The Stages of Dying and 'The Death of Ivan Ilych'
Napier (James J.)
Source: College Literature, Vol. 10, No. 2 (Spring, 1983), pp. 147-157
Paper - Abstract

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Author’s Introduction

  1. Upon reflection, many a reader of "Tolstoy (Leo) - The Death of Ivan Ilyich", acknowledging the uncompromising force of this triumph of narrative art, might yet recognize the potential for failure in such a subject and treatment. The potential is for surfeit: a three months' illness — unrelieved suffering and decline — and the end is death. But we also recognize that Tolstoy has dramatized a paradox of inevitability and hope, a fusion in which what "must be" never rules out what "may be." Less obvious, perhaps, is how deeply based are Tolstoy's literary instincts in precisely those appeals to readers' expectations which are the province of the literary artist.
  2. The province is imagination, but imagination rooted in the real. It is convenient to this subject that medical science offers its "case histories" of the actual, and thus, as in the well-known study On Death and Dying by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, a parallel and "standard" concerning aspects of Tolstoy's story. Kubler-Ross examines the stages of dying, especially with patients (more than two hundred) involved in long-term illness (as is true of Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych)1. Thus science with its striking examples supports fiction.
  3. But the fiction, in this instance, might remain less richly involved with the real were it not for the illumination provided by Frank Kermode's theory of narrative. Kermode studies the artifice of narrative and thus, by association, the artifice of stages of the real. Indirectly the critic and the physician help us appreciate Tolstoy's narrative, with its inherent pains and satisfactions, in a more revealing light.

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