The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 1 | Summary

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Summary

In 1882 at one of the law courts in Russia, a group of prosecutors, lawyers, and magistrates are in a room at the courthouse during a trial when one of their members, Peter Ivanovich, enters to tell them that their acquaintance Ivan Ilych has died. The assembled men are quite shocked at the news, although they've known that Ivan Ilych has been ill. The men have been colleagues of Ivan Ilych's for many years, and most plan to attend his funeral the following Friday. Ivan's acquaintances at the courthouse think only about how his death might benefit their professional advancement. Of course, the uppermost thought in their minds is relief that "it is he who is dead and not I." Still, propriety demands that they attend Ivan's funeral, which most of them find an irksome duty.

On Friday, Ivan's courthouse colleagues and friends assemble at his home for the funeral. Peter Ivanovich goes into the room where the body is lying in its open coffin. He feels uncomfortable and does not know what it is proper for him to do in such a situation. He notes the Church Reader (a lay reader of the Bible) and the holy icons (paintings of Jesus and/or the Virgin Mary) on the walls. He sees several of Ivan's relatives arrayed around the body. Peter Ivanovich glances at the corpse and is surprised that Ivan Ilych looks calmer and more dignified in death than he often looked in life. Peter Ivanovich is disconcerted by the corpse's expression, which seems to be "a warning to the living." Peter Ivanovich is too discomforted to think about what this means, so he hurries out of the room.

Upon leaving the room with the body, Peter Ivanovich meets his colleague Schwartz. Schwartz had winked at him mischievously earlier, seeming to imply some pleasurable pastime to come after the funeral. Schwartz is a dapper pleasure-seeker. Peter Ivanovich knows he will probably unwrap "a new pack of cards ... [and their] evening would be spent agreeably."

Before the funeral service starts, Ivan's wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, draws Peter Ivanovich aside and speaks to him. Peter feel uncomfortable, thinking he'll have to comfort the weeping widow. At first, the two discuss how terribly Ivan Ilych suffered in the weeks and days before he died. The topic makes Peter Ivanovich "afraid for himself." Then the conversation turns to its main purpose. The tearful Praskovya Fedorovna wants to talk to Peter Ivanovich about getting more money from Ivan's pension out of the government. Praskovya Fedorovna assures Peter Ivanovich that her "grief [does not] prevent her from attending to practical affairs." She asks Peter to find out if there's anything he can do to get her an additional "grant of money from the government." Peter Ivanovich admits sadly that there's nothing he can do in this regard.

Upon leaving the wife, Peter Ivanovich sees and greets Lisa Ivanovna Golovina, Ivan Ilych's daughter, her fiancé, and Ivan's teenage son, Vladimir Ivanovich Golovin. Vladimir's "tear-stained eyes [reveal him to be] pure-minded." Then everyone attends the funeral service. Peter Ivanovich is careful not to let the corpse or the service be a "depressing influence" on him. When he leaves the service, Peter runs into Gerasim, the servant. Peter says to him, "It's a sad affair." Gerasim replies calmly, "It's God's will." Then Gerasim helps Peter Ivanovich into a sledge, which whisks him off to Fedor Vasilievich's place for a pleasant night of cards.

Analysis

The author uses Chapter 1 to set the stage for the rest of the novella, even though it is chronologically the end of the story. The author places Ivan Ilych's funeral at the beginning. This approach gives Leo Tolstoy the freedom to show how inauthentic, trivial, and materialistic the lives of Ivan's friends, colleagues, and family really are. It suggests that Ivan's life was very likely the same. The first chapter allows the author to satirize and criticize the vapid life of upper-middle-class Russians of the time. It also foreshadows Ivan Ilych's spiritual journey away from this superficial way of life.

For a moment the men in the courtroom are surprised by Ivan Ilych's death. Then they immediately bury all thoughts about mortality and concentrate on how it might increase their power. Peter Ivanovich, like others in Ivan Ilych's circle, cannot deal with the idea of mortality. They quickly turn their minds away from death and toward how this particular death might benefit their careers. Self-aggrandizement is not just a means of ignoring mortality, it is apparently a guiding principle of the upper-middle-class life these men lead.

Though they would like to avoid anything to do with death, propriety forces these gentlemen to attend Ivan's funeral. They are really quite annoyed at having to do so. There is no hint that these men will attend the funeral to pay their respects to Ivan Ilych or to comfort the grieving family. They attend the funeral only because it is the proper thing for men of their class to do. These middle-class men are ruled by propriety, which forces them to make the tiresome journey to Ivan Ilych's home. Propriety—doing the correct or proper thing as demanded by upper-middle-class society—is the guiding factor in the lives of these people.

Attendees at the funeral deny the reality of death and distance themselves from it, thinking it has no relevance to their own lives. Schwartz conveys to Peter Ivanovich his assurance that "Ivan Ilych has made a mess of things (has died)—not like you and me." Schwartz seems to exempt the living from ever having to face death. When Peter Ivanovich looks at Ivan's corpse, he seems to recognize an expression of "warning ... not applicable to him." Yet the nearness of death makes Peter feel "a certain discomfort" that he cannot abide, so he hurries out of the room. In speaking with Ivan's wife, Peter manages to distance himself from death. He asks for details about her husband's death "as though death was an accident natural to Ivan Ilych but certainly not to himself." He offers no comfort to the widow. In fact, their conversation lacks any sincere or true exchange of feelings.

Peter Ivanovich's discomfort is relieved by the promise of masking thoughts of death with the pursuit of pleasure. Peter encounters Schwartz who, he feels, "was above all these happenings and would not surrender to any depressing influences." Schwartz, too, distances himself from the reality of death by smothering it in the pursuit of pleasure—especially games of cards. Schwartz and Peter Ivanovich escape the funeral as soon as they can to gather at a friend's house to play bridge. The card game is a distraction that will enable them to banish all thoughts of mortality.

In contrast to Peter Ivanovich's (and the others') dread and denial of death, the author introduces the character of Gerasim. He is Ivan Ilych's assistant and servant. Gerasim is the only person present, as far as the reader knows, who accepts death as a natural part of life. He says, "We shall all come to it someday." This causes Peter Ivanovich to hasten outside and escape to his bridge game.

Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina, Ivan's wife, is also a slave to propriety insofar as she sheds tears for her dead husband. That her tears may not be an authentic expression of her feelings is implied. This is evident when she says, "I consider it an affectation to say that my grief prevents my attending to practical affairs." Even Peter Ivanovich recognizes that her mournful demeanor is "this woman's dissimulation." For her, attending to practicalities may be a distraction from her supposed grief. She is concerned with money on the day of her husband's funeral. This implies that it is not attending to practicalities that is an affectation but her false show of grief that is her affectation. Praskovya exhibits other aspects of proper, or acceptable, upper-middle-class behavior—selfishness and greed. She, too, seems to refuse to think about death. She replaces thoughts of mortality with the desire for money that will satisfy her materialism.

Praskovya Fedorovna's materialism is a symptom of her absolute commitment to bourgeois acceptability. It is clear that Ivan Ilych was also in thrall to the materialism mandated by upper-middle-class society. When Peter Ivanovich enters a sitting room with Ivan's wife, what he notices most is the amount of stuff the room contains. He notes, perhaps admiringly, that "the whole room was full of furniture and knick-knacks"—not to mention antiques. Peter remembers that "Ivan [himself] had arranged this room and had consulted him (Peter) regarding this pink cretonne with green leaves." The overstuffed room helps the reader understand how immersed in materialistic values Ivan Ilych was before he died.

Ivan Ilych's terrible suffering is a somewhat false and extremely uncomfortable topic of conversation between Praskovya and Peter Ivanovich. When she says that Ivan "suffered terribly in his last days," all Peter can think of to say is the nonchalant "did he?" Peter Ivanovich tries to distance himself from Ivan's suffering. But he is "suddenly struck ... with horror" as he tries to convince himself that such suffering "should not and could not happen to him." The suffering is too awful and too closely tied to death for Peter Ivanovich to allow himself to fully contemplate it.

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