Study Guide

The Death of Ivan Ilych Society and Class

By Leo Tolstoy

Society and Class

In The Death of Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy mounts an attack on the Russian middle class. Almost all of the characters in the novella belong to this class, and he uses them to illustrate the greed, pettiness, artificiality, selfishness, and uselessness he sees in their way of life. Ivan Ilych himself – that "most simple and ordinary" man with the "most terrible" life – is the embodiment of all of these things (2.1). Tolstoy fills the story with details to bring the middle-class world to life, from the furniture in Ivan's house to the proper manners with which everyone is so concerned. It is telling that the only genuine character in the novella is a peasant.

Questions About Society and Class

  1. What markers does Tolstoy give to show that Ivan and his family are part of the middle class? Be specific.
  2. What are the characteristics of the Russian middle class as Tolstoy portrays it in The Death of Ivan Ilych?
  3. What is this propriety that seems to be so central to Ivan's social set? What kinds of things are proper to them? Why does Tolstoy seem to think there's something false about this?
  4. Is Tolstoy's depiction of the middle class believable, or too exaggeratedly negative and satirical?

Chew on This

The middle class in The Death of Ivan Ilych is principally defined by its ordinariness and uniformity, reflecting Tolstoy's own aristocratic pretensions.

The propriety of the middle class in The Death of Ivan Ilych is entirely defined by doing what everybody else does, and seems to be wholly arbitrary from a moral point of view.