“The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Leo Tolstoy

Joseph Campbell explains that a dragon figure represents our own greed. He says, “Psychologically, the dragon is one’s binding of oneself to one’s ego, and you’re captured in your own dragon cage. ‘Killing the dragon’ is getting rid of your own fears. The real dragon is in you; it’s your ego holding you in, focusing on ‘what I want, what I believe, what I can do, what I think I love, and what I regard as the aim of my life.’ It might be too small, that which pins you down, if it’s only that which the environment tells you to do, then it certainly is pinning you down. The environment, then, is your dragon as it is reflected within yourself.”

In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich,” Leo Tolstoy presents readers with a protagonist who has literally risen to the peak of his life and then suffers a complete fall from that peak into the depths of the human heart to try to answer the question, “Did I live a good life, in the end?” “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” was Leo Tolstoy’s novella through which he provided readers with his commentary on the moral and social issues that he saw in the world around him.

Look first at the environment in which Ivan Ilyich lives, including the people and places that make up that environment. What flaws in that society and environment does Tolstoy reveal in the story? What is the “greed” that these people exhibit? What moral judgment does Tolstoy seem to pass on that society?

Why does Tolstoy start the story AFTER the death of Ivan Ilyich? What actions and attitudes do we see in Ivan Ilyich’s friends and family members that set the tone for the story? How do these characters seem to think or feel about death, and how does that set up a contrast between them and Ivan?

Identify internal and external conflicts in the story. What are Ivan’s reactions to his own dying? Before his death, how does Ivan’s ego “hold him in” and keep him trapped in his “dragon cage?” What are the trappings of his life? How does his illness and impending death change that? Who or what is the internal demon or external monster that Ivan Ilyich must face? Is he successful in the struggle? Explain how Tolstoy develops a journey toward death which similarly becomes a journey toward illumination.

Look at the structure of the story: how does Tolstoy use time and the passage of time in the novella to create the effect of time slowing down as the story moves towards Ilyich’s death? Why would he want readers to recognize that passage of time? How is it connected to the mental and emotional journey that Ilyich is taking?

How is Gerasim a foil to Ivan in the story? What purpose does he play, and how does he help to develop one of the themes of the story?

Consider the allusions to Christ in the story. Which character(s) might be seen as Christ figures? What sort of symbolism is at play to create the allusion? What does Tolstoy ultimately want to communicate to his readers about the way that they live and how it is connected to the struggle before death? Do we successfully get rid of our own fears when facing death?

Finally for readers in modern America, what do you think we can gain from reading a story like this? How might have/did reading this story make you consider your own sense of mortality? How do you think people will remember you after you die? How do you hope they will remember you (this answer may be different from that in the previous question)?

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