Analysis of Leo Tolstoy and his work, The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Final Term Paper

Better known for his long novels (War and Peace and Anna Karenina), Tolstoy ultimately has a change of heart in terms of the focus of his writings. After having written these two novels, Tolstoy decides to focus his later works on society’s lower class. Furthermore, Tolstoy concentrates on incorporating Christian themes as well as including material that deals with the 1860s emancipation of the serfs. Eventually, Tolstoy discredits his two most famous novels and claims that it is not true of reality. Leo Tolstoy uses the interactions of his characters to express his views on greed and societal roles. Although the characters in Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “How Much Land Does a Man Need” view greed as a way of attaining material possessions (and thus happiness), Tolstoy argues that greed in fact causes misery. Further, he expresses that the lower class is not treated properly and the upper class is a contributing factor to the subjugation of the lower class.

Greed is “a selfish and excessive desire for more of something (as money or materials) than is needed” (Webster). Since the day ‘man’ was placed on this earth, he has been greedy. For example, when Adam and Eve ate the fruit from the tree of knowledge, they knew it was forbidden to do so; however they went ahead and ate the fruit anyway. It is evident that humans are inherently greedy; they are constantly jealous of others and frequently attempt to seek material possessions because they think it will make them happier. Ultimately, this is not the case because human beings cannot be happy without having meaningful relationships. The accumulation of material items are not enough to lead to emotional fulfillment.

From the beginning of the Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych,” after discovering news about the death of Ivan, his friends and family are mostly concerned with what valuables they can acquire from his death. Even Ivan’s own wife, Praskovya, who should be grieving the death of her husband, is mostly preoccupied with the amount of money she can get from the government as a result of Ivan’s death. This obsession with greed is what ultimately prevents the characters in the story from having genuine relationships. This results in a life of emptiness and unhappiness. The irony in the previous statement is that greedy people seek validation from others to justify their actions.  Therefore, it is pivotal for humans to engage in interaction with other people in order to experience some kind of spiritual connection. Nearly every character is blinded by money and power and as a result they do not see that there is more to life than being rich and successful. Although it may not seem this way, positive relationships are more fulfilling than financial success.

Tolstoy’s “How Much Land Does a Man Need” is the ideal story which shows how greed easily overcomes people. While reading the story, the reader learns that one can only push themselves so far to attain their goal. Tolstoy shows his view that people should understand their limits. Pahom, the protagonist is a prime example of how greed leads to no good. This man spends a great amount of time earning and saving money to buy land. However, Pahom tries to take a shortcut. Instead of using his hard earned money to buy land, he decides to make a deal with a man in the country. The land owner and Pahom agree that Pahom can have as much land as he is able to cover on foot from sunrise to sunset.

Pahóm walked on and on; it was very hard walking, but he went quicker and quicker. He pressed on, but was still far from the place. He began running, threw away his coat, his boots, his flask, and his cap, and kept only the spade which he used as a support (Tolstoy,162).


Despite Pahom’s endeavors of returning to where he started and acquiring all this land, Pahom’s servant found Pahom dead with blood flowing from his mouth. As a result of his greed; Pahom is not able to enjoy all the land he has worked so hard to acquire. Ironically, the land owner notes that Pahom only needed six feet of land, symbolizing the size of the grave for the casket.

In “How Much Land Does a Man Need,” Tolstoy proves that greed does not only affect relationships and prevent one from experiencing happiness, but also affects one physically. When a person becomes obsessed with constantly seeking more and more material items, they ultimately add a great deal of stress to themselves. Like Pahom, once a person wants more possessions it becomes an endless cycle because there is no limit as to how much you can have. The person will keep pushing and pushing to have more which ultimately causes physical damage to one’s body. The question Tolstoy makes the reader ask themselves is “When will you be satisfied?” In Pahom’s case, how much land is enough? Something even more important to consider is when will greed provide one with satisfaction if there are no limits?

“How Much Land Does a Man Need” references ‘The Emancipation of the Serfs’ during the mid 1800s in Russia. During this time, serfs were treated inhumanely on a daily basis. In 1861, legislation passed which stated that the serfs were emancipated, but they were not to receive land, which is what they had been seeking all along. However, if a serf wanted to obtain land, they would have to pay to get a small plot of land. Ultimately, freeing the serfs did not prove as effective as all the serfs thought it would be because they were so poor that they could not afford to purchase property. Man again shows greed and does not think that the lower class of society should have the right to own anything valuable. Ultimately, this results in even more land for the bourgeoisie as a result of the serfs not being able to afford to purchase land (Eichler).

According to Tolstoy, the serfs should not be subjugated to this inhumane treatment, it is simply not right. Tolstoy was an adamant believer in freeing the serfs. This is evidenced by when he opens a school for the peasants, who were enslaved as serfs, on his family estate. Unlike the Russian government, Tolstoy believed in allowing the serfs to have the freedom to choose what they want to read in school. Furthermore, Tolstoy believes “the upper classes had as much to learn from peasants as peasants had to learn from the upper classes” (“Leo Tolstoy”). It is a two way street and either class would not be able to exist without the other; that is what makes society so unique and incredible. Typically, the life of the upper class is much easier because they are born into wealth. However, the bourgeoisie need to learn that everything does not need to be handed to them in a silver platter; they too like the serfs should have to work hard to make a living.

In the “Death of Ivan Ilych,” it is made clear that Ivan only marries Praskovya because it is considered ‘the right thing to do.’ As a man belonging to the upper class of society, Ivan has certain obligations to fulfill, particularly establishing a respectable image of himself. Ivan holds no affection for Praskovya when he marries her. His desire to succumb to society’s expectations supersedes his desire to establish a relationship based on love. After Praskovya falls in love with Ivan, Ivan asks himself…

After all why not get married? Praskovya Fyodorovna, was of good family, nice looking. There was a little bit of property. Ivan Ilyich might have reckoned on a more brilliant match, but this was a good match. Ivan Ilyich had his salary; she, he hoped, would have as much of her own. It was a good family; she was a sweet, pretty, and perfectly comme il faut young woman… He was doing what was agreeable to himself in securing such a wife, and at the same time doing what persons of higher standing looked upon as the correct thing. And Ivan Ilyich got married. (Tolstoy, 90).


This example further evidences Tolstoy’s views of societal standards. Ilyich, instead of taking into account what he liked about Praskovya, in an emotional sense, tried to calculate his marriage. It is as if he went on with this marriage as a laundry list.  Ivan needs to get on the right foot and please his superiors; hopefully it will allow for connections when trying to climb the job ladder. Ivan has strategically chosen to settle with Praskovya which was an excellent decision. His superiors will not view him as a single bachelor who was unwilling to make a commitment. Men only wanted to be respected in society. Therefore, society is more patriarchal in nature and this is evidenced when Ivan chooses to marry his wife.

In Russia, societal standards dictate that men are to work and provide for the family while women are supposed to bear children, raise the children, and tend to the needs of the house. Throughout the story, Ivan does everything in his ability to assure the financial security of his family. For example, he was not being paid enough at the one job he works at so he took the initiative to find another one. Ivan will not let anything hold him back and his unrelenting drive to succeed is something that should be admired by others. Furthermore, Ivan, unlike many other working men belonging to his social class, has the ability to separate his personal life from his work life. In order to keep up with the societal norms, Ivan and Praskovya host dinners for other members belonging to the bourgeoisie. Society dictates the dividing lines between the upper and lower class. Tolstoy’s view of the lower class being continuously subjugated by members belonging to the bourgeoisie and the upper class having that strong sense of entitlement still hold strong.

Men and women each have their respective role in society. Tolstoy argues that a woman in the position of Praskovya should be tending to her husband. There is no secret, Ivan and Praskovya’s relationship is quite strained; however Praskovya needs to uphold her responsibilities that she committed to upon getting married. She needs to particularly stick to these responsibilities because as a member of the upper class, it would be inappropriate for the two to get a divorce. This was unheard of at the time; once a couple got married they stayed this way unless one died.

In the case of Ivan and Praskovya, she wishes that Ivan would simply die so that she could continue to receive money. She can no longer stand living with someone who acts depressed every day. Regardless of how strained their relationship is, Praskovya is still married to Ivan and she should act in a manner appropriate for a wife. She should be by Ivan’s side in this tumultuous time. She needs to understand that this is a difficult time for Ivan and that he is not coming to terms with his mortality.

Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “How Much Land Does a Man Need” are two of his famous short stories that focus on the concept of greed. Tolstoy argues that seeking material possessions and pushing oneself beyond their limits to acquire a material item all contribute to the conclusion that greed causes misery. Furthermore, Tolstoy vividly describes societal standards and the separation gap this is occurring between the lower and upper classes. Aside from the fact that Tolstoy had nearly two hundred serfs on his estate, he treated them compassionately and with care. The short stories Tolstoy produced after his famous novels (War and Peace and Anna Karenina) effectively demonstrate his current views on society and greed.








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2 thoughts on “Final Term Paper

  1. Overall I feel like your paper was well written. I particularly liked how you began your paper in which you introduced two novels that we haven’t read by Tolstoy in order to show how he has progressed as a writer. Most people would think that smaller works were not a big deal, but eventually these works we read show the true impact on society. I also liked how you managed to incorporate history (Emancipation of the Serfs) from the time Tolstoy was living in order to explain his views on the social classes in society. Your examples for both greed and societal roles from both “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and “How much land does a man need” truly helped convey the point your were trying to bring to the reader. The only suggestion I would have it that you might want to consider keeping your argument regarding greed all together in the beginning of the paper and in the next part simply discuss societal roles. For the most part you did do this except a paragraph or two that were mixed in. By reading I also was able to learn Tolstoy’s opinions on certain matters such as his stance on the serfs and the different classes. However, my favorite argument was how in his worlds greed prevents the characters from engaging in meaningful relationships. Furthermore, I really liked the part about how Tolstoy was always preoccupied in following the steps of members of the upper class because he aspired to be like them. Despite having been such a successful author, he always had this unrelenting drive to succeed.

    – Christina

  2. This is right up my alley. I would like to congratulate you on writing an exquisite paper and I agree (for the most part). Tolstoy is all about class struggle and you obviously touch upon that rather well in this analysis of his work. I enjoyed reading your paper because in a way it agrees with mine in certain areas but from the perspective of the Ivan Ilyich story.

    I particularly like your mention of War and Peace as we attempted to tackle that project, it is apparent now that these little seemingly unimportant short stories are more masterpieces than his greatest masterpiece ever was.

    The theme of greed, I agree is overwhelmingly present throughout Tolstoy’s works. It is undoubtedly perhaps the only thing we can be sure Tolstoy believes about society for a fact. I also enjoyed the fact that you brought in another short story that at least me and Christina may not be so familiar with. It really helps round out your ideas and make them more valid than they already were.

    Again congrats! Well done!

    – Nelson

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