The Death of Ivan Ilyich


Tolstoy, Leo


Short Story


Born into a wealthy aristocratic family but orphaned by the age of ten, the great Russian novelist Leo Tolstoy suffered a protracted period of psychological and spiritual crisis in the 1870s, when he was in his late forties. He found himself overwhelmed by depression and despair and unable to find meaning in life. Ultimately, inspired by the religious faith of Russian peasants, Tolstoy resolved this crisis by embracing his own system of Christian belief. The Death of Ivan Ilyich was written in the aftermath of his conversion. In this famous novella, a middle-aged government magistrate, whose life has been “most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible,” sinks into a mysterious illness after a seemingly trivial accident. Finding that his doctors treat him as impersonally as he treated defendants in court, and that his wife regards his illness primarily as a nuisance to herself, Ivan is comforted only by the presence of his servant Gerasim. Brought face to face with death, Ivan reviews his life and struggles to find meaning in his suffering. This story opens up some of the most fundamental questions of human existence: What is a good life? What does it mean to live in the shadow of death? How should we respond to our own suffering and to the sufferings of others? How should we die?

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The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories by Leo Tolstoy. Trans. Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky. Vintage, 2010.




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Big Questions

How do we respond to the suffering of others? How would we like others to respond to our own?What role do I play in my organization? Who determines this role?

Sample Discussion Questions

  1. In the opening paragraphs, how do Ivan's acquaintances respond to the news of his death? What about his wife, Praskovya Fedorovna? The servant Gerasim, who cared for Ivan in his final days?
  2. What does the beginning of the story tell us about the human response to mortality? Does this response resonate with you as a caregiver?
  3. How would you describe the suffering in these chapters? Who suffers? Why? Who turns away and why?
  4. When Ivan falls ill, what are the chief sources of his suffering?
  5. How does Ivan's doctor view and respond to him? Is the doctor's attitude familiar to you?
  6. If you were assigned to care for Ivan, what would you need to do? What would your chief concerns be?
  7. What would you like to ask Ivan? What would you like to urge him to do or not to do, before he dies?
  8. Where do these chapters challenge your compassion? Your sense of what it means to be a caregiver?
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