Tolstoy was passionate about uncovering those aspects of a human being in society that prevented him or her making contact with something true or real. He saw people in the law courts, in families acting out a kind of public drama which put each person centre-stage, totally ignorant of the other. It was like a kind of dance of shadows, as he saw it: people predominantly concerned with their own welfare and image, incapable of recognising the real needs of the other or indeed of themselves. Tolstoy must have experienced this dilemma in his own public and personal life too for he wages war, remorselessly, on this aspect of human nature that is concerned with its own image and well-being to the exclusion of everyone else- even those close to oneself in a family situation.
Shakespeare said “All the World’s a Stage and we are merely players”. This could perfectly describe the world of Tolstoy’s characters who are like puppets on a stage- until confronted by the inevitability of their own death. Is Tolstoy overdramatising the human situation, making it seem a lot worse than it really is? Not so, said one of my mature students in class today: you look at what happens to any family once someone dies! The ferocity of greed, the concern for personal well-being strives to the fore in many such situations.
So what does happen in “The Death of Ivan Illych”? Outwardly not very much. From one point of view it doesn’t seem like good material for a story at all: a person lying on their death-bed, interrupted occasionally by a visit from a member of their family. But there is more, much more. This person, Ivan, in his discovered isolation and aloneness- something he has been able to hide from throughout his whole life- comes to see and taste the reality of his own Being, or maybe the unreality of his Being. He begins to taste and recognise what he has ignored in himself throughout his whole life: it is a deeply painful confrontation, but it is a painful journey that leads towards some taste of the truth about himself. And in this taste of truth there begins to glimmer a sense of hope.
“And Death once Dead, there’s no more dying then.” is the way that Shakespeare expressed such a moment of awakening in his Sonnet 146.
1. Write a short paragraph describing a family conversation in which it is clear that all parties in the conversation are talking at cross-purposes without listening to each other.
2. Write a letter from Ivan Illych to Gerasim telling him how and why he has valued his attentions so much during the last days of his life.
3. Describe Tolstoy in intimate detail as he appears on the front cover of our text. Describe his clothes, his environment, the way he is holding his hands and especially the look on his face… and maybe one or two of his thoughts!
3. Create a digital resource kit for some of the very best material available on Tolstoy on the net. Present it in such way that your reader/viewer has real confidence in your choices.
4. Why did Tolstoy lose faith with his own class and identify himself with the Russian peasants? Write a succinct short paragraph that explains this curious turn of events in his life.
5. Research the criticism on the recent film that was made of Tolstoy’s life. Do the critics agree on the kind of insight this film gave into his life?