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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 2 | Summary



This chapter describes Ivan Ilych's early life and covers approximately the first 17 or 18 years of his marriage. His life is described as ordinary and therefore terrible—terrible because ordinary middle-class life demanded total conformity to trivialities. The reader learns that at his death, Ivan Ilych was a 45-year-old lawyer at the Court of Justice.

Ivan's father was a government official who rose so high through the ranks, he "[could] not be dismissed." He couldn't be fired, though he was a "superfluous [member] of the Privy Council." Ivan was the middle son of three, and his middling position seems to define his middling life. While his older brother achieved great success and his younger brother "was a failure," Ivan achieved middling success. As a child, his behavior was also middling—not too serious and not too wild. He was, the author states, "a happy mean between [his two brothers]." Ivan completed his schooling and enrolled in law school where he was "a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man." All in all, the picture of Ivan Ilych is one of a perfectly normal representative of his class and society.

Ivan always cultivated "people of high station" and pursued the pleasures of youth with them. Upon graduating from law school, Ivan bought fashionable clothes from the best tailor in St. Petersburg. He purchased necessities from the "best shops" in the city. He then sets off for his post as a special assistant to a governor of a distant province.

In his new locale, Ivan sets himself up in "as easy and agreeable a position" as he had as a law student in St. Petersburg. He does his job well. He takes time to "amuse himself pleasantly and decorously." He always behaves with dignity and treats others with respect. He is proud of his reputation for being "incorruptibly honest."

At work Ivan is "reserved, punctilious, and even severe." When he's out socially, he is "amusing and witty ... always good-natured and easygoing (bon enfant)." He has an affair with a young woman and sometimes avails himself of the pleasures offered by women "of doubtful reputation." Yet he does everything with "such a tone of good breeding," his reputation is not tarnished. His less-than-proper behavior is excused as sowing his wild oats or "youth must have its fling" (il faut que jeunesse se passe). Yet whatever he did, he did it "with clean hands, in clean linen."

After five years working in this province, Ivan Ilych benefited from judicial reforms. He was offered and accepted the post of examining magistrate in another province. At his new post, Ivan Ilych was just as proper (comme il faut) as he had been in his former job. He inspired respect in his colleagues and found the new job far more interesting than his previous one. His new position also afforded him greater deference from petitioners than his earlier position had. Ivan had enjoyed being envied by the petitioners in his former job. Now he felt that "everyone was in his power" and enjoyed "the attractions of his office."

In his new town, Ivan Ilych assumed a more aloof attitude toward the authorities. But he sought out and cultivated those of the highest status and wealth in the legal profession. His new set of friends and acquaintances introduced him to bridge (vint), and he became an avid player.

After two years at the new post, Ivan Ilych met the woman who would become his wife. Praskovya Fedorovna was attractive, clever, from a good family, and quite proper in her behavior. He took her out dancing, and in that way stole her heart. When she declared her love, Ivan thought, "Really, why shouldn't I marry?" And so he did.

With his new wife, Ivan entered into a whirlwind of shopping to set up their household. Ivan Ilych believed that his marriage would improve his stature in society because getting married was the correct thing to do. Things changed, however, when his wife quickly became pregnant. Ivan thought her condition made her, and his life, rather "depressing and unseemly." He sought to escape the situation but could not. All of his wife's lightheartedness (de gaiete de coeur) vanished, and Ivan's life became unhappy and burdensome. She began to find fault with everything. Though he tried to endure her moods, Ivan eventually began to consider divorce. The birth of their daughter only made matters worse, as Praskovya demanded from him sympathy he could not or would not give her. So, Ivan Ilych rededicated himself to work and to advancing his career.

Ivan Ilych viewed his marriage as he viewed his official duties. He acted the role of husband. After three years in this job, he was promoted to assistant public prosecutor, who had the power to imprison anyone he chose. His wife had more children but became more querulous after each birth. Ivan tried to ignore her complaints.

Four years later Ivan was appointed public prosecutor in yet another province. His salary was higher but still could not cover the family's expenses. Praskovya did not like the new town. Two of their children died. Praskovya blamed Ivan for everything that went wrong or that upset her. They argued fiercely about the children's education. The couple lived in "an ocean of veiled hostility' and were aloof with each other. Over time this life came to seem normal to Ivan Ilych. He spent as little time with his family as possible and focused increasingly on his official duties. He enjoyed the immense power over people his job gave him. He was known for being good at his job, and this pleased him. This state of affairs lasted another seven years. His first daughter was 16 and his only living son was still a schoolboy. Both children seemed to have "turned out well."


Ivan Ilych is portrayed as an ordinary, middling sort of person. He is assiduous, smart (but not too smart), and amiable, but not too severe or wild. His is the norm, the mean, the typical boy and man.

As a quintessentially normal person, Ivan Ilych is the personification of propriety, of doing the expected and correct thing. Everything he does is weighed against what other people will think of it. If they would approve or think it proper, he'll do it. If not, he won't. Ivan Ilych seems to have no individuality or proclivities. The reader never learns what he likes, what he enjoys, what he reviles. He seems incapable of independent discrimination or reflection. He has no opinions. He buys clothes and other goods based on the quality of the store, not on what he likes. He seeks out friends based on their social status—the higher the better. He is drawn "to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them." His ideas seem to be taken wholesale from those of the upper-middle-class people he cultivates and the prevailing notions of propriety and decorum. As a young man, nothing seems to affect him: "he succumbed to sensuality ... but always within limits, which his instinct unfailingly indicated to him as correct."

Ivan Ilych's life is one wholly ruled by propriety and decorum—by the approval of others gained through the adoption of their ideas and behavior. Yet in the life he has chosen, Ivan seems perfectly content to have no personal qualities. He does his work well and earns promotions. He pursues pleasure and enjoys things that are pleasant, but does so with decorum—in a way that "people of rank" would approve of. In some ways, he seems to embody a contradiction. He has "a taste for frivolous gaiety," while he's "exceedingly reserved, punctilious, and even severe." It's likely that neither of these attributes reflects who he truly is—his inner self.

Ivan's promotion gives him more power. Still, it does nothing to reduce the decorous, correct life he leads, both at work and at leisure. Ivan's proper pursuit of pleasure takes on a rather sinister cast when he becomes an examining magistrate. He begins to enjoy the power he has over others—even their envy or fear of him. Ivan is described as relishing the power to help or hurt others at his whim. Although he is invariably polite, it is an uncomfortable reality of upper-middle-class propriety that it sometimes endorses the capricious, even cruel, exercise of power. When promoted to assistant public prosecutor, Ivan Ilych has even greater power over people's lives. He finds this power "made his work still more attractive" than ever.

His new job further reveals his Ivan Ilych's lack of self-identity. He chooses his friends based on their wealth and social status, not on his liking for them. He plays bridge with his new friends because that is the acceptable card game for people of that class. The reader is told he enjoys winning, which he does frequently, but not that he actually enjoys the card game itself.

The reader also does not know if Ivan Ilych enjoys dancing, which he'd done previously. As an examining magistrate, he dances to show "he could do it better than most people," not necessarily because he gets pleasure out of it. Dancing is considered a proper pastime, so Ivan indulges in it for that reason—and to show off. But the reader never learns how he feels about it (or even if he has feelings about it). It is while dancing that Ivan meets Praskovya, his wife to be. Ivan's total lack of affect, of feeling, is revealed when he says he'll marry her because she's in love with him. Of course, marrying is considered right and proper by all the best people, so Ivan concludes, "Really, why shouldn't I marry?" There is no hint of emotion, of feeling, of an interior life that generates preferences or impels one action instead of another. The narrator says, "The marriage gave him satisfaction ... [and] was considered the right thing by the most highly placed of his associates." Only propriety determines Ivan's marriage.

Ivan Ilych soon comes to feel betrayed by marriage, which quickly loses its attractive decorousness. Ivan persists with Praskovya because it is considered proper and despite his growing impatience with her "disagreeable moods." Marriage may be proper, but Ivan soon learns that it's not always pleasant or pleasurable. The social value placed on pleasure interferes with the duties and obligations of married life. Ivan Ilych evinces increasing selfishness as he seeks always to distance himself from his family. Again, there is no emotional connection between him and them. The reader is told that several of Ivan's children die, but he seems to have no emotional reaction to their deaths. Their deaths just make "family life ... more unpleasant for him." What kind of inner life can a man have who finds the death of his children merely unpleasant? Ivan seeks "the pleasures and amenities of life," which are absent with his family. So, he looks to "secure his own independence ... to secure for himself an existence outside his family life [which] became still more intolerable." Ivan Ilych becomes aloof from his family to the extent that this emotional distance becomes normal to him. He seeks to escape from "the unpleasantness" of family life, while retaining the outward appearance of a proper Russian husband and father.

Over time Ivan Ilych becomes "almost impervious to [his wife's] grumbling," which he finds intensely annoying. It seems that at no time does Ivan even attempt to understand his wife as an individual with her own needs and feelings. This inability to relate to her mirrors his own inner emptiness. Perhaps he cannot conceive of a person having a unique inner life that diverges from prescribed social propriety. There may be more to Praskovya than Ivan cares to fathom, but as the reader will discover, she, too, is in thrall to propriety.

Ivan's selfishness consumes him. Married life for him was the provision of "conveniences—dinner at home, housewife, and bed." It includes "that propriety of external forms required by public opinion." Perhaps as Ivan is devoid and incapable of individuality or human connection, he assumes that his wife must be the same. Ivan Ilych's life "continued to flow as he considered it should do—pleasantly (i.e., away from his family) and properly."

All in all, the life described in this chapter is more akin to a death-in-life than a life truly lived. Ivan Ilych is revealed as almost a nonentity—a man without preferences, feelings, or true human connection. Socially sanctioned propriety and sophisticated airs are what fill the void within him. That Ivan or the author sometimes uses French phrases such as "bon enfant" (easygoing) and "comme il faut" (proper) serves to emphasize the affectation, the striving for false and alien Western culture intended to impress others with one's cosmopolitan sophistication.

As a young man, Ivan Ilych was considered "le phénix de la famille," or "the phoenix of his family." The phoenix is a mythological soaring bird that might represent high achievement, which was expected of the bright and conformist Ivan. Yet the mythological phoenix also symbolizes rebirth and renewal. It dies, burns, and then rises again from the ashes. The phrase foreshadows Ivan Ilych's death later in the book.

Before he leaves for his first job, Ivan Ilych buys a medallion on whose chain he has inscribed the Latin words respice finem (look to the end). The phrase might advise the budding lawyer to always keep in mind the end result of the cases he works on. However, this phrase may also foreshadow Ivan's future insofar as it points him toward the end of his life. The import may be that Ivan should bear in mind that he is mortal and so should live his life understanding that it is finite. The phrase is a cautionary one that reminds Ivan to accept the inevitability of death for every person, and therefore live an authentic and meaningful life.
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