The Death of Ivan Ilyich is quite short, but it is one of the greatest pieces of fiction in any language. In it, Leo Tolstoy examines the hollowness of bourgeois existence. Ivan Ilyich is a successful member of the state bureaucracy. Throughout his life he has carefully adjusted his conduct so as to please his superiors and to arrange a life that runs smoothly and without complication. He is the perfect example of the conforming, “other-directed” man. Only shortly before his death does he discover the horror that lies behind his seemingly successful life.
The story opens in an unusual but significant way. Rather than tell the reader of Ivan’s early years, Tolstoy presents the dead Ivan stretched out at home, attended by his wife and closest friend, Peter Ivanovitch. The behavior of the mourners indicates more about Ivan’s life than any chronicle could. Rather than grieve over his death, they are worried about their own affairs. His wife asks Peter Ivanovitch about her pension, hoping to persuade him to help her arrange for an increase, while he frets about missing the bridge game he had planned. They both pretend to feelings of grief they do not feel. The work proceeds to answer the question what was it about Ivan’s life that could have resulted in so little concern for him after his death. This portion of the novella dramatizes the statement that opens the second section: “Ivan Ilyich’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.”
Ivan’s progress from law school to the position of examining magistrate is marked by careful obedience to authority both in legal matters and in matters of taste and style of life. His early pangs of conscience at youthful actions are overcome when he sees people of good position doing the same thing without qualms. Still, he never becomes a rake or hell-raiser; he is, rather, anxiously correct and proper. He makes a proper marriage—one that serves to advance him—and then gradually proceeds to alienate his wife and children by avoiding domestic complications in the name of his job. In this separation between his private life, with its potential for affection, and his public duties, he furthers the process of fragmentation within himself. He becomes punctilious at home as well as at work. All of his life takes on an official and artificial character, from which only the natural process of dying can release him as it educates him. In the opening scene, readers are told that “his face was handsomer and above all more dignified than when he was alive.” His death is a form of rescue.
His job is a game that he had played with great seriousness—like the bridge games he hurries to after work. He never abuses his power as a magistrate but always conducts himself “by the book.” Most of all, he is careful never to become personally involved in the carrying out of justice. He is a perfect arm of the state, a perfect product of its bureaucratic machinery. Naturally, he never questions the system of justice he is paid to administer. It is significant that he rises no higher than the middle rank of officialdom. Those above him have perceived that he is essentially mediocre.
Nevertheless, his life seems to flow along easily, pleasantly, and correctly. He decorates his new home, supervising much of the work closely. He imagines that the result is very special, but Tolstoy states that Ivan’s home, characteristically, looks exactly like the homes of other people of his class and station. Underneath the smooth surface of this life something is wrong, and it refuses to stay concealed. Instead, it manifests itself in the form of an illness, probably cancer, which gradually consumes Ivan’s vitality. When he goes to the doctor he feels guilty and desperately uncertain. For the first time, he learns what it is like to be the recipient of the games those in authority play—like a criminal dragged to the bar. The doctor cannot or will not tell him what is wrong (he...
(The entire section is 1,088 words.)