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 describing the family’s and friends’ reactions to Ivan’s death, the narrative concentrates on their obsession with their own lives and petty comforts and their disregard for the deceased.
The next section, chapters 2 through 5, recounts the life and career of Ivan. The second and most successful of three sons of a minor official, he had risen to the position of examining magistrate and married a proper girl as the “right thing” to do. His married life did not, however, meet his expectations: His wife turned unaccountably jealous and ill-humored, and several of his children died. Ivan retreated steadily into his work, becoming progressively more aloof at home.
Finding his only consolation in the dignity and social activities attached to the official world of the magistrate, Ivan suffered a particularly heavy...
(The entire section is 938 words.)