Discussion questions for The Death of Ivan Illych



Work in a small group (2-3) and write answers to the following questions on your own paper. Cite page numbers for the passages that you cite in your answers. (Obviously, this means that I expect you to cite passages in your answers). Remember Claim/Support/Explanation (CSE)


“Ivan Illych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary

and therefore most terrible.”



  1. Reread the passage on page 19 beginning with “Peter Ivanovich sighed still more deeply. . .” and ending with “signifying his full conviction that it must indeed be so.” What is the tone of this passage and to what effect?
  2. What impression do you have of Praskovya Fedorovna? What is the basis for your impression?
  3. Explain Ivan’s perception of marriage.
  4. Ivan decorates the family’s new house thinking he’s doing a wonderful job—quite pleased with the result. But what does Tolstoy say is the actual effect? Can you compare this situation to any that exist today, even to the type of house one might prefer to own?
  5. Who came to and who was excluded from Ivan’s parties?
  6. Comment on this passage from page 40: “and Ivan Illych was left alone with the consciousness that his life was poisoned and was poisoning the lives of others, and that this poison did not weaken but penetrated more and more deeply into his whole being.” What is Ivan thinking about? What does this mean?
  7. Describe the relationship between Ivan and Gerasim, his servant.
  8. What is “It?”
  9. At the beginning of part VI, Ivan thinks that it “would be too terrible” if he were to die and gives evidence that he is not simply a mortal man as Caius in the old syllogism. What’s the purpose of this passage?
  10. The end of Ivan’s life is consumed by helplessness, loneliness and pain. Tolstoy writes, “It seemed to him that he and his pain were being thrust into a narrow, deep black sack, but though they were pushed further and further in, they could not be pushed to the bottom. And this, terrible enough in itself, was accompanied by suffering.” This black sack is one of the main symbols in the story. Again at the end of the story, he is in the sack again for three days, screaming incessantly. But then, he is not. Reread the last two pages of the story, beginning with “Suddenly some force struck him in the chest. . . .”
    1. Answer these questions:

                                                               i.      “Ivan Illych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” What was most terrible?

                                                             ii.      What is the joy?

                                                            iii.      What does Tolstoy want us to know about our lives through our experiences with Ivan’s life?



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