A Fully Glossed Russian Text of “The Death of Ivan Ilich” with Explanatory and Interpretive Annotations

Chapter 1


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  1. The Ivan Il'ich mentioned in the title is Ivan Il'ich Golovin, the novel's protagonist. Tolstoy modeled this character in part on a certain Ivan Il'ich Mechnikov, an acquaintance of his who served as prosecutor in the district court of Tula, the nearest sizable town to Tolstoy's country estate at Yasnaya Polyana. According to N. F. Golubov's commentary on The Death of Ivan Il'ich in volume 26 of Complete Collected Works of Lev Tolstoi in 90 Volumes the circumstances attending Mechnikov's illness and untimely death in 1881 closely resembled those described by Tolstoy in the story. Shortly after Mechnikov's demise in July, 1881, Tolstoy made his first recorded mention of the idea which he eventually developed into The Death of Ivan Il'ich. The novel was completed and published in 1886.
  2. The Melvinsky case was a celebrated court case of the 1880s, as was the Krasovsky case, mentioned a couple of lines later.  Evidently Tolstoi is at pains to connect his narrative to the authentic realities of life in the period described.
  3. In the 1880s both civil and criminal cases were often heard by a panel of three judges before whom matters were argued by opposing counsel. The "members" of the court were these judges. Ivan Il'ich, whose death is about to come to the attention of these gentlemen, was such a judge.
  4. The motifs of judge, judgement, and jurisdiction (the right or responsibility of rendering judgement) emerge immediately, frequently, and forcefully in the story. It seems clear that the theme of judgement will be important; it may be that we as readers will ourselves be implicated in the responsibility of rendering judgement on the life and death of Ivan Il'ich.
  5. Petr Ivanovich takes no part in the discussion concerning jurisdiction (the judicial responsibility of hearing evidence and rendering judgement) here. He continues steadfast throughout chapter one (after which he more or less disappears from the novel) in his refusal to "get involved." He is concerned only to perform the superficial rituals required by the death of his colleague and then to leave the entire unpleasant situation behind him in order to spend the remainder of his evening playing cards.  His indifference to the discussion of the question of jurisdiction in the first paragraph is a model of his general attitude toward the death of his colleague and mentor.
  6. Vedomosti (The Gazette) was the name shared by prominent daily newspapers in both St. Petersburg and Moscow. Most commentators believe that Tolstoi had Moscow in mind as the setting of the novel.
  7. This is the first of many examples of images of enclosure and containment in the text of the novel. These images become a veritable leitmotiv of isolation and estrangement over the course of the story. This is also the first appearance of Ivan Ilich himself.  In a way, one might say that the main question of which the reader of the story must judge is: "How did Ivan Ilich come to be enclosed in such a tiny frame?" Click here to see a typical example of such a funeral announcement as is described here.  Note how prominent the "black border" of the announcement is.
  8. Note the familiar conventionality of the content of the announcement. It will emerge that this tidy summary of Ivan Il'ich as a "beloved spouse" (rather than a husband) whose "kindred and acquaintances" (rather than his relatives and friends) are "informed" (rather than told) of the "demise" (not death) of this "member of the Palace of Justice" (his function in life), in the midst of her "profound grief" (not so very apparent at the scene of the funeral which will shortly follow). Thus is Ivan Il'ich's life and death neatly encapsulated in a "single document, executed in perfect observance of all required formalities" (a description provided in chapter two of Ivan Il'ich's own particular skill as a judicial official).
  9. Ivan Il'ich is a good man who is liked by all of his co-workers. This motif is taken up again at the beginning of Chapter Two; his story is that of an ordinary man. Neither villain nor hero, Ivan Il'ich is just such a pleasant and likable fellow as we would all prefer to have around us.
  10. The irony, of course, is that what Ivan Il'ich suffered most from was, in fact, incurable by medical means. His spiritual malaise becomes much more painful to him than his physical disease. The novel concludes, however, on the hopeful note that this spiritual illness can be alleviated.
  11. The Russian text says, literally, that "his place remained behind him." The conversation of his friends will soon make it clear that, pleasant fellow though he was, his vacant place in the official world is much more important than the person who has died. There is also the clear suggestion that a person's place or position is of considerably more importance than the person himself.
  12. Kaluga: a provincial city. Just as Ivan Il'ich's final promotion brings him, at last, from the provinces to the capital, so here Peter Ivanovich can imagine no happier and more desirable fate for his brother-in-law.
  13. The Russian text says, literally, "he wouldn't raise himself up," a somewhat peculiar way to indicate that a sick person won't recover. It may, however, serve to suggest the notion of the raising of the dead by a miracle of the spirit. So, for example, in scripture Jesus "raised" Lazarus from the dead. That Ivan Il'ich in the end did succeed in "raising himself" seems to be suggested in the last chapter of the novel.
  14. Here we note the use of the word определить ('to define,' 'to specify') to characterize what the doctors were trying to do.  The word is derived from the root предел ('limit,' 'boundary') and so plays into the motif of limitation which is marked throughout the story.  Etymologically, the doctors are trying to "put a limit to" or "close in" Ivan's illness, but they are not able to do so.
  15. The first example of the novel's satirical attitude toward physicians. Doctors and other professionals (Ivan Il'ich's colleagues, Ivan himself) are all shown in the novel as concerned exclusively with forms or phenomena rather than with the individuals who appear before them. Of Ivan Il'ich it will be said that his great talent as an official is his ability to reduce even the most complex individual case into a properly executed one-page form.
  16. Here is another example of a revealing choice of words. The Russian for "would get better" is, literally, "would right himself, would correct himself." As in the remark about "raising himself" this colloquial and metaphorical expression seems to contain a hidden, literal meaning. In the end, Ivan Il'ich does seem to "right himself" before he dies. Given the eventual outcome of the novel, these examples suggest that Tolstoy is telling two stories here: one of them is about the physical illness and death of Ivan Il'ich; the other concerns the spiritual condition of the protagonist. These two stories are related in that the second is, so to say, told through the first. Phrases which superficially refer to the first narrative are often also very important for the second.
  17. "Trifling" translates the Russian word "ничтожное" (etymologically, "nothing at all"), suggesting that Ivan Il'ich, despite his hard work, had not managed to accumulate anything of significance. Thus, his life has come to nothing (Russian, ничто).
  18. The separation among people, including the emotional distance separating them, is a prominent motif in the development of the novel. In a sense, the story of Ivan Il'ich's life is a history of his increasing and self-imposed isolation from those close to him.
  19. The very serious topic of the death of a valued colleague is replaced by trivialities. The colleagues of Ivan Il'ich, like all of us, are unwilling to deal with the fact of death. They deny it, avoid it, eventually flee from it. Note that this process is reflected in detail in the behavior of Peter Ivanovich as he goes to pay a call of condolence on Ivan Il'ich's widow. He wishes that he could avoid it, he seeks to minimize his connection with the body of his dead friend, and he leaves the proceedings with unseemly haste so as to be able to join a game of cards in progress.
  20. The thought "it's he who is dead and not I" is symptomatic of the belief in the separability of people from one another. We have already learned that the characters mentioned so far live far away from one another, and this passage is another example of the same idea--that other people, unpleasant occurrences, distressing situations can be kept at a distance, that each individual has a separate fate which can be controlled simply by avoidance of all perceived threats. We will see Ivan Il'ich again and again putting this distance between himself and various forms of unpleasantness. It will turn out, however, that this distancing carries with it the necessary consequence of closing the individual off from contact with others. Thus it is that two primary sets of images in the novel--pertaining to distance and enclosure--are causally related to one another.
  21. "So-called," of course because they seem to lack any concern at all for Ivan Il'ich as an individual person. Their interest in him is, one might say, functional; he is a co-worker, a husband, a father, a deceased acquaintance whose funeral must be attended.
  22. The Russian words for 'propriety' (приличие), 'appropriate, fitting' (прилично), and 'pleasant' (приятно) play a very important role in the novel's description of the life of Ivan Il'ich. They function as a sort of verbal leitmotiv of his life and the life of those around him. They suggest a life which is ruled by adherence to a known set of standards. One gets an image of the individual comfortably surrounded by well-marked boundaries of behavior within which the individual may be confident of a pleasant and well-regulated existence. In this way, the ideal life of propriety may be seen as an instance of the images of enclosure and distance. We already know that the end of such a life is the enclosure of the coffin and the distance which the living seek to put between themselves and the deceased.
  23. One of the central artistic techniques of The Death of Ivan Il'ich is the concealment of one conception, image, or verbal motif inside another. The word "sympathy" in this passage is an example of this. It is derived from a Greek root (path-) which may designates either "feeling" or "disease." Thus, in English, we have both "sympathy" and "pathology." The Russian word for "sympathy" is "соболезнование," which also derives from the Greek, but in a different manner than its English counterpart. The English word simply imports the original Greek word "sumpathēs" (as redered in the Latin alphabet). The Russian word is a "calque": that is, the word is made by following the structure of the original but translating the Greek roots into their Russian equivalents. Thus, the Greek "sun-" ('with') becomes the Russian со- ('with') while the Greek "path-" ('feeling' or illness') becomes the Russian болезнь ('illness'), producing 'soboleznovanie.' Russians use this word exclusively for the function of expressing sympathy, condolence, or fellow feeling with someone, but its form may suggest that the sympathizer is suffering from the same disease. In other words, it produces an effect like that we can see in English when someone says "I feel your pain." We know that the function of the phrase is to provide comfort, but its form suggests that the pain is real and physical. We might call this technique the realization of metaphor. A phrase or behavior which is commonly used metaphorically is seen to have also the significance of literal reality. It is as though the metaphorical function of the phrase is taken for the reality of life when in it is a self-defeating attempt to conceal the reality of life. "I feel your pain" is what I say to comfort you in your suffering, but I don't really feel your pain. But it may also suggest that I do, in fact, suffer the same pain that you do, but I'm not yet aware of it or ready to admit to it in my own case. This technique recurs again and again in the text, eventually creating a structure in which that which is on the surface is, in fact, superficial and inadequately real, and that which lies below that carefully constructed surface is the truth about reality. This is as much as to say that The Death of Ivan Il'ich is a deeply symbolic work, fulfilling the classical definition of symbolism: a realibus ad realiora--the use of "real" things to show the way to "more real" things.
  24. Peter Ivanovich's arrival at the home of Ivan Ilich is marked by rather obvious reminders of the fact that Ivan Ilich has died: the coffin lid leaning against the wall in the foyer, the black clothing worn by two ladies who have just arrived. Also present is a character with a prominent role in Chapter One, Schwartz, whose name (in German) signifies 'black'. Thus, from one point of view, Schwartz, who gives the impression of being impervious to death, is just one more memento mori among the several that are presented here.  On the other hand, as in the next sentence, Schwartz is clearly presented as being somehow above and impervious to the death of Ivan Il'ich: he winks, he seems to say that Ivan Il'ich died because of his own foolishness, that Schwartz and Peter Ivanovich will not die, he has a playful character. At the same time, his clothing, like his name is all black and his manner is superficially solemn. In short, Schwartz is a puzzle. In what follows he will be directly and significantly compared with the dead Ivan Il'ich.
  25. Actually, Peter Ivanovich is interested in playing a card game of French origin called "vignt," which much resembles the modern game of bridge. Card playing will be a major motif in the novel. It functions throughout as a symbol of a life of propriety. We will find that as Ivan Ilich grows older he values card-playing as an activity ever more. There is often an opposition, as here, between playing cards as an attractive, pleasant activity on one side and the harsh realities of life, the funeral, an illness, on the other.
  26. The first mention of this character, who will play an increasingly important role in the story later on. Gerasim often expresses ideas and sentiments which the other characters in the story would find unpalatable. At the end of Chapter One, for example, Gerasim reminds Peter Ivanovich that "we will all come to it one day" when asked about his feelings concerning the death of Ivan Il'ich. In Russian, Gerasim is identified as a "bufetnyj muzhik," thereby linking him closely to the Russian peasant (Russ. 'muzhik'), even though he is working in an urban, domestic situation.
  27. Here we see a distinct contrast between the solemnity and certainty manifested by the face of the dead Ivan Il'ich and the hesitation shown by Peter Ivanovich and the playfulness displayed by Schwartz. As if to point this contrast, the retreating Peter Ivanovich is, upon leaving the room wherein lies Ivan Il'ich, immediately presented with the restorative sight of Schwartz.
  28. Note that the refreshing effect that Schwartz has upon Peter Ivanovich is emphatically associated with "play" (Russian "игра") and words built from this root: he "plays" with his hat; his figure is "playful"; his attitude suggests that there is no reason why the funeral service should keep them from "playing" cards; later his "playful" look suggests that Peter Ivanovich can still join them for bridge after he extricates himself from Praskovya Fyodorovna and the funeral sevice.  Note also that the playful Schwartz is closely associated with the card game that will also turn out to be Ivan Ilich's favorite pastime.  The association of the game of cards and a certain style of life is emphasized throughout the text.
  29. In the extended scene between Peter Ivanovich and Praskovya Fyodorovna (Ivan Ilich's widow) we see many further indications of the artificiality of the relationships among these characters. Another interesting motif is the uncommonly important role played by material objects in the scene. The "faulty springs of the pouffe (an upholstered stool or ottoman)" are mentioned several times as disturbing the ritual of the visit of condolence. Later on, there will be further awkwardness when Praskovya Fyodorovna catches her shawl on the elaborately carved table edge. A direct connection is made between Ivan Ilich and the objects in this room. Later on we discover that the illness which killed him seemed to have stemmed from a fall which he had while attempting to show the draper just exactly how he wanted the curtains to be hung. Much in the manner of the games which they play, the objects with which these characters surround themselves seem to have an unusual significance in their lives.
  30. Cf. Peter Ivanovich's uncertainty about what was the proper way to approach the coffin in an earlier scene.  Clearly, image and appearance are much more important to these characters than the actual realities of the situations in which they find themselves. It is as though every situation has its rules, much like the rules of a game, which much be observed at all costs.
  31. The hankie being clean, the widow has evidently not previously had occasion to weep into it.
  32. The widow's evident clear-headedness in this discussion belies her claim that she is devastated by the death of her spouse. Note also that she "defined" (определила, lit. "put a limit to") "that which it was best (следует, lit. "it behooves (her)," "it is necessary") to take." Not only, then, is her grief insincere, but her approach to her responsibilities is associated with the setting of limits on the permissible, a notion that has been hinted at already and will become increasingly prominent as the story progresses. Finally, the grammar of the Russian leaves us in some doubt as to whether her main concern is the lot or the price of the lot.
  33. She is also not so distracted by grief that when noticing that the table was endangered by his cigarette-ash, she immediately passed him an ash-tray.
  34. Tolstoy's repetition here of the conjunction "as if" (Russ. как бы) plainly casts suspicion on the sincerity of the widow's grief.  When she remarked above that she "thought it a pretense to give the impression that she was unable to see to practical matters because of her grief" she may have been telling more truth than she meant to; this passage suggests that it is her grief that is the pretense.
  35. The widow's description of her dead husband's final hours is given from her own point of view; her concern is with how much she suffered, what was the effect on her, of her spouse's passing away. That his cries could be heard "through three doors" is a common way of saying that something was really loud; taken literally, however, it suggests that she had closed three doors upon her husband and his suffering in order to defend herself from him and it.  The metaphor of the closed door, of shutting oneself off from unpleasantness is one we have seen already in Peter Ivanovich's hasty departure from the room in which the dead man was lying, and we will see it again and again in the life of Ivan Ilich himself.
  36. The word рассуждение contains the same root as the word for "judge," "court," or "legal process" and is a subtle reminder of the occupation of both Ivan Ilich and Peter Ivanovich.  To apply it to the manner in which Peter Ivanovich comforts himself in his sudden fright at the specter of death is to suggest that he has acted not truly as a judge--the arbiter of wisdom and truth--but rather so as to abandon his calling in order to "calm himself"
  37. Tolstoy's depiction of the widow's insincere grief and shallow behavior has been merciless without being explicit; he concludes his portrait by putting her on display as she blows her nose and then remarks that she has finished blowing her nose.
  38. This last clause represents a rather strange combination of the circuitous ("in accordance with the incidence of the death of her husband") and the rather coarsely direct ("get money from the government"); it confirms the image which has been created of Praskovya Fyodorovna.
  39. It's worth noting the ambiguity of the son's being "terribly" similar to his father.  A characteristic feature of the style of this story is the use of colloquial or foreign expressions not only in their everyday sense but also in a literal sense--perhaps it really is terrible, dreadful that the son is so like the father.
  40. Note that with respect to the other characters the dead Ivan Ilich is referred to as the «мертвец» ("the dead man," "the corpse"), but in connection with Gerasim Ivan Ilich is here referred to as the «покойник» ("the late," "the departed," lit. "the one who is resting in peace").  In this way the difference (which will prove great) between Gerasim and the others is subtly signalled.
  41. Thus, Peter Ivanovich has resolved the conflicted state of his feelings by not looking at "the dead man once, (not yielding) to any depressing influence, and (being) one of the first to leave the room." In this way, Peter Ivanovich, a judge, seems to refuse to accept jurisdiction over the situation which has arisen following the death of Ivan Ilich. He would rather make a hasty departure from the situation, observing the minimum required by propriety. His flight leaves us as readers, who have accompanied Peter Ivanovich so far, on our own in the midst of the story. Ivan Ilich's dead face had held a message also for us, and it has become our task to continue on interpreting that message, even without the company of Peter Ivanovich.


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