This novella by Leo Tolstoy, is one of the great summits of existential literature. It tackles some of the most essential themes faced by human beings: what is the right way to live? Why do we see the artificial life and forego a life of more authenticity? What does the awareness of mortality do to us? Why is it a necessity that we face death head-on, and how does this confrontation bring meaning to life? What are the merits of a life lived on behalf of the body versus the soul?
Yeah, it's that big.
Below are chapter summaries with interspersed commentary. Page references come from the Dover Thrift Edition.
We open with the news that Ivan has died. An account in the newspaper. The setting is the law courts. Among the men gathered, Peter Ivanovich sees the obituary in the paper. The first thing they think about is not Ivan's life and the sense of loss (although he was "well liked") but what this will do to advance their own careers. Who will be promoted? What changes will occur now that Ivan is gone?
The second reaction produced among the men of the court is the "complacent feeling that it is he who is dead and not I" (16). Tolstoy's narrator is revealing the insensitivity of death. It doesn't really affect you unless it happens to you or to one very close to you. Going to the funeral then becomes a burden for others. It is an obligation. One must go, but it intrudes on your comfortable routine. Peter Ivanonich drives to Ivan's house to express his condolences to the family. He's not certain exactly how to behave (17). Why? Perhaps because most people prefer to keep death at a distance. They don't like to think about it. They arrange their lives to avoid its contemplation. They are not living an existentially authentic life, which means that they are not in touch with the truly important things in life. What are the important things that give life meaning? We don't know yet, but by the end of the story we'll have a better idea.
In the first chapter note the brief appearance of the butler's assistant Gerasim, whom the narrator tells us Ivan was particularly fond of. Gerasim will prove to be a vital character in the story.
We then see Ivan's dead body through the eyes of Peter Ivanovich: it has a quiet dignity that Ivan didn't have in life. There is also the suggestion that the dead man's face is signalling a warning to the living. What is the warning? Tolstoy is arousing our curiosity. This will be a story about mortality, and what an awareness of death can teach us.
Ivanovich's friend Schwartz is waiting for him in the other room. He makes it clear that the funeral will not intrude on their planned card game later that day. At this point we see Ivan's widow Praskovya Fedorovna, who invites them into the service. We get the sense that the scene is operating on two tracks: the "official pretense" of mourning that is proper for a funeral, and the undercurrent of impatience and insensitivity. In conversation with Ivanovich, Praskovya Fedorovna speaks of Ivan's terrible suffering at the end and she says she can't understand how SHE bore it, which indicates I think, I kind of selfishness on her part, focusing on her suffering, not Ivan's. Anyway, the conversation strikes Peter Ivanovich with horror, how his old mate could have suffered so. It makes him afraid of his own death; however, he beats back the fear by reassuring himself that this happened to Ivan; it couldn't happen to him. And why give into depressing thoughts like that?
Praskovya Fedorovna turns the conversation towards matters of practicality: how to get a government grant after her husband's death. How much of a pension is she entitled to? We see that even Ivan's widow is thinking beyond the funeral towards the business of life. Another suggestion of insensitivity.
We are then introduced to the priest, Ivan's daughter and her fiance, and his schoolboy son. During the service, Peter avoids looking at the dead man. He is avoiding the confrontation with death. He is one of the first to exit after the service. He has no time for death. Note Gerasim's prescient words to him as he leaves: "We shall all come to it some day," he says (21). Gerasim gets it. His point of view contrasts with the others, as we will discover later in the story. Peter Ivanoich escapes the confining atmosphere of the funeral and arrives at a friend's house where he enters into the card game.
In this first chapter, Tolstoy has shuffled the normal order of the story. The plot (sujet) begins at the end of the story (fabula): Ivan's death is announced and we go to the funeral. The omniscient narrator views the action through one of the supporting characters, Peter Ivanonich, a friend and colleague of Ivan, a man of society who wants to avoid thinking about death. We have been introduced to several of the major characters already, and Tolstoy has introduced one of his major themes: the confrontation with mortality, and the unavoidable reality of death, despite our efforts to ignore and avoid it.
Tolstoy's narrator starts with brutal honesty: "Ivan Ilych's lief had been most simple and most ordinary and therfor most terrible" (22). Ivan is just like you and me and everyone else. He is an "everyman". There is nothing extraordinary about him. But strangely, the narrator concludes that this means his life was terrible. What could be terrible about an ordinary, normal life? Ahh, that is what we will find out.
The plot now jumps to the beginning of the story: the life of Ivan Ilych. He died at age 45. He was a member of the court of justice. His father was a government official in St. Petersburg. Ivan was the second of three sons. The youngest son was the failure, the black sheep of the family. He had one sister. Ivan was known as the phoenix of the family (22), a description that will become thematically relevant later in the story, because Ivan's spirit will rise like the mythological phoenix, from the ashes of his decaying self, his body in death. Ivan is a likeable person: he is smart, refined, pleasant, easy to get along with, sociable. He went to law school. Ivan was drawn to people of high standing in life. The narrator tells us that as he matured from childhood to adulthood "he succumbed to sensuality, to vanity, and latterly among the highest classes to liberalism, but always within limits which his instinct unfailingly indicated to him as correct" (23).
After graduating from law school, he fitted himself for civil service and a career of social climbing. He bought new clothes, wore a medallion around his watch chain with the inscription "respice finem" (think of the end) on it. This, like the phoenix, is thematically important. As a young man, he fit into society well. He had an affair, occassionally went to the brothels, sowed some wild oats, but did so in the "proper" way. He did not overdo these indiscretions, and there was nothing about his habits that could be considered out of character for a man of his social position.
Ivan was a civil servant for five years then was promoted to the position of Examining Magistrate. He lived a decourous and proper life. He gained in social power and status. He never abused his power, but he felt important. He made new connections, new friends. He settled in a new town. He lived for two years there and met his wife, Praskovya Fedorovna. He was a good dancer. He and and his wife made a good match. His marriage was the appropriate thing to do at his age. His wife met with social approval and gave him personal satisfaction, but the narrator hesitates to admit that he married her out of pure love. It was the thing to do, so he did it.
When his wife got pregnant, Ivan's marraige became disagreeable. He felt like his marital obligations were disturbing his normal pleasures and the "propriety" of his life. His wife got jealous, demanded his uncompromised attention, picked at him and caused fights. He became henpecked. And he realized that married life was "not always conducive to the pleasures and amenities of life, but on the contrary often infringed both comfort and propriety, and that he must herefore entrench himself against such infringement" (27). He started liberating himself by means of his work duties. He now thought of his married life solely as a means for satisfying basic conveniences: meals and domestic comforts, and the appearance of social normality demanded by public opinion.
Three years later, Ivan is promoted to Assistant Public Prosecutor. His devotion to work has paid off with increasing social status and power. His wife has more children and becomes more disagreeable, but Ivan has in effect innoculated himself from his homelife troubles. He can always escape into his work. After seven years of service, he is transferred to a new province. He gets a raise, but the cost of living is higher. Two of his children die. The hostilties between he and his wife increase, and their moments of affection are briefer and more distantly spaced. They becoome more aloof. The sad thing is that Ivan doesn't do anything about this widening gulf; he thinks it is "normal". He spends less time with his family, disengaging and escaping further into his official life. This life continues for another 16 years. Another child dies, his daughter reaches the age of 16, and there is one scholboy son left.
In this chapter, Tolstoy begins the chronological sequence of Ivan's life. Notice the rapidity with which he is telling the tale. After the concentrated scene of chapter one (the funeral day), we cover the first 43 years of his life, from 1837 to 1880 in the space of one chapter. That is a lot of territory to cover. We breeze through his youth, his years in law school, his years of upward mobility and the first 17 years of marriage. What are the priorities in Ivan's life? Honor, duty, status, respect, power, the appearance of normality, propriety. Social acceptance, doing what is expected. In the outward view, Ivan's made a pretty good life of it so far. His marriage is far from ideal, but then again, isn't that normal?
Now some wrinkles appear on the face of Ivan's life. He is passed over for a promotion he was counting on, and he takes offense. He is passed over again after expressing his irritation. In 1880, the hardest year of his life, his salary is not keeping pace with the cost of living. Nobody seems to care, either. His father won't help. He feels abandoned. His wife nags him for money. That summer, they go to the country on a leave of absence to save money. He experiences ennui (boredom: a disheartened weariness with life) for the first time in his life. And depression. He takes action. He rushes to St. Petersburg to get a new, higher paying position. Unexpectedly, he receives an appointment in his former ministry, two levels above his former coworkers, plus a 5000 ruble salary and moving expenses. He comes back to the country in a good mood. Life is good again. They move into a delightful new house in the city. They make preparations to decorate and furnish the house with nice things. He gets involved in the decorating, and one day, while rehanging curtains, he slips and knocks his side against the knob of a window frame. This bruise will be the seed of his doom. It is as if death has been at his side all along, waiting for an opportunity to strike. He shrugs off the injury initially. Things go well for the family at first. Life is becoming more fulfilling. "[O]n the whole, his life ran its course as he believed life should do: easily, pleasantly, and decorously" (32). Ivan gets involved in his official duties and leads a kind of double life: one being the side of official relations, the other his real life. The two don't mix much. Life, however, is basically normal. "Everything was as it should be" (33). The family hosts a dance, which goes off relatively well, despite an nasty quarrel with his wife. Ivan has been enjoying the life of ambition and vanity (excessive pride in one's appearance, accomplishments, and status), and he passes his idle time playing bridge.
Tolstoy has introduced the suggestion that Ivan's life may not be very fulfilling in the existential sense: this is the source of ennui and depression, but there is a temporary reprieve, as Ivan is able to get a better position, and the family distracts itself with moving in to a nicer home and adapting to society. But the fatal accident happens in this chapter. It is as if amid the plenty and success, the normal flourishing of life, death lies in wait to destroy people.
Ominous physical symptoms present themselves. Discomfort in his left side, and a bad taste in his mouth. It gets worse. He fights with his wife more. He loses his temper. The wife begins to wish Ivan were dead. Finally she insists he see a doctor. The doctor treats him "officially" in the prescribed way. Nothing out of the ordinary. Ivan wants to know whether his case is serious, but the doctor wouldn't treat the question in those terms. He looked at it as a medical diagnosis, a scientific or technical problem, not a matter of life and death, which it was to Ivan. The doctor, in short, is indifferent to him and Ivan feels self pity. Ivan follows the doctor's orders, takes his medicine, but there is an uncertainty about the proper diagnosis. The pain persists, but Ivan tries to convince himself that he is getting better. He is no longer good at suffering unpleasantness with his wife or at work. Now he gets upset easily and thrown into despair. He gets annoyed at the slightest infringement of his peace. He keeps consulting with doctors and condition continues to get worse. His doubts increase. Different doctors give different diagnoses; do any of them really know? He is confused. He even considers miracle cures, then reproaches himself for being irrational. His breath gets smellier, and he loses his appetite. Everyone around him does'nt understand and life goes on as if nothing terrible is taking place. His wife and daughter get annoyed by his impatience and suffering, as if his illness is his fault. He is not taking his medicine consistently, the wife says. She blames him for his sickness. Even at work, it seems that people are treating him differently. They are starting to imagine that one day he will no longer be there, and his position will be vacant. His friends tease him for being in such low spirits. His illness becomes the butt of their jokes and light-heartedness. All of this is quite alienating. He doesn't even enjoy playing bridge anymore. None of it matters. He is bringing down everyone at the card game with his suffering. His life is poisoned and he is poisoning the lives of others. Knowing all this, and feeling such pain in his side, he has trouble sleeping. "And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him" (40).
This chapter shows the increasing alienation of Ivan as the illness takes over his body. He is steadily being divorced from his former "normal" life. He is increasingly alone with his suffering. Nobody from the doctors to his family to his coworkers and friends really understands or empathizes with him.
Months pass. When his brother-in-law comes to visit, Ivan immediately sees that his appearance shocks the man. The change is obvious. He looks at himself in the mirror and he senses the enormous changes. Ivan sees his friend Peter Ivanovich about seeing another doctor, who says the problem is his vermiform appendix, which might come out right in the end. Ivan is sleeping, symbolically I might add, alone in his study -- has been since the onset of illness. He tries to convince himself that night that his appendix is getting better, but the old familiar pain returns. He realizes this night that this has less to do with his appendix or kidney and everything to do with his life and death. "Yes, life was there and now it is going, going and I cannot stop it" (42). He faces the terror of his death. He admits to himself that he is indeed dying. Nobody else is willing or able to admit it, and nobody else cares, he tells himself. There is no pity for him. He is angry, miserable, as in other parts of the house, a party is going on. His wife checks in on him and kisses him. He hates her "from the bottom of his soul" (43).
The reality of death has thundered upon Ivan. He is terrified by the thought of dying. He wants to cling to life. He resents that noone understands or cares. At this point, the novel enters into Ivan's mind directly. We see his interior thoughts. Death has forced him to finally have an interior life.
Now that he knows he is dying, Ivan is thrown into despair. He knows with his rational mind that all men die, but he cannot grasp that this truth could apply to him. Surely not to me, Ivan, could death come. I am not abstract. I am real. It is too terrible to think that this individual person, not an abstract man, could actually die. He is thinking morbid thoughts. He strives to return to his old ways of thinking, which had ignored or screened him from death. He wants to devote himself to his duties again. But while at work, the pain gnaws at him. He can't ignore it; he can't imagine it away or distract himself from its presence. He wonders whether death alone is the only truth. He makes mistakes at work, loses focus. IT (death) is drawing his attention not to deliver him from IT, but simply to confront it and suffer for it. He seeks new screens to hide himself from death, but nothing will accomplish such an impossible feat.
Ivan cannot escape his fate. He denies death, he attempts to distract himself, but this intractable impersonal force will not leave his side. It will not leave him alone. The reality of his death is forcing itself upon him, and he must confront the reality of his life.
The third month of Ivan's illness. Everyone is aware that he soon will die and it is only a matter of time. It is as if everyone is waiting for him to leave them in peace. He is increasingly doped on opium and morphine; it is only temporarily helpful. He loses his taste for foods. He has to be cared for with respect to his bowel movements too. The peasant Gerasim, the butler's assistant, is the man for the job. He cleans up after Ivan. Ivan is embarrassed about making him clean up after him, but Gerasim, a strong, healthy youth, takes the chore in stride, saying "what's a little trouble? It's a case of illness with you, sir" (47). Gerasim lifts him, supports him, and carries him to the sofa. This makes a powerful impression on Ivan. Finally, someone has supported him. Gerasim holds up his legs, which brings some comfort to Ivan. He doesn't feel the pain, and Gerasim is glad to be of assistance. This becomes a new routine, the good natured Gerasim holding Ivan's legs, bringing comfort. Gerasim's innocent strength is soothing to Ivan. Gerasim is not a phony. Ivan resents the lie going about that he is merely ill and not dying. Death is teaching him to value the truth over the deceptions of life. He realizes that nobody really cares about him. Nobody feels pity. No one has empathy. Except Gerasim. Gerasim doesn't lie. He very simply feels sorry for his master. He says directly: "We shall all of us die, so why should I grudge a little trouble" (49). An ethical principle is being espoused here: do unto others as you would have them do unto you. He does not begrudge helping a dying man, because he would want someone to do the same for him when it came time for him to die. Ivan just wants someone to feel sorry for him, to care for him, pet him, as one would do to a child. But instead, he has to pretend that he is still a man of high status. He must keep up appearances. He must prop up his pretender soul, as Saul Bellow would put it in his novella Seize the Day. This falsity embitters him.
This chapter gravitates around the theme of empathy as embodied in the character of Gerasim. Gerasim is a foil to the upscale society of Ivan's friends, coworkers and family. Gerasim is genuine, honest, and sympathetic. Simple values that Tolstoy's narrator is contrasting against the insincere, deceptive, and ignorant others, who happen to be the "normal and respectable" people of society. By implication, something is wrong with a society like this.
The days lose their meaning for Ivan. His constant pain makes him lose consciousness of time. The only reality is death. In this chapter we learn that the far greater pain is his "mental anguish". The spiritual sickness is far worse than the bodily sickness, as bad as that is. Ivan vacillates between hope (the hope he will recover) and despair (the certainty that he won't). The doctor arrives. He puts on an act for Ivan. Ivan sees through his deceptions. Death is teaching him to have acute vision, like a moral xray vision. He can sense falsity, deception, lack of authenticity when it comes in the room, whether it is the doctor, his wife, his friends, his daughter. He realizes that the lawyers he used to work with are just as fake as the doctors. They all lie. He hates his wife. In her attitude, she blames him for making HER suffer. The narrator judges her quite harshly on page 52. Next, a specialist arrives. Ivan is seeking some hope from this man, but the feeling fades out very quickly. Then his wife and family go off to the theater without him. Life is going to go on without him, and nothing will stand in the way of them getting to see the renowned actress Sarah Bernhardt. Ivan notices the frightful look of pity on his little boy Vasya's face. Vasya is the only other one besides Gerasim who has genuine pity for him. (54). In the bedroom as the family chit chats, Ivan's eyes are staring with silent indignation (54). Again, he is seeing through the charade here. Death is teaching him to "think of the end" and what is really important. And NONE of this is important in the grand scheme of things.
The wife returns. In the middle of the night, Ivan is in a "stupified misery". He thinks of himself and his pain as being thrust inside a black sack. The black sack is a symbol of death. He is being pushed into the sack, but he can't be pushed all the way to the bottom. (55) He is afraid of being pushed in, but at the same time, he wants to fall through the sack, so he both struggles and cooperates with the feeling. He breaks through, falls through the sack and wakes up. He sends Gerasim away, then weeps uncontrollably. He is alone, he curses the cruelty of man and God. Why me? He is saying. Then on page 56 he enters fully into his interior consciousness. This is a kind of interior monologue, rendered as a dialogue between Ivan and his soul. He tells the soul he wants to live and not suffer. He wants to live as her used to live: well and pleasantly. And as he remembers these so called pleasant moments in his past, they no longer seem very happy, with the exception of his childhood memories. His adulthood strikes him as trivial, meaningless, nasty, and dare we say "terrible". He is taking account of his life. Surveying, evalauating, and rendering judgment. Life now seems to him worthless, senseless, and he is bitter because he is suffering in terrible agony for such a meaningless existence. Finally, on page 57 he shows evidence of learning something: "maybe I did not live as I ought to have done?" he asks. But how could this be? He followed the rules. He played the game. He lived a normal life. He did everything properly, the way it was supposed to be done. And this is what it came to anyway? But he is still struggling with the answer. He is not satisfied with it. HE struggles against it. We end the chapter with a repudiation of his self-judgment, and he dismisses the whole episode as a strange abberation. He still wants his old life back.
Two more weeks pass. Ivan is confined to the sofa. Narrative space has shrunk to this isolated and lonely place. The suffering continues. It is so pointless. The altnerating feelings of despair and hope are giving way to fatalism. He is lonely as he lay on the sofa, and in that lonely despair he thinks of his past again, especially his happy childhood memories. The farther back he goes, the more life is there, the happier he was. The illness has taken all that away. He senses that it is impossible to resist death, and he seeks understanding. But he cannot give up the conviction that he lived a proper, good life, and so he can't admit that he didn't live the right kind of life. You should be wondering by now what the right kind of life is. Note how Tolstoy has established a narrative tension. You already know the outcome (Ivan dies), but you read on because you need to know what discoveries dying produces in Ivan.
Well, it's all getting very bleak now. Another 2 weeks pass, and we learn that Ivan's daughter is getting married. And he now utters the honest truth to his wife. "Let me die in peace" he tells his wife. He tells the doctor to leave him alone. The narrator reminds us (60) that it is his mental suffering that is far worse than the physical suffering. And here is part one of Ivan's epiphany. As he looks at Gerasim, he says "What if my whole life has really been wrong?" It might actually be the truth. What had been considered good by most people wasn't good. HIs impulses to resist which he suppressed was the wrong thing to do. That was real. That is what mattered. All his social climbing, official duties, and inauthentic relations with his family: all wrong. So he now finally begins to accept the truth. That former life has not prepared him in any way to deal with death. He lived a shallow life. He didn't swim in the deep end of life. HE asks 'can I fix it?' Is there still time to get on the right side of life? This is what the end of the book is about. Now he lays back and rescans his life from this new perspective. His entire life has been a deception. A lie. And this awareness brings more physical suffering to him. HIs wife urges him to take communion from the priest, who hears his confession.
The last 3 days of Ivan's life. He screams for three straight days. The suffering is immense. Time doesn't exist anymore for him. He thinks again of the black sack. He struggles against it. He is being drawn nearer to what terrifies him. Now another way to think of the black sack is to see it as symbolic not just of death, but as the struggles of Ivan in the womb of his rebirth. He is going to be the phoenix rising from the ashes of his old life at the end here. On page 62 he falls through the hole. And what is at the bottom? Not blackness and nothingness, but light. Then Tolstoy offers up an incredible simile, the feeling you get on a train when you think you're going backwards when really you're going forwards. Dying is like that. And now, on the third day (and I feel this has strong religious overtones, referring to Christ's three days in the tomb), Ivan will have part two of his epiphany. Two hours befor dying, he is screaming, and his hand falls upon the head of his son. The boy catches his hand, presses it to his lips, and cries.
Then and there, Ivan falls through, sees the light, and all is revealed. There is still a chance to get on the right side of life. It isn't too late. What is the right thing to do? He asks. He looks at his son kissing his hand. And he FEELS SORRY FOR HIM. Ivan feels empathy. He even FEELS SORRY FOR HIS WIFE. No more grudges, no more bitterness, no more self-pity. Just the realiziation that his suffering is making them suffer, and that it will be better if he lets go of life to leave THEM in peace. He doesn't have the strength to utter these truths to his family, he can only act. He looks at them and says, take him away, sorry for him and you. And with that small gesture, the asking for forgiveness, the thinking for others, the burden lifts from him. This is the spiritual burden, mind you. The physical pain is as bad as ever, but in Tolstoy's view, the body is far less important than the soul. By releasing them, Ivan frees himself from suffering too. What a good and simple message! With that, his fear of death dissipates. Can't find it anywhere. O Death, where is thy sting? IN the place of death, the black sack, there is light. "So that's what it is!" he says. "What joy!" It all happens in an instant, a flash. For two hours, his body goes through the death throes, and at the end, someone calls "It is finished" (another echo of Jesus Christ on the cross), and Ivan's understanding of that sentence is not that his life is finished, but that death is finished. Death is what dies in the end, as his body dies with it. What lives on? His spiritual awakening, his spiritual rebirth. He learned the meaning of life before it was too late.
Now you can interpret the ending religiously if you want. You might talk of near death experiences and what science has or hasn't learned about that. You might take a more philosophical, secular appraoch and say that even though Ivan dies, he died in joy, because he realized the errors of his ways, and he perceived the truth, and he acted upon that truth at the end. He let go. He accepted the reality of death. And he realized that it is only your capacity to love others, to have feeling for them, to express understanding, that life has any value whatsoveer. None of the other stuff means anything when your day of reckoning comes. So in the end, Ivan Ilych is "saved". The phoenix rises again.
As we now reconsider the beginning of the story, the funeral scene, we can reinterpret it. The people at the funeral, with the exception of Gerasim and maybe Vasya (who is still young and innocent), do not "get it". They are blind to the truth. They haven't reconciled themselves with their own death. They are avoiding coming to terms with it. We also learn that Ivan, although he had a personal epiphany at the very end of his life, learned his lesson to late for him to have any lasting impact on anyone else. His life will be rather quickly forgotten by those close to him. He didn't leave an impression. By not living rightly, he failed to show empathy for others, and thus, no one is going to miss him all that much. It is Tolstoy's way of cautioning us. How much better it would be for everyone, if we learned what Ivan learned earlier in life, so we wouldn't waste those precious years of life, so that we would spend them by valuing the truth, love, and compassion for others.
Notes on Tolstoy's narrative technique
The narrator is omniscient third person, directed primarily into the mind of Ivan.
Tolstoy compresses the time sequence to focus acutely on what matters most in Ivan's life.
Chapter 1: the funeral day, establishes the setting and themes
Chapter 2: 40 years of Ivan's life, an accelerated pace thorugh the meaningless years that amount to nothing in existential terms
Chapter 3 and 4: the last year and a half of his life.
Chapters 5 thru 8: the last months
Chapters 9 thru 12: the last 4 weeks
He spends more and more textual space on smaller and smaller time frames.
A parallel development is the contraction of space in the novel. In Chapter 2, Ivan moves from place to place. In Chapter 3, he settles in the house where his accident occurs. In 5-8, he is confined to his study. In 9 - 12 his sofa. This increases the focus on Ivan in his alienation, isolation, loneliness, and his inevitable confrontation with the ultimate reality: the moment of death.
Please do yourself a favor and read (or reread) this book. It matters.