Instructors’ Teaching Experience
This novella is included in An Anthology of Disability Literature (ed. Christy Thompson Ibrahim, ISBN 978-1611630572), in Leo Tolstoy’s The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories, and likely other collections, as well. It is one of Tolstoy’s more famous shorter fictions, and it was published in 1886. I have taught it in an Interpretation of Literature class focused on disability and illness literature, but it would work nicely in a more general course as well, especially if instructors are interested in engaging issues of class, capitalism, and/or masculinity. ~Feedback from Jennifer Janechek
Depending on class size, I place students into groups of two to four and then assign each group a character or set of characters on which to focus:
- Praskovya Fedorovna Mikhel (Ivan’s wife)
- Lisa (Ivan’s daughter) and her fiancé
- The doctors
- His friends (especially those with whom he plays cards)
- His work associates
Part 1 | As a group, students determine the attitude toward Ivan’s illness that their assigned character or group of characters take(s). They are then asked to locate and write on a sheet of paper quotes to support their claim about this attitude in response to Ivan’s poor health.
Part 2 | As a class, we then discuss how the narrator presents each attitude toward illness, considering in particular the following questions: Does the narrator seem to think one attitude is correct, or at least preferable to another? Is the narrator particularly critical toward one character’s or group’s treatment of Ivan?
- What are Ivan’s expectations for and assumptions about his life? Does he feel like anything is owed to him or that he deserves anything in particular? If so, what? What do you think about these assumptions and expectations—are they problematic? Explain.
- Take a moment to note instances of statistical or mathematical language in the text, like references to norms, correctness, deviations, etc. Why do you think Tolstoy uses this language?
- What is significant about the illness being referred to as an “it” starting on page 146 in the anthology?
- Why does no one want to admit that Ivan is dying? How do Gerasim’s attitudes differ?
- Discuss Ivan’s attitude toward his illness. Does it evolve?
- Does Ivan change as a character by the end of the novella? How so?
- What makes Gerasim an effective or ineffective caretaker?
- Why do you think there there is so much attention to clothing and home decorating in this novella?
- The ideas of uniformity and unoriginality are repeated ideas, or motifs, in this text. Why do you think Tolstoy emphasizes these concepts in relation to Ivan?
- Compare the two fictional illnesses you have read so far, Margaret Edson’s Wit and this text. What are the similarities/differences? Why do both texts allude to John Donne’s Holy Sonnets? Do you think that the two texts use the Holy Sonnets for different ends?