Revisiting the Dialectic of Pain and Truth: War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich

in Canadian-American Slavic Studies
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In his excellent article on the function of pain in The Death of Ivan Ilyich, David Danaher argues that the increasing pain from which Ivan Ilyich suffers throughout the story both kills and resurrects him. Focusing primarily on linguistic devices, Danaher finds support for his thesis in Tolstoy’s use of figurative motifs such as journey and enclosure, oppositions such as light and dark, and thematic words and their derivatives, all of which he examines integrated into a narrative about pain. The focus of my study is different. First of all I deal more directly with physical pain. Some of the important changes that Danaher sees taking place in Ivan Ilyich are not the result of pain per se, but of illness in general. But just as important I also take a more genetic approach. I am interested in not only why Tolstoy chose physical pain as a vehicle to explore Ivan Ilyich’s journey, but why he chose a man like Ivan Ilyich to conduct his experiment. In War and Peace, in which Tolstoy shows no less interest in the relationship between physical pain and enlightenment, he chose a hero antithetical to Ivan Ilyich in almost every respect. For with regard to the portrayal of pain, The Death of Ivan Ilyich is more than a self-contained novel about pain, it is the continuation of an exploratory journey that started in War and Peace, in which the idiosyncratic and romantically imagined experiences of Andrei Bolkonsky in pain are replaced by the more universal and naturalistically portrayed experiences of Ivan Ilyich – and as we shall see – with dramatically different implications for interpretation.

Revisiting the Dialectic of Pain and Truth: War and Peace and The Death of Ivan Ilyich

in Canadian-American Slavic Studies




Vladimir NabokovLectures on Russian Literature (New York: Houghton1981) p. 237.


Gary Comstock“Face to Face with It: The Naive Reader’s Moral Response to ‘Ivan Ilych’,” Neophilologus70 no. 3 (1986): 328–329.


Edward WasiolekTolstoy’s Major Fiction (Chicago: Univ. of Chicago Press1978) p. 175. For an aesthetic justification of the bludgeoning see Philip Rahv “The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Joseph K” Image and Idea: Fourteen Essays on Literary Themes (Norfolk CT: New Directions 1949) pp. 111–127. Rahv sees Tolstoy as an inquisitor attempting to burn Ivan Ilyich at the stake in order “in the end to destroy him utterly.” In Rahv’s view Tolstoy shows civilized man as doomed; the modern everyman cannot turn into a Gerasim: a peasant.


WasiolekTolstoy’s Major Fiction p. 175.


DaudetIn the Land of Pain p. 19.


R.F. ChristianTolstoy: A Critical Introduction (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press1969) p. 238.


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