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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Study Guide

Leo Tolstoy

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The Death of Ivan Ilych | Chapter 3 | Summary



After 17 years of marriage and many years as a respected public prosecutor, Ivan Ilych is overlooked for a sought-after promotion. The insult is a "cruel injustice" that makes Ivan irritable and querulous. Ivan finds that his salary is too low to support his family (in appropriately decorous fashion), and the family is in debt. To save money, Ivan Ilych takes a sabbatical from work and goes with his family to live with his brother-in-law in the country. Rural life bores him so much, Ivan falls into a depression. He realizes he must do something to get his life back on track.

Ivan Ilych decides to travel to St. Petersburg to see if he can obtain a position. He's determined not to work for less than 5,000 rubles a year. As luck would have it, a well-connected acquaintance enters Ivan's first-class train carriage and tells Ivan that legal reforms have been enacted. The new heads of the ministry have been Ivan's colleagues, and they're sure to give him a post with a good salary. Sure enough, Ivan contacts his colleague Zachar Ivanovich, who gives Ivan a high-paying job in the Department of Justice in St. Petersburg.

Ivan Ilych hurries home to tell his wife, who is delighted at the news. They even begin to get along better. But Ivan Ilych cannot tarry in the country. He is soon off to the city to find a house for his family and to furnish and equip it. He finds a wonderful house and takes great pleasure in decorating it. He enjoys finding just the right furniture, wallpaper, and other essentials that will make the house a fine and acceptable place. Ivan is so absorbed in buying things for his house he sometimes becomes absentminded at work, where he daydreams about interior decorating.

One day while Ivan Ilych is up on a ladder putting up drapes, he loses his balance slightly. He "knocks his side against the knob of the window frame." The mishap causes a painful bruise, but the injury seems so minor Ivan quickly forgets it. When his house is fully decorated, Ivan thinks it perfectly charming. It is just the type of interior decoration that is considered proper for a man of his standing.

Leo Tolstoy satirizes what is too often the slight dissatisfaction people feel on moving into a new house. The author remarks that when all was completed, the family thought the house was one room too small. In addition, once the interior was finished and there was nothing left to plan or to buy, Ivan Ilych became rather bored. His main preoccupation was no longer available to him. He even occasionally became irritable at having nothing left to buy for his new home.

Ivan Ilych worked each day at the law courts. He gained a reputation as an efficient minister. So, everything was going well at work. At home, too, things were satisfactory. Sometimes he and his wife gave dinners or parties for people of "good social position." Once they even organize a dance party at their home, though its cost causes some friction between Ivan and Praskovya.

Life was good, and the couple became part of a group of the "best" people, while shedding their less affluent and powerful friends. Ivan's daughter, Lisa, was now of marriageable age and had many suitors. One in particular, Fedor Petrovich, became a favorite.


Ivan Ilych considers it a gross injustice that he's passed over for a promotion. For him, it seems to be a matter of propriety. He was due a promotion and it's unthinkable, or not proper, for him to be overlooked. Further, Ivan views this impropriety as an "unanticipated and unpleasant occurrence." This indicates that it upset his view that life should be pleasant because it follows the proper rules. Ivan Ilych is thrown off balance by the randomness of this slight. In his decorous and ordered world, such unforeseen events should not occur. In this instance, randomness is not part of Ivan Ilych's reality. By chance, Ivan Ilych meets a colleague on the train and uses that connection to get a high-paid job. Yet he does not seem to acknowledge that his good fortune came from a random encounter. Obviously, there is irony here: the contradiction can only be explained by the outcome of the random event. If the outcome is positive for Ivan, then chance is proper and pleasant. If the outcome is detrimental, then chance is unacceptably improper and unpleasant. The author is satirizing Ivan's view of events as affecting only his own self-interest.

Another unpleasantness Ivan Ilych has to contend with is the debt he has incurred in living beyond his means. This is in part due to living up to the expectations of the elites he wishes to impress. His indebtedness upsets Ivan's life still further when he must move to the country. There he sinks into depression from ennui (boredom) because "it was impossible [for him] to go on living like that." The simple life of the country gives Ivan no outlet for his fixation on status and propriety. It does not offer many opportunities for the pleasant pastimes he pursued in town. It is clear that Ivan Ilych gets his sense of self from the approbation of wealthy, high-status colleagues and acquaintances. It can be assumed no such people live in the country near Ivan's brother-in-law. Ivan's depression likely stems from the fact that he's untethered to the society from which he creates his identity. In the previous chapter, it became clear how empty Ivan Ilych truly is. Without others to reflect back to him an image of a proper, decorous, and important man, Ivan feels that he is nothing.

Ivan Ilych's pursuit of propriety and decorum acceptable to the upper classes of St. Petersburg immerses him in a whirlwind of acquisitiveness. Ivan Ilych becomes obsessed by the materialism that is part and parcel of the upper-middle classes. He takes enormous pleasure in finding and buying furnishings and other necessities that are comme il faut (proper) in his social circle. The narrator says, "He saw what a refined and elegant character, free from vulgarity, [the house] would have when it was ready." Ivan Ilych even has dreams about interior decoration. Thoughts about arranging his home interior compromise his attention at work. For Ivan, having a fashionable house will ease his acceptance by the upper echelons of society to which he so desperately wants to belong.

Ivan's accident while hanging drapes can be interpreted in several ways. For example, it's said that "he made a false step and slipped" while on the ladder. The false step may be the act that wrenches Ivan out of the upper-class orbit he aspires to be part of. A false step is indecorous and improper. It's a mistake, and as such, violates the propriety that Ivan slavishly follows to gain entry to the social elite. The false step causes Ivan Ilych to slip, or fall down. In this situation he probably slips down a few rungs on the actual ladder he's standing on. Yet this may also indicate that he will likely slip down several rungs on the social ladder as well. The incident and the resulting painful bruise will have profound effects on Ivan Ilych's life. It will affect his health and will result in his fall from polite society. The fall from the ladder may also represent the falling away of the foundation of Ivan's life of trivial propriety.

Ivan Ilych's relentless status-seeking and ambition—and his utter lack of an inner self—is made clear. He thinks that "the thing was to exclude everything fresh and vital" in his dealings with his new colleagues. He was determined not to "disturb the regular course of official business, and to admit only official relations with people." Ivan must keep all interactions with colleagues official and not let anything original or personal intrude. He is described as "possessing the capacity to separate his real life from the official side of affairs and not mix the two." The question arises, "What is his real life?" for he's as much an empty vessel (committed to propriety) at home as he is at work. Yet this situation reassures Ivan Ilych that "everything was as it should be."

The narrator says, "The pleasures of [Ivan's] work were pleasures of ambition; his social pleasures were those of vanity." Ivan Ilych's pleasure consists of trying to be accepted by people of ever-higher social status. His vanity is satisfied when these people treat him as one of their own. He sees and values himself only through their eyes. Another source of pleasure for him is playing "a clever and serious" game of bridge with rich and important men, a "game" he was good at, until he wasn't, as at his own funeral!

Ivan Ilych pursues upper-class acceptance. He makes a concerted effort to "shake off the various shabby friends and relations who with much show of affection, gushed into the drawing room." It's possible that these shabby acquaintances were, like Ivan, using him to improve their social standing. But Ivan's ambition overrides any scruple he might have in his treatment of these lesser beings. The narrator says, "Soon these shabby friends ceased to obtrude themselves and only the best people remained in the Golovins' set.

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