval in a trial. If Tolstoy would have never made the switch to third-person then we wouldn’t have known how Ivan’s colleges felt. The reaction to his death, on part of his friends and colleagues, is completely superficial. Leo Tolstoy wrote, “Besides considerations as to the possible transfers and promotions likely to result from Ivan Ilych’s death, the mere fact of the death of a near acquaintance aroused, as usual, in all who heard of it the complacent feeling that it is he who is dead and not I.” This is a prime example of what we would have missed. Ivan’s family and colleagues just see his death as an inconvenience. They were, as the living normally is, relieved that they were not dying themselves, but also simultaneously disgruntled by the reminder of their own mortalities that Ivan’s death brought. Tolstoy shows us that Ivan’s colleges take a perverse sort of pleasure in knowing that it was someone else who had died rather than any of them; life will continue for them. Tolstoy contrasts all of their attitudes towards death as something others do with Ivan’s experience of confronting his own death.
Tolstoy also adds his own assessment of Ivan’s life right away when he wrote, “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and more ordinary and therefore most terrible.” In Tolstoy’s first draft the only opinions and feelings we would have knowledge about is from Peter and Ivan, but with him switching to third-person omniscient we begin to understand the narrator’s own appraisal. Though Tolstoy doesn’t express his own assessment a whole lot in this novella, it is still something we the readers would have missed out on in the first draft. It is interesting to see not only how other characters feel about Ivan’s life, but also how the narrator has made up his own opinion on it.
Another interesting perspective we get to experience through Tolstoy writing in third person is knowing how Praskovya, Ivan’s wife, felt. In chapter four paragraph three, Tolstoy writes, “Praskovya Fedorovna’s attitude to Ivan Ilych’s illness, as she expressed it both to others and to him, was that it was his own fault and was another of the annoyances he caused her.” The tables are turned in this point of the story as Ivan is now the one suffering and Praskovya is the one who doesn’t show him any sympathy. Praskovya views her husband as being unreasonable for not listening to what the doctors told him. Tolstoy uses this to his advantage as it mirrors how Ivan thought she was unreasonable for insisting his attention. In each case we get to see how each one of them refuses to take the other seriously.
Tolstoy’s decision to switch from first person to third person omniscient made it much clearer to understand the central idea to this novella. Ivan’s death causes him to painfully reevaluate his very own life. This is illustrating Tolstoy’s belief that only death can reveal life’s true meaning. Writing in third person omniscient allows a narrator to express details and provide the reader with additional information that would not be possible when writing from a limited point of view; the writer can accomplish exposing a larger amount of information in a shorter amount of time. Therefore, readers are able to understand each character’s thoughts, feelings, and actions.
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