Introduction: Leo Tolstoy and “The Death of Ivan Ilich”

The Proportions of the Text

General Remarks on the Proportions of the Text

The text of The Death of Ivan Ilich runs to about 15,000 words and is divided into 12 chapters. The text is apportioned among these as follows (measured in lines of type as the text is printed in volume 26 of the standard scholarly edition of Tolstoy’s works:  Polnoe sobranie sochinenij i pisem v devjanosto tomax [Moskva: 1928-58]):

chapter 1: 301 lines chapter 5: 139 lines chapter 9: 93 lines
chapter 2: 290 lines chapter 6: 102 lines chapter 10: 72 lines
chapter 3: 253 lines chapter 7: 153 lines chapter 11: 96 lines
chapter 4: 255 lines chapter 8: 234 lines chapter 12: 73 lines

Roughly speaking, the chapters are organized in a pattern of decreasing length, and, without putting too fine a point on it, it is possible to speak of long (250 — 300 lines), medium (140 — 150 lines), and short (70 — 95 lines) chapters. Besides the general pattern of decreasing length, then, the visual appearance of the text also suggests a division into three parts: chapters 1 through 4, which are all “long” chapters; 5 through 8, of which 5 and 7 are “medium” chapters, 6 a long “short” chapter, and 8 a short “long” chapter; and 9 through 12, which are all “short” chapters.

These data take on added significance when considered in the light of the chapters’ contents. Following the introductory material provided in chapter 1, chapters 2 through 4 give an account of the life of Ivan Il’ich from his childhood, through the development of his career in government service and his marriage, to the onset of his illness: a period of more than 40 years. Chapters 5 through 8 present the development of the illness, Ivan’s further attempts to deal with it, and his growing awareness of the approach of death: a period of several months. The last four chapters recount the hero’s final decline and agonized death: a period of a bit more than four weeks. Thus, the decreasing size of the chapters is matched by a parallel decrease in their time frame: from years to months to weeks. The last chapter makes this gradual focusing still more apparent by shrinking the temporal framework from weeks to days, then to hours, and finally brings the flow of time to a stop altogether in the “one changeless instant” in which Ivan finds himself following his illumination.

There is a parallel decrease in the spatial dimensions of the story. Chapters 2 through 4 present the protagonist in the broad context of his official peregrinations from town to town and conclude by localizing him in the city to which his final promotion sends him and in the stylish apartment that he engages there. Chapters 5 through 8 curtail this spatial mobility, and Ivan is ultimately confined to his study. The process is completed in chapters 9 through 12 as the comparative freedom of the study is reduced to the limits of the sofa (chapter 10) on which he dies. Thus, the temporal and spatial stages of the narrative coincide with the three groups of chapters. The gradual contraction of time and space around Ivan Il’ich leads logically to the story’s time line reaching time-zero and its space line reaching space-zero at the moment of his death.

This brief analysis of the story’s surface text indicates the basis for a commonly made criticism of the novel. On one hand the text prepares the reader to accept time-zero and space-zero as points of termination. On the other hand, when time- and space-zero are finally reached in chapter 12, they are, apparently unexpectedly, revealed to be a new beginning, as is shown by Ivan’s sense of relief and well-being, his overcoming of time, and his escape from the confines of the “black hole” into a space that contains no dimensions at all, but only light.

The linearity and gradually increasing tempo of the text prepare the reader for a conclusion very like that which Ivan Il’ich imagines when he describes his life as “a series of increasing sufferings” that “flies faster and faster towards its end, the most terrible suffering” (163 [26:109]). The astonishing, last-minute reversal that the reader is offered instead has struck some readers as incredible or artistically unjustified. This is not so much a matter of religious convictions as of artistic consistency, and it represents one of the main questions that have moved scholars and critics to undertake specialized studies of the novel. The papers by Gutsche and Rancour-Laferriere devote close attention to this question.

In this introduction I have tried to provide a general and abbreviated account of the historical, biographical, and philosophical context in which the novel was produced and a summary of the main points of view from which scholars and critics, readers like the rest of us, have sought to understand and appreciate Tolstoi’s novel. Their main concerns have centered on the moral implications of the novel, its structure and organization (particularly the placement of the material presented in the first chapter), the psychology of the central character as he confronts his imminent demise, the strange mixture of the literal and the symbolic in the text, and the relationship between The Death of Ivan Ilich and Tolstoy’s other works or between the novel and the works of other writers. The various studies that form the substance of the next part of this book were chosen because of the masterful way in which they involve themselves in these central questions of the appreciation and understanding of Tolstoy’s great short novel. With this background in mind, and with a reading (or a re-reading) of the work freshly accomplished, we may now proceed to the consideration of these specialized. Each of them brings something particular to our individual and collective understanding of Tolstoy’s short novel and helps to define further its place within our intellectual landscape.