Overview (Masterplots II: Christian Literature)
Leo Tolstoy’s tale of Ivan Ilyich begins with his death at age forty-five, which is reported by his law colleagues, who read about his demise in the newspaper. Immediately Ivan’s colleagues begin to wonder how his death might affect their own positions in the court bureaucracy. Several colleagues attend Ivan’s wake, but reluctantly because it interferes with their weekly bridge game.
At the wake, Piotr Ivanovich, Ivan’s closest colleague, is engaged in conversation by Praskovya Fyodorovna, Ivan’s widow, who tells Piotr that Ivan suffered greatly during the final days of the long illness that ultimately took his life. Praskovya then asks Piotr about Ivan’s pension, which she has already calculated, wondering whether she possibly could extract an additional widow’s stipend from the government. When Piotr suggests that Praskovya’s effort probably would not be successful, Praskovya quickly ends the conversation, and Piotr leaves to attend his bridge game.
After this brief opening scene, Tolstoy’s narrator begins to recount Ivan’s life, which he identifies as both ordinary and terrible. Ivan, the son of a Russian government official, has lived a life of relative privilege in nineteenth century Russia. He graduates from the state school of law, then moves up the legal bureaucracy, receiving promotions and accompanying increases in salary. After achieving the position of examining magistrate, Ivan begins to consider marriage,...
(The entire section is 990 words.)
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Summary (Magill's Survey of World Literature, Revised Edition)
The Death of Ivan Ilyich, one of the greatest stories dealing with the subject of death, marked Tolstoy’s return to fiction writing after his religious conversion. In 1881, his imagination was sparked when he heard the story of the death of Ivan Ilich Mechnikov, a judge of the Tula court, who expressed on his deathbed profound regret for the life that he had lived.
As in the real-life story, Tolstoy makes his Ivan Ilyich wake up to the hidden possibilities of life on his deathbed. Before then, Ilyich has lived his life thinking only of himself and his next round of pleasure. In the past, when unpleasant events occurred, such as the death of a few of his children and his wife’s growing irritability, he turned away from these domestic concerns and spent time working at the office. His life continues for seventeen years in this manner, until the fateful day when he falls off a ladder while hanging drapes. He develops symptoms, a queer taste in the mouth and stomach discomfort, and, before he knows it, he is on his deathbed.
From a life built around the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of unpleasant reality, Ivan is suddenly catapulted into the world of sickness and death. He recalls, with irony, an old syllogism that he had learned: “Caius is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caius is mortal.” Never before had he seriously contemplated his own mortality. He tortures himself with the thought, “What if in reality, all my...
(The entire section is 505 words.)
Summary (Masterplots II: Short Story Series, Revised Edition)
This story begins with the news of Ivan Ilyich’s death reported by his closest acquaintance from law school, Piotr Ivanovich. When his coworkers hear the news, their immediate reaction is one of self-centered concern over their possible promotions and other changes that Ivan’s death might bring about in their own lives. Only after these considerations do the dead man’s so-called friends think of the tiresome duties of attending the funeral and consoling the widow.
Giving up his usual nap to attend the wake, Piotr, meeting his bridge partner at the widow’s house, takes the time to arrange for their regular game that evening after viewing the body. Then Ivan’s widow, Praskovya Fyodorovna, escorts him into a room for a private talk, in which she, too, dwells on her own concerns, telling him how much she suffered through Ivan’s screaming for the three days before he died. Her main interest in speaking with Piotr, however, is to find out whether and how she might get extra money from the government because of Ivan’s death. On hearing his opinion that there is nothing she can do, she loses interest in their conversation, and Piotr takes his leave.
The first of twelve chapters sets Leo Tolstoy’s tone, which mixes grotesque humor with the somber reality of death coming to a respected minor functionary—an ordinary death of an ordinary man (the name Ivan Ilyich is as common in Russian as is the name John Smith in English). In...
(The entire section is 938 words.)
Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
During a break in a hearing, a group of lawyers gathers informally. One, Peter Ivanovitch, interrupts the good-natured arguing of the others with the news that Ivan Ilyich, a colleague they greatly respect, is dead. Unwittingly, each thinks first of what this death means to his own chances of promotion, and each cannot help feeling relief that it is Ivan Ilyich and not himself who died.
That afternoon, Peter Ivanovitch visits the dead man’s home, where the funeral is to be held. Although he meets a playful colleague, Schwartz, he attempts to behave as correctly as possible under such sorrowful circumstances, as if by observing the proper protocol he can persuade himself into the proper feelings. He looks respectfully at the corpse and talks with Ivan’s widow, Praskovya Fedorovna, but he is continually distracted during his talk by an unruly spring in the hassock on which he sits. While he struggles to keep his decorum, Praskovya speaks only of her own exhaustion and suffering. Peter, suddenly terrified by their mutual hypocrisy, longs to leave; once the widow pumps him for information about her pension, she, too, is glad to end the conversation. At the funeral, Peter sees Ivan’s daughter and her fiancé, who are angrily glum, and Ivan’s little son, who is tear-stained but naughty. Only the servant boy, Gerasim, speaks cheerfully, for he is the only one who can accept death as natural. Peter leaves and hurries to his nightly card game.
(The entire section is 1042 words.)
‘‘The Death of Ivan Ilych’’ opens with Ivan Ilych’s colleagues discussing cases in Shebek’s private room. Amidst their friendly disagreements on a specific point of jurisdiction, Peter Ivanovich reads of Ivan Ilych’s death in the papers and conveys this information to his colleagues. Half of them are startled that someone so close to them in age and position should die, and half have pleasant expectations of the benefits which the opening of Ivan Ilych’s job will create. Peter Ivanovich’s colleagues also immediately think of the promotions that they are bound to receive upon Ivan Ilych’s absence, and each looks unenthusiastically on the duty of offering their condolences to the widow, Praskovya Fedorovna. They are left with a feeling of ease in knowing it is Ivan Ilych who has died; they are still alive and at work.
Peter Ivanovich tells his wife that he will now be able to help her brother attain a job in his circuit due to the open position once held by Ivan Ilych, and he sacrifices his usual nap to attend the funeral services. At the service he encounters Schwartz, a fellow bridge player who assures him by his look that the funeral will not interrupt their bridge game that evening. Peter Ivanovich is relieved, but he is detained by the widow, Praskovya Fedorovna. While attempting to maintain the proper state of a newly widowed woman, she questions Peter Ivanovich on how she can get financial aid from the government...
(The entire section is 1963 words.)