During an interval in a trial, several legal professionals converse in a private room. Fëdor Vasílievich and Iván Egórovich discuss a court case while Peter Ivánovich reads a newspaper. Their discussion takes a new course when Peter Ivánovich reads in the obituaries that Iván Ilych has died. Iván Ilych had been terminally ill for some time. He was the colleague of the men present.
The men immediately think, each to himself, of how Iván Ilych's death may result in promotion for them all. They discuss the death briefly and return to discussing other matters. Each man thinks gratefully that Iván Ilych is dead and not he. They also think of how they will be forced to go through all the tedious business of paying respects and visiting the family.
Peter Ivánovich has known Iván Ilych since their student days. Later that day he goes to Iván Ilych's house. A coffin rests against a wall downstairs. Other people are there to pay respects, and among them Peter Ivánovich sees his playful colleague Schwartz. Schwartz will wait for him so that they can make arrangements to play bridge later. Peter Ivánovich goes upstairs, to the room where they body is.
Peter Ivánovich knows that probably he should cross himself but is unsure of how much bowing he should do. He improvises repeated self-crossing with a kind of half-bow and makes his way toward the body. A Reader is reciting the appropriate ritual readings, while various family and friends pay respects to the body. Peter Ivánovich sees Gerásim, the butler's assistant who'd also been Iván Ilych's sick nurse, strewing something on the floor. When Peter Ivánovich feels he's been crossing himself too long, he stops and looks at the corpse. Iván Ilych's face seems somehow handsomer in death than in life, and is marked by some kind of expression of satisfaction, "that what was necessary was accomplished, and accomplished rightly" (114). The face also seems to bear some kind of warning to the living. Peter Ivánovich becomes uncomfortable and hurriedly leaves the room, ignoring propriety.
He sees Schwartz again, and the two make plans for bridge. Just then, Praskóvya Fëdorovna, Iván Ilych's wife, comes out and announces the service is about to begin. Schwartz stays quiet, not committing to staying for the service, but the woman approaches Peter Ivánovich directly, and so he has no choice. She leads him to an inner drawing room. There's some trouble when her shawl catches on something, but once she has extricated herself she pulls out a handkerchief and weeps. Sokolóv, the butler, enters to inform Praskóvya Fëdorovna of the price of various funeral plots. Once this discussion is over and the butler leaves, she tells Peter Ivánovich of the terrible pain Iván Ilych was in at the end. The last three days, he screamed the entire time. He was wholly conscious. She talks about the dreadful sufferings of her husband, in terms of the effects they had on her nerves, and then asks Peter Ivánovich advice about pensions and governments grants. He sees quickly that while she feigns ignorance, she clearly knows more about the money to which she is entitled than he does; she only is trying to see if she can get a little more. Once he proves to be of no help, she seems eager to be rid of him.
He goes, and in the dining room he meets a priest and a few acquaintances. Iván Ilych's daughter and her fiancé are there, as well as Iván Ilych's young son. He attends the services. On the way out he comments to Gerásim about the sadness of the occasion, but the peasant says simply that it's God's will and the fate of all men.
Peter Ivánovich still has plenty of time that evening to play bridge.
The inevitability of death is one of the central themes of The Death of Iván Ilych. There is no suspense about whether or not the protagonist will die. His death is the title, and in the first chapter of the novel his death has already happened. Tolstoy wants to bludgeon his reader with the presence of death: the novel begins with, ends with, and takes its name from death.
The events of Chapter 1 happen chronologically after the events of all of the subsequent chapters. Iván Ilych's struggle forms the true story of the novel, but by making a prelude out of his death's aftermath Tolstoy provides context for his central story. Certainly, Chapter 1 would be out of place if placed according to chronology, at the end of the novel. The social commentary of the first chapter, while brilliant, is not meaty enough to follow the spiritual crisis and struggle with mortality that finally ends in Chapter 12.
But the observations in Chapter 1 are brilliant, scathing, and thematically loaded. The theme of inner reality versus outer appearance dominates this chapter. Throughout the entire chapter, characters think one thing but present another; even when characters are aware of the act, and aware that others are aware of the act, the act continues. When Peter Ivánovich and Praskóvya Fëdorovna are talking, both are presenting what they believe to be appropriate emotions. Even genuine sorry is mixed with hypocrisy: "The thought of the sufferings of this man he had known so intimately, first as a merry little boy, then as a school-mate, and later as a grown-up colleague, suddenly struck Peter Ivánovich with horror, despite an unpleasant consciousness of his own and this woman's dissimulation" (117).
The whole chapter has forced the reader into a similarly unpleasant consciousness, nearly from the beginning. On hearing the news of Iván Ilych's death, "the first thought of each of the gentlemen in that private room was of the changes and promotions it might occasion . . ." (111). No one talks about it, but all are guilty of the same selfish and uncompassionate reaction. The observations continue throughout, along this same track: the men are annoyed about having to live up their obligations on such an occasion (112); Peter Ivánovich must go comfort Praskóvya Fëdorovna when he'd really rather play cards (115; Praskóvya Fëdorovna only finds the tears to cry after her shawl has been disentangled (116); and Praskóvya Fëdorovna seeks comfort but really needs advice about how to wheedle the government out of more money (116).
Propriety is a constant theme, and the demands of propriety move people to behave contrary to their genuine (usually selfish) emotions. Propriety demands that Iván Ilych's friends attend a service and offer condolences. Generally, the characters of the novel are more concerned with propriety than with kindness. Tolstoy gets humor out of the fact that people are concerned with propriety, but not always sure of its dictates: note the scene where Peter Ivánovich is unsure of the appropriate ritual when approaching the body, and ends up improvising an odd mix of bowing and crossing. Propriety is a public concern; the inner world of characters is allowed to fester, and no one seems concerned with the deplorable state of their morals. Tolstoy allows his narrative voice to inject some scorn when he refers to Peter Ivánovich and his colleagues as Iván Ilych's "so-called friends" (112).
Genuine emotions tend to be selfish. Peter Ivánovich is horrified not by the death of Iván Ilych, but by being forced to confront his own mortality. He spends the whole night with only a twinge of sorrow for his friend, whom he has known since boyhood. At the end of the evening, he goes to play cards and casts thoughts of his friend's death out of his head.
The inevitability of death is an important theme of a novel, and the theme of man's unwillingness to confront death is its companion. Peter Ivánovich, like all of the others, refuses to think about his own death. Iván Ilych's friends all feel that Iván Ilych is dead, and not they: they do not reflect on the fact that his fate is in store for all of them. Peter Ivánovich flees from the body because he does not want to ponder the lesson it offers.
The only character who seems at ease with death is the peasant servant Gerásim, who takes for granted that death comes to all. Gerásim is a literary creation based on Tolstoy's somewhat idealized beliefs about the Russian peasantry. His simplicity and acceptance of nature's process are wholly alien to the urban characters of the novel.
"Iván Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." His death at age 45 follows a nondescript career as a member of the court of justice.
To start Iván Ilych's life at the beginning: his father is Ilyá Epímovich Golovín, a kind of man who serves in unnecessary positions, earning money for doing little. He is a "superfluous member of various superfluous institutions," and Iván Ilych is his second son. The eldest son is like his father, soon to live off the fat of bureaucracy. The third son is a failure. Iván Ilych is the happy medium between the wildness of the third and cold formality of the first, and great things are expected of him. He is "le phenix de la famille" ("the phoenix of the family"). As the School of Law, where his younger brother fails and Iván Ilych does quite well, Iván Ilych is exactly the man he remains for most of the rest of his life: "capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable . . . though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered to be his duty: and he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority" (121). He is unquestioningly admiring of those in high station, and seeks to imitate them however he can. After law school he qualifies for a position in the civil service and treats himself to the conventional pleasures: nice clothes from a fashionable tailor, farewell dinners, other necessities. He attaches a medallion that reads respice finem ("look to the end") to his watch chain.
His work takes him to the provinces as an official serving the governor. He is conventionally efficient and appropriate for his work. In social settings he is witty and well-liked. He has affairs with numerous women and occasionally visits prostitutes, but all is approved by his superiors and therefore does not trouble him. The demands of his career force a move, and though he no longer works for a governor his new position carries more power. Iván Ilych enjoys treating subordinates and those in his power well, because it makes him feel powerful. He loves acting self-important, and graciously condescending.
When he moves again and becomes examining magistrate in his new town, he makes friends with the local society and takes up card-playing. There he meets Praskóvya Fëdorovna, the best girl in his set, and she falls in love with him. He marries her. At first their married life is very pleasant, but once Praskóvya Fëdorovna becomes pregnant things change. She becomes jealous, and disturbs the propriety of their domestic life. She demands attention and makes scenes. Iván Ilych deals with her by devoting himself more fully to work. He comes to realize that marriage is often an obstacle to the decorous life and propriety he adores, and that he must adopt a definitive attitude toward his wife and child just as he has a definitive attitude toward his work.
He and his wife settle into a mode of mutual aloofness, through moves and various promotions and the births and deaths of several children. Years pass: at last, his eldest daughter is sixteen and his one surviving son is a schoolboy. Both seem to have turned out satisfactorily.
Iván Ilych is a man of wholly conventional aspirations and tastes. He is not without some success, but his life is not at all out of the ordinary. He strives to imitate his superiors, he enjoys the petty powers of his position without abusing them, and he is always conscious of what society in general tells him what to do.
He is likable, even charming. The excesses of his youth are normal, within the range of bourgeois propriety. His normalness is driven home by a metaphorical placement in his family: the middle son, the one who is in temperament between the other two, the happy mean. He is someone with whom most readers can identify.
Death is far from his considerations, but Tolstoy drops several reminders of mortality into young Iván Ilych's life. He is called "le phenix de la famille," meaning the most promising of the three sons. But the phoenix is also a creature of death and rebirth, and it foreshadows Iván Ilych's end. Young Iván Ilych carries a medal on his watch chain. The medal reads "respice finem," Latin for "look to the end." Young Iván Ilych probably interprets the end as the goal, the success that follows hard work. But the saying seems also to refer to death, the ultimate end. The medal is attached to a watch chain, a metonymy for time. Every second brings Iván Ilych and every other human being an increment closer to death. The theme of death's inevitability is seen in both the phoenix and the Latin saying. As always, also present is the theme of man's unwillingness to confront death, made clear when the characters see these references to death but interpret them in other ways.
In this novel, not understanding death seems closely related to poor understanding of life. As Iván Ilych gets older, he detaches himself from life. His work is described as a kind of exercise, detached from human realities: ". . . he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality" (123). Justice is no longer a thing of supreme interest and importance, concerned with human beings and Truth. Under Iván Ilych's hand, it becomes an exercise in paperwork, all "externals." His attitude toward work is reflection on the themes of propriety and inner reality versus outer appearance. Iván Ilych is mostly concerned with outer appearance. His work, rather than letting him live more fully in the reality of his life, allows him to live in a world without real concern for truth, without real feeling, and without real involvement.
His family life has the same effect. His marriage does not allow him to live more fully; rather, he becomes more and more detached. The description of one of his family's moves clarifies how misplaced his family's priorities are: "They moved, but were short of money and his wife did not like the place they moved to. Though the salary was higher the cost of living was greater, besides which two of their children died and family life became still more unpleasant for him" (127). That "besides which" turns the death of two children into an afterthought. The concerns of cost of living and the unpleasant location come first to Iván Ilych and his wife. They do not dwell on the deaths of their children; Tolstoy describes no effect on them, no change wrought by this kind of loss. Although infant mortality was more common in Tolstoy's death, that fact alone does not account for the detachment seen here. The themes of refusal to contemplate death and detachment from life are both at work. Iván Ilych and Praskóvya Fëdorovna seem more concerned with money and convenience than their children's lives; their priorities are askew.