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Literary Analysis of The Death of Ivan Ilyich

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There is one thing that several people fear in this world other than spiders, and that “thing” is death. Unfortunately death is inevitable, and each and every one of us is bound to die at some point in our life. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, written by Leo Tolstoy, the main character Ivan manages to shift his entire perspective on the concept of death. Ivan was once terrified at the thought of death, but Tolstoy managed to change Ivan’s outlook on death by the end of the story. Leo Tolstoy’s story, The Death of Ivan Ilyich, includes different literary devices such as: theme, imagery, foreshadowing, similes, symbolism, both indirect and direct characterization to showcase the tremendous growth in the character of Ivan Ilyich.

There are many literary devices that Leo Tolstoy included in his novel, The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The use of irony is clearly visible in certain parts of the novel. Throughout the novel, you can see how at some parts Ivan contradicts himself which is quite ironic seeing the life he is given. Tolstoy also included the literary device imagery. It is almost as if all throughout the novel you can really dive into the life of Ivan and see what his life is really like. Another literary device shown in some parts of the novel is foreshadowing. By using the literary device, foreshadowing, the reader can see into the future. Indirect characterization is another great device that Tolstoy includes several times in the novel in order for us to get a better understanding of the main character Ivan. Altogether, the literary devices that Tolstoy used help develop the plot as a whole, as well as help us dive into the world of Ivan Ilyich.

One of the major literary devices that helps the reader understand the purpose of Ivan’s life was theme. The author, Leo Tolstoy, included many different themes. One of the messages I picked up from reading this novel was that most things in life are not as they seem. A quote that stood out to me was, “Ivan Ilyich used to dance as a matter of course; as an examining magistrate he now danced only on special occasions (Tolstoy 777)”. The key word that stood out to me in this quotation was that Ivan “used” to dance. I feel that the purpose of this quote was to show the reader how someone can be surrounded by all of the right people, but still not be happy on the inside. Ivan is a character based solely on what is expected in society, when deep down he is not happy with it. You can see tremendous growth in Ivan’s character from the beginning of the novel, all the way to the end of the novel.

Another literary device that the author uses in order to help portray Ivan’s character is imagery. The imagery that the author includes in the novel can help the reader visualize Ivan’s life, and really dive into the world of Ivan Ilyich. The use of imagery is exemplified in the quote, “Ivan Ilyich started to play, having an ability to play cards cheerfully, quick-wittedly, and very shrewdly so that generally he won (Tolstoy 777)”. In this quotation you can visualize Ivan playing a game with a smile wide across his face. The imagery in this quote helps the reader be able to see through Ivan’s eyes. The literary device, Imagery, is strongly exemplified throughout each and every passage in order to help show the growth in Ivan’s character.

Foreshadowing is another literary device that Leo Tolstoy strongly utilizes in the beginning of The Death of Ivan Ilyich. On the first page of this novel foreshadowing is extremely prevalent. Tolstoy utilizes this device in order to predict the events that will occur towards the end of the novel. You can see the use of this literary device in the quote, “Praskovya Fyodorovna Golovina with deep sorrow informs family and friends of the passing of her beloved spouse Ivan Ilyich Golovin (Tolstoy 769)”. This was a quote written by Tolstoy which foreshadows the events that will occur in the future. Tolstoy utilized the use of foreshadowing in order to help the reader understand how Ivan’s life progresses throughout the novel.

Tolstoy also utilizes similes throughout the novel. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, similes are used in order to compare Ivan to something else. The similes that Leo Tolstoy exemplified in the novel have a unique way of revealing Ivan Ilyich’s true character. You can see the use of this literary device in the quote, “He burst into tears like a child (Tolstoy 801)”. In this quotation the author compared Ivan to a child which is quite ironic since Ivan is friends with those in the upper class in the beginning. Ivan is shown as one who has his life put together, and gets everything and anything he desires. When in reality, this simile shows that Ivan has his breaking points and his life is not as perfect as it seems. Similes are includes all throughout this novel which really help the reader see how Ivan’s life can be at times.

Leo Tolstoy also utilized the literary technique of symbolism in this novel. You can see the use of this technique in the quotation, “He thought in some way they were pushing him and his pain into a narrow, deep, black sack (Tolstoy 801)”. In this quotation the black sack symbolizes Ivan Ilyich’s own life. The black sack is mentioned many different times in this novel, and each time it is mentioned you can tie it back to Ivan’s life. The black sack is basically a deep dark hole that Ivan fears deeply. Ivan grew up living a false life, or basically a life full of expectations, which like I said earlier, Ivan could have anything he wanted but that does not mean he was happy. The black sack is a symbol which can be seen as Ivan’s escape from reality. There are many different symbols throughout this novel, but the black sack lets the reader see Ivan in his most vulnerable state.

Indirect characterization is another important literary technique that Tolstoy included. This technique helps the reader see the main characters true personality through their speech and actions. The use of indirect characterization is exemplified in the quotation, “Maybe I have lived not as I should have (Tolstoy 802)”. This is a quotation that was said by Ivan Ilyich himself. In this quote you can see how Ivan’s character reacts to what is happening in his life. Ivan is laying alone, dying, and in the end he finally realizes that he should have lived life differently. Instead of working twenty-four seven, Ivan realized he should be spending more time with his wife and family. You only live once so you should make the most of it, and when Ivan realized that it was too late for him.

In addition to indirect characterization, Tolstoy managed to utilize direct characterization as well. This literary device is exemplified in the quote, “Ivan Ilyich was just as comme il faut, well behaved, capable of separating his official duties from his private life and of inspiring general respect as he had been as a special projects officer (Tolstoy 776)”. This is an example of direct characterization because the author, Tolstoy, describes the main character, Ivan, as well behaved. You can see the different adjectives and phrases the author used in order to help construct Ivan’s character and show his growth throughout the novel.

Leo Tolstoy wrote a novel which was filled with a lot of expectations, guilt, regret, and solitude. By the end of this novel Ivan was completely transformed as a person. Ivan was able to construct a new mindset by the time of his death. The reader can see how one main character can grow as a person throughout a traumatic time in their life. Tolstoy utilized several different literary devices such as: theme, imagery, foreshadowing, similes, symbolism, both indirect and direct characterization to show the growth of Ivan Ilyich’s character as a whole throughout the novel.

Works Cited

  • Tolstoy, Leo. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” The Norton Anthology of World Literature, W. W. Norton & Company, 2019, pp. 769–807.

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