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Death of Ivan Ilych, The

by Leo Tolstoy

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One of the golden rules of writing is the old admonition, “show, don’t tell.” English teachers around the country instruct their students that the best writers evoke feelings from their readers rather than telling their readers what to feel. “Readers need to see things for themselves,” we tell our students—and then a writer like Leo Tolstoy comes along and blows up that idea.

It seems like most Russian writers break this rule. Tolstoy, Dostoyevsky, Solzhenitsyn, Gogol, Turgenev—none of them have reservations about telling their reader what to think. And somehow, despite what your high school English teacher said, it works.

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy cheerfully tells the reader what to think about Ivan: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.” What he means by this is that Ivan allowed society to do his thinking for him; he led an unexamined life. His life was ordinary in the sense that it looked like everyone’s life: he wasn’t overly concerned with being moral, he married a woman based more on external qualities than internal qualities, he pursued the job that paid the most, he concerned himself with things more than people. If he grew at all, he grew like a toadstool and not like a man. And thus his life was also the “most terrible.”

I can tell you all these things to think about Ivan because Tolstoy tells us all these things. You should have no doubt, as you read this story, that Tolstoy hates convention and believes you should hate it, too. Halfway through, Tolstoy has Ivan admit, “It really is so! I lost my life over that curtain as I might have done when storming a fort. Is that possible? How terrible and how stupid. It can’t be true! It can’t, but it is.”

Typically, such writing would come across as clumsy and preachy. It is a great understatement to say that with Tolstoy it does not. In this story, Tolstoy teaches a lesson that every student—especially every modern American student—needs to hear, and he does it with such artistry that the reader is scared into examining his own life.

by Jeff Baldwin