The Didactic and the Structure
Lev Tolstoy is a didactic writer. His works often preach a moral message. By the time he wrote “Ivan Ilich” (1886) he had undergone a deep religious crisis that changed his attitude toward art and life. He condemned some of his best works out of hand. He considered his Anna Karenina—which many literary critics rate the best novel ever written in all of world literature—nothing but a piece of trash.
In the last third of his long life he became a kind of preacher, writing philosophical tracts and essays on how to live a morally upright life. He certainly intends “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” to deliver a message to his reader: “You are living useless immoral lives; change while you still have time.” The emphasis on didacticism does a bit of damage to the aesthetics of the work, and it is largely due to Tolstoy’s amazing literary talent that “Ivan Ilyich” remains a creative triumph.
The very structure of the story lends itself to the moral message. The title tells us upfront that the main character dies, so that we know how the story comes out even before we begin reading it. Then the action begins backwards chronologically: on the first page the death is reported. After the funeral, in a flashback technique, Ivan Ilyich is brought back to life, only to spend the rest of the story dying.
Only near the end do we realize the supreme irony of this story: that when Ivan dies on the final page his death is really a kind of birth, a spiritual rebirth. The long, agonizing death by cancer has been a preparation for this entry into a new spiritual life. On the other hand, practically his whole previous life, everything antecedent to his illness, was a kind of living death, no life at all, but just fakery, a pretend life.
This inside-out perspective, then, is reflected in the structure of the story. It begins with a death, returns to describe a useless life or living death, progresses to the climax of this living death—the scene where Ivan Ilyich, who is engaged in what Tolstoy sees as a frivolous bourgeois pursuit (hanging curtains and prettifying his new apartment) falls and bruises his kidney, the first step on his passage to death by (apparently) cancer of the kidney—then shows the gradual progression of painfully dying, which leads to new life.
Furthermore, this pattern seems to repeat itself in endless cycles. The early scenes, describing the reactions of Ivan Ilyich’s colleagues in the court of law to his death, are structured as if to show the ghost of the former, unredeemed Ivan Ilyich returning to live out the same vile life all over again. His colleagues are his alter egos, and their reaction to news of his death is exactly the same as his reaction would have been, had one of them died before him: concern with trivial court matters; thoughts of promotion and higher salaries (“Maybe my brother-in-law can get the vacated position.”); smug satisfaction in the death of another (“Ah, great; it was him and not me.”).
Pyotr Ivanovich is almost a twin of Ivan Ilyich—same education, same job, same aspirations, same attitudes toward life, and with the same favorite diversion: playing cards. When he attends the funeral in the early pages of the story it is as if a character were attending his own funeral in advance, and, of course, refusing to acknowledge that the corpse lying there with reproach on its dead face is almost exactly he himself.
The didactic point, of course, in all of this paralleling of characters, is obvious. Everyone in Ivan Ilyich’s society is living a morally stagnant life, a dead life, but the agonizing death of a colleague who had lived just the same life does not prompt them to reevaluate their morals. On the contrary, they avoid facing the issue and go off to play cards, Ivan Ilyich’s favorite pastime and favorite way of avoiding looking at life’s unpleasant facts.
Like Shvartz—another double/colleague of Ivan Ilyich, who shows up to pay his respects but sneaks out to play cards, skipping the funeral service—they wink as if to say, “Ivan Ilyich has done a really dumb thing; but you and me, we’re not about to screw up the way he did.” The Russian here is “Глупо распорядился Иван Ильич; то ли дело мы с вами.”