The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Leo Tolstoy
Space and Time Running Amok
Symbolism, Imagery, Allegory
So what's up with Tolstoy starting the story with Ivan's funeral? If you think about it, that's only one respect in which the pacing of this novella is strange. We start the story after the main character has already died, we spend the next two chapters flying through 44 years of his life, and then we spend the remaining nine chapters on his last months. Sometimes the narrator will focus on a particular day, other times he'll just describe "the way Ivan was" for some period (days, weeks, months) during his illness.
There is something of a method to this madness, though. If you think about it, excluding the first introductory chapter, time in the book continuously shrinks. Chapter 2 covers more than 40 years, the following chapter deals with three and a half years, the next chapter addresses several months or so, and the last five chapters cover a matter of weeks. The narrator tells us near the end of the last chapter that Ivan experiences all of his revelation "in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change" (12.15-16). To the people watching Ivan, that moment would have occurred over several hours. So, if we want to take Ivan's time as our base, time in the novella contracts from a long span of years at its beginning to a single instant at its end.
Not only that, space shrinks too. Since Chapter 2 covers as much time as it does, its physical setting is huge; Ivan travels to several different provinces in the course of it. The setting for Chapter 3 is "St. Petersburg," in which Ivan finds his house. For the next few chapters, much of the action takes place in the house, but Ivan is still traveling around the city (to see doctors, to go to work, etc.). After a certain point he becomes homebound, until by Chapter 10 he no longer leaves his sofa, on which he presumably dies. More and more of the narrative also moves to Ivan's head as the story progresses, culminating in his experience of the light. His experience of time and his state of mind at that point are different from what everyone else sees. It's as if Ivan's world has contracted spatially until it's finally shrinks even beyond his body to his soul.
It's a nifty effect, but why does Tolstoy do this? What do you think about it? We think that one possible explanation is that it focuses the story in a very noticeable way on Ivan, and more specifically, on Ivan's soul. To be saved from his false life, Ivan has to leave the entirety of his past and all of the false outside world behind. It is only within his own soul that Ivan is able to find real life.
That Ivan's last moments are wholly internal and somehow frozen in time suggest that he has finally entered the spiritual world. The whole narrative – and his whole life – can then be seen as leading him to that point.
It's interesting to note, though, that Ivan reaches that point at the same moment that he's touched by someone from the outside – by his son. He's also able to reach out to his family in compassion for the first time at that moment, and think beyond his own selfishness. But this comes only after he's retreated all the way inside himself.
Now, how about that first chapter? We don't really have a suggestion for how you can fit it into the overall construct of the story. Wouldn't it have been strange if Tolstoy had just started at Chapter 2, with that very condensed version of Ivan's life story? It feels more natural to begin with some kind of prelude, and if the story ends with Ivan's death, it's got to be either before his birth or after his death. Ivan's death frames the rest of the story and puts into context the rest of his life. We know that we are looking back on a life already lived.