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

Chapter 12

[1] [2]



[5] [6]



  1. A reminder of Praskovya Fyodorovna's description (in Chapter One) of how terrible the last days of Ivan Ilich had been for her because she could hear him screaming through multiple closed doors.  This is also a metaphorical reminder that in the end unpleasantness cannot be avoided simply by "slamming the door on it."
  2. The associated noun "propast'" means "abyss."
  3. This is the final appearance of the image of the black sack. We recall Ivan Ilich's ambiguous relation to this sensation: his competing desires to resist and co-operate. Here the desire to "get into it" has supervened and it is only his persistent desire to see his life as good that prevents him from doing so. We know with certainty from the material in the three preceding chapters that his life has not been good, has been characterized in fact as not having been "life" at all.
  4. At this moment Ivan Ilich finally realizes that his life has not been life at all in the true sense of the word, and we as readers receive our final clue that the significance of Ivan Ilich's story can only be grasped by seeing it as the reverse of what it might appear to be: not only the story of how he died, but more importantly the story of how he returned to life.  The black sack can now seem to represent not the end of life but its return, and the similarity of Ivan Ilich's experience in the black sack to the presumed experience of a baby descending the birth canal and about to be born becomes apparent, especially in the remark that "it became light" at the end of the black hole (the Russian word "dyra" ("hole") can also be used to mean a tunnel).  There has been a great deal of comment in the scholarship on the novel on the significance of the black sack and its function in the text.  For sources see the bibliography, especially Sorokin (1971) and Jahn (1993).
  5. Another allusion to the Passion narrative, the passage in which Jesus, near death, entrusts his mother with the care of the apostle John with the words "Mother, behold thy son; son, thy mother" (John, 19:26-27).
  6. The confusion reflected here can be seen as a moment of coalescence between the spiritual concerns of the novel and the physiological description of Ivan Ilich's illness and death. At the final moment the forgiveness requested for a life that was wrong becomes mixed with the passage out of that life, figured metaphorically in the desire to "fall right through" the black sack. In this way, the novel may be seen to remain true both to its account of Ivan Ilich's physical death and its story of his spiritual rebirth.
  7. While the entire course of the story of the life of Ivan Ilich has prepared us for this moment at which the space available to him would shrink down to no space at all (his movement from the breadth of the provinces, to localization in a single city, to confinement at home rather than going to work, to a preference to remain always in his study, to his final positioning on the sofa, and then at last to a particular position on the sofa--facing into the back of it). As this moment is reached, however, these confinements are transcended and Ivan Ilich is precipitated into a region which has no limits whatever: "In place of death there was light." A similar phenomenon occurs with respect to the dimension of time. The steadily shortening temporal framework (from years, to months, to weeks, to days, to hours) has been leading Ivan Ilich to the moment when his time is up, when no time at all remains. Instead, time, too, is transcended and we learn that: "all this happened in a single instant, and the meaning of that instant did not change." This changeless instant is described in the Russian as one that "no longer continued to change" (Russ. "uzhe ne izmenjalos'"). It is also clear, however, that the ordinary course of time, despite the transcendence asserted in these passages, also continues. Although Ivan Ilich has escaped, somehow, the ruin of his body, that body does still continue its course toward death without interruption: "For those present, his agony continued for another two hours."
  8. This is the last of several allusions to the Passion story related in the Gospels. Tolstoy here uses the very same expression which he had employed, in his own translation of the Gospels,  in emending the received Russian (Slavonic) translation of John, 19:30. It is, besides, a final affirmation of the principle of reading in reverse which we have been pursuing through these annotations; the final note that the novel sounds would seem to be not that the life of Ivan Ilich is finished, but that it has begun again or been reclaimed.