*Russian provinces. Settings in flashback episodes. After a brief introduction set in Petersburg in which it is revealed that Ivan Ilych has died, the story moves rapidly through three anonymous provincial towns of the character’s past. Lacking physical detail, these merge into one another. The very lack of specific character of the places that Ilych inhabits allows Tolstoy to suggest that it is, ironically, the very ordinariness of Ilych’s life that explains its final horror.
As Ilych graduates from the Petersburg School of Law and prepares to take his first post in the “provinces,” Tolstoy announces the story’s moral theme: “Ivan Ilych’s life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible”; Ilych “was neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them—an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man.” He has chosen a life of comfort, security, and social conformity, and Tolstoy’s condemnation of this amoral conventionality is the story’s core moral idea.
Ivan Ilych is a fascinating caricature of the ordinary man of competence and duty but of no particular passion, who chooses to lead what a later generation would call an “inauthentic life.” While Ilych performs his professional legal duties, attends the usual social gatherings, has the infrequent love affair, and finally drifts into a marriage of convenience, the settings in which all this occurs are presented with great economy—readers simply “see,” now and then, a comfortable room in which are leather chairs and cigar smoke, or the sparkling lights, the formally dressed men and the well-dressed ladies of a social gathering. That is all, but it is so well done that it conveys, in an ironically understated way, Tolstoy’s passionate moral condemnation of modern middle-class conventionality.
*St. Petersburg. Russia’s nineteenth century capital is identified only as “Petersburg” in this story, but its identification is not of great importance. The Petersburg of the story could be any great Russian city of its era. Like the “provinces,” it is treated primarily as an artificial and “unnatural” place in which life is reduced to petty bickering and social climbing. The story opens here and, after the interlude in the provinces in which Ilych establishes himself in his legal trade, returns to focus on his last months of life and the “absurd” accident that leads to his slow, debilitating, and painful death.
At the end, Ilych is middle-aged and increasingly dissatisfied with his life: he and his wife squabble constantly, his relations with his children are strained, and he is stalled in his career. To escape his disillusionment, he undertakes the repair of the family’s new home in Petersburg. Taking an irrational delight in the task, he imagines that the house marks him as a man of exceptional taste and intelligence. Tolstoy underscores the delusion of Ilych’s happiness, however, and, in the only descriptive scene of any length in the story, writes thatIn reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich . . . : there were damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes. . . . His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional.
This image of pretentious clutter is the story’s single lengthy description, and it conveys Tolstoy’s moral condemnation of modern materialism. This is clear at the end, when Ilych’s illness—caused by a fall he has taken while refurnishing his new house—causes him endless and intense pain, leading him to question the conduct of his whole life. He comes to the conclusion that the intensity of his despair is the result, finally, of the false values by which he has led his life. He has not “lived well” and realizes that, indeed, in living for...
(The entire section is 3,131 words.)