Tag Archives: tolstoy


“The Death of Ivan Ilych: A Psychological Study On Death and Dying” as a Lens Essay

The lens essay is a commonly-assigned paper, particularly in Writing Seminars. The prompt for such a paper often asks students to “critique and refine” an argument, to use a source as a lens through which to view another source and in the process gain a better understanding of both sources. This type of essay can be hard to explain and difficult to understand, so it is one of the most common types of essays we see in the Writing Center.

Recently, I read Y.J. Dayananda’s paper “The Death of Ivan Ilych: A Psychological Study On Death and Dying” which uses the lens technique. In this paper, Dayananda examines Tolstoy’s famous short story The Death of Ivan Ilych through the lens of Dr. E. K. Ross’s psychological studies of dying, particularly her five-stage theory. Dayananda’s paper features strong source use, shows how structure can be informed by those sources, and serves as a model for an effective and cross-disciplinary lens essay.

Dayananda establishes the paper’s argument clearly at the end of the introduction, setting up the paper’s thesis in light of this lens technique and providing the rationale (part of the motive) behind applying Ross’s study to Tolstoy’s story:

I intend to draw upon the material presented in Dr. Ross’s On Death and Dying and try to show how Tolstoy’s Ivan Ilych in The Death of Ivan Ilych goes through the same five stages. Psychiatry offers one way to a better illumination of literature. Dr. Ross’s discoveries in her consulting room corroborate Tolstoy’s literary insights into the experience of dying. They give us the same picture of man’s terrors of the flesh, despair, loneliness, and depression at the approach of death. The understanding of one will be illuminated by the understanding of the other. The two books, On Death and Dying and The Death of Ivan Ilych, the one with its systematically accumulated certified knowledge, and disciplined and scientific descriptions, and the other with its richly textured commentary, and superbly concrete and realistic perceptions, bring death out of the darkness and remove it from the list of taboo topics. Death, our affluent societies newest forbidden topic, is not regarded as “obscene” but discussed openly and without the euphemisms of the funeral industry.

Dayananda then organizes the paper in order of the five stages of Dr. Ross’s theory: denial, loneliness, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance. This gives the paper a clear structure and places the texts into conversation with each other on an organizational level. As the reader moves through each stage, Dayananda combines quotations from Dr. Ross’s study and evidence from The Death of Ivan Ilych to show how Ivan Ilych experiences that stage.

Dayananda’s interdisciplinary close-reading of Tolstoy’s text through the lens of Dr. Ross’s study allows us to better understand what Ivan is experiencing as we learn the psychology behind it. As Dayananda writes, “psychoanalysis offers a rich, dynamic approach to some aspects of literature.” The only way Dayananda’s paper could have been strengthened is if the essay also argued explicitly how reading the literature critiques or refines the psychological text, as the best lens essays run both ways. However, overall, Dayananda sets up and executes an original and effective lens reading of The Death of Ivan Ilych.

–Paige Allen ’21

Dayananda, Y. J. “The Death of Ivan Ilych: A Psychological Study On Death and Dying.” Tolstoy’s Short Fiction: Revised Translations, Backgrounds and Sources, Criticism, by Lev Nikolaevich Tolstoi and Michael R. Katz, Norton, 1991, pp. 423–434.


Tortoise Tuesday: Using Scholarly and In-Text Motive to Understand Death in Tolstoy

Distinguishing between the two types of motive – scholarly and in-text – in an introduction can be a challenge. As an author tries to convey to the reader why their argument matters, they need a strong in-text motive: the answer to the “so what?” question as to why the argument is relevant to the text, event, or other primary source under discussion. The scholarly motive is, however, just as important: since their paper is entering a scholarly conversation on the topic at hand, the author needs to take a clear position within that conversation. This can mean agreeing with a scholar but expanding on their view, knocking down another scholar’s argument and replacing it with a new model, or any other way of engaging with the existing literature.

In this opening passage from the essay “Tolstoy and the Geometry of Fear,” Kathleen Parthé articulates both her in-text and scholarly motive from the outset as she analyzes a symbol for death in Tolstoy’s short story “Notes of a Madman” (published posthumously in 1912). She explains how an analysis of the symbol, a square figure, can help the reader to understand and appreciate the story in the context of larger questions of death and fear in Tolstoy’s work (in-text motive). She also points out why her article is necessary to Tolstoy scholarship: although the critical literature has focused on the broad theme of death in Tolstoy, it has neglected the author’s use of symbolism, leaving a gap in the scholarly conversation that Parthé now tries to fill.

—Rosamond van Wingerden ’20

“Tolstoy was repeatedly drawn to the crisis of dying because he felt that the traditional literary perception of death was inadequate, Death for Tolstoy was not just another subject; it was an important personal and aesthetic challenge. The critical literature, however, has treated death in Tolstoy only from the thematic point of view, and the devices the author chose so carefully to signify death have been for the most part unexamined and underestimated. Virtually no attention has been paid to the most unexpected of all devices: the first-person narrator in “Notes of a Madman” (“Zapiski sumasshedshego”) experiences the fear of death as “a horror – red, white, and square” (uzhas krasnyi, belyi, kvadratnyi).

The goal of this article is to demonstrate that this “square” is more than simply another interesting example of the various ways of fearing death that Tolstoy observed in himself and others. I will attempt to show how this seemingly anomalous image is actually related to a series of Tolstoyan linguistic devices for depicting death, and is in fact the ultimate device in that series. Three kinds of evidence will be offered in support of this argument: other examples in Tolstoy’s work, independent observations in linguistic and critical literature, and similar groupings of devices in writers such as Bely and Zamyatin. Finally, the square will be discussed as a type of geometric image, which, along with other mathematical borrowings, enjoyed a rich development among twentieth century artists, especially in Russia.”

(Kathleen Parthé, “Tolstoy and the Geometry of Fear,” in Tolstoy’s Short Fiction [New York: Norton & Co.], 404-5)