Writing Assignment on
Tolstoy's "The Death of Ivan Ilych"

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You can also check out some links to Web materials on Tolstoy.


Choose one of the following tasks:

Option One.

One of the important decisions Tolstoy made in constructing his story was to begin as he does in Chapter I. The reader's "portal" into the story of Ivan Ilych's death is an acquaintance with how Ivan Ilych's friends receive the news of his death, and how they behave and (in the case of one of these friends) think and feel during their attendance at his funeral. We experience this chapter in certain ways when we first traverse it, but in a host of additional ways when we reflect upon it or reread it after having finished the entire story.

What are some of the important facts that we notice in this chapter when we return to it this way? What are some of the ways in which these facts are important for appreciating the overall meaning of the story as a whole?  And why did Tolstoy arrange for us to experience these events one way at first and this different way later? (Be sure to include specific reference to a number of relevant details in the rest of the novella.)

When re-read in the light the entire work, what does the opening chapter contribute to the full force of the first sentence of Chapter II:  "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible"?

Option Two.

One important episode in the story has to do with Ivan Ilych's appointment with the doctor (and, indeed, with a series of other doctors later on).  What does Ivan Ilych notice about the doctor and about himself in the light of his experience in the doctor's office? How is this insight developed further in the rest of the story?  What does this have to do with what you take to be the overall reason-for-being of the story as a whole?  (Why is Tolstoy constructing such a case as Ivan Ilych's for inviting us to think and feel our way through?  What is the point of the "thought experiment" he has taken the trouble to design for us?)

One possible starting point:  what does Tolstoy reveal about the way in which "professional objectivity" can actually function in the lives of professional people?  What are the virtues of this sort of objectivity?  What are its limitations?  Put another way:  what are the different uses to which this objectivity can be put, and what are we to think of these?

(Not something to write upon, necessarily, but something to think about:  how might we describe Tolstoy's technique, in the scene in the doctor's office, as one of "ironic juxtaposition"?  And what are the uses to which this technique is put in the present instance?)

Option Three.

Tolstoy develops a host of motifs in the course of this story, as a way of prompting the reader into certain important trains of reflection.

Pick one of these motifs (or a coherent family of closely related motifs), and address the question "So what?"  what is Tolstoy calling attention to in this way, and why is what he is pointing to important in what you take to be the theme of the story?  Suggestion:  the phrases "agreeable and decorous," "pleasing and proper," "pleasure and propriety" (or their synonyms).


  Review the general instructions on writing assignments.

  Suggestions are welcome.  Please send your comments to lyman@ksu.edu .

   Contents copyright 1999 by Lyman A. Baker

Permission is granted for non-commercial educational use; all other rights reserved.

  This page last updated 28 March 1999.