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Themes

Doctors get a pretty bad rap in The Death of Ivan Ilych. Throughout the story they appear as arrogant, unsympathetic, deceptive, and ultimately useless. And by the story's end, it's pretty clear they've not given the dying Ivan Ilych any medical help. If anything, they've only made his situation worse. Tolstoy attacks various elements of modernization in this novella, and perhaps none more directly than the cult of modern medicine, which was growing in his own age. Through the experience of Ivan Ilych with his doctors, Tolstoy suggests that modern medicine is dehumanizing and reflects false society's refusal to come to terms with death and, by extension, with life.

Questions About Technology and Modernization

  1. What is it about his doctors that reminds Ivan Ilych of his own profession as a lawyer?
  2. How does Ivan Ilych's relationship to his doctors evolve over the course of the story? Cite specific examples. Is that change connected to larger changes within his character?
  3. What is it about doctors that Ivan finds false?
  4. Is Tolstoy's satirical treatment of the doctors in the story connected to his larger satire of the middle class? How might the two go together?

Chew on This

Try on an opinion or two, start a debate, or play the devil’s advocate.

Both doctors and lawyers in The Death of Ivan Ilych are similar, in that they dehumanize their clients, treating them as abstract cases rather than real people.

The doctors in The Death of Ivan Ilych are false because, like the middle-class clients to whom they cater, they refuse to acknowledge the reality of death.

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