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

Chapter 2


[2] [3]


[5]  [6] [7] [8]






[14] [15] 



[18] [19] 




[23] [24]



[27] [28]

[29] [30] 

  1. Thus begins the second chapter of the novel, with one of the most famous lines in Russian literature. A literal translation of the Russian would be "The past history of the life of Ivan Il'ich was most simple and ordinary, and most terrible" ("terrible" in the sense of inspiring terror, absolute fear). In the paragraphs that follow, the text is at pains to show that Ivan Ilich was an average, ordinary sort of person. He is middle-aged at his death (in his mid-forties), the middle son of three, an average family man with a medium-sized family and an entirely normal career.
  2. Here is the first of several foreign-language expressions which occur in the text of the novel, many of which contain particular significance. This one (lit. "the phoenix of the family'') normally means "the member of the family most likely to succeed," but it contains a reference to the phoenix, a mythological bird which was periodically reborn from the ashes of its own destruction. It is interesting to note that some lines below the reference to the phoenix we read: "from early youth he was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them." In the original, this sentence contains a pun on the Russian word 'svet' ('light,' 'world of high society'). We might translate as follows: "he was, like a fly to the light ('svet'), drawn to the people most highly placed in society ('svet')." In Tolstoi's day, of course, the "light" to which flies were drawn was the light of a burning flame in which the insect is immolated. It is suggested that this flame is society itself, which will burn up Ivan Il'ich, but that, like the phoenix, Ivan Il'ich will somehow transcend this fiery end.
  3. The list of adjectives describing Ivan Ilich is particularly appropriate to the description of him as an average or composite sort of person.  He is intelligent ("umnyj" -- lit. "having a mind") and lively ("zhivoj" -- lit. "alive"), but also pleasant and proper (the characteristics of his older brother and his father).  There is a suggestion here that pleasantness and propriety are somehow antithetical to intelligence and aliveness.
  4. See the preceding note for an explanation of the pun on the word "svet" which this sentence contains
  5. That is, his starting grade in the Civil Service would be at the tenth rank or higher
  6. Scharmer's was an expensive tailor.
  7. Here is another example of the ironic use of cliche formulas. It will turn out that the one thing that Ivan Ilich absolutely refuses to foresee is his own end, his death.
  8. Donon's was a fashionable restaurant.
  9. Religious sectarians represented special legal problems in the Russian empire because the Russian Orthodox Church was the officially established national church. Thus, religious differences could often lead to legal disputes or prosecutions.
  10. French for "a good fellow, a nice guy" (literally, 'a good child'). Beneath the surface of this foreign-language cliche is the suggestion that "good-heartedness" (lit., goodness of soul) is characteristic of a child but not, perhaps, of an adult.  We should pay attention to the way in which Ivan Ilich's behavior changes as he grows older.  Just as earlier we learned that his sense of shame as a child was gradually overcome so too the positive qualities of good-heartedness and gaiety will gradually be weakened in favor of more grown up attitudes and pastimes
  11. The French saying is used to mean "Youth will have its fling," "Boys will be boys."  It's literal meaning, however, is "youth must happen" and, by implication, at some point stop happening and be lost.  Later on in the novel Ivan Ilich will devote a lot of effort to an attempt to recapture that lost youth.
  12. The 1860s saw the institution of major governmental reforms in Russia. The most celebrated of these was the freeing of the serfs from their legal bondage in 1861. Among the most far-reaching (and the most needed) of the reforms was that which attempted to remodel the Russian judicial system, long marked by incompetence and venality. Ivan Il'ich's ability to conform himself to the proprieties and expectations of this new system is the secret to his continuing career success. He now begins a steady rise in the service of several years duration.
  13. An "examining magistrate"was a junior official of the court charged with conducting a preliminary enquiry into the circumstances and character of a crime and of the person(s) charged with the commission of the crime.
  14. Comme il faut is French for "as one ought to be"; the phrase is a favorite descriptor of vapid and insincere characters throughout his career. One thinks, for example, of such characters in War and Peace as Hippolyte Kuragin, completely comme il faut  and almost devoid of intelligence, or Alphonse Karlovich Berg, whose most earnest desire is to be the twin of those highly-placed persons who seem to him to represent comme il faut, a feat he tries to accomplish not simply by furnishing his house in the same style as those he admires but by purchasing furnishings which have actually stood in those houses.
  15. It is interesting to note that Ivan Il'ich's secret of success in his official career resembles very much the attitude which his 'friends' bring to the 'required formality' of attending his funeral. Peter Ivanovich, indeed, does a remarkable job of estranging himself from the unpleasant sensations aroused by his feelings of personal connection with his deceased mentor and of the personal relevance which Ivan Il'ich's countenance and expression seemed to hold for him. Later on, the doctors whom Ivan Ilich consults as his illness progresses will treat him very much as he treats those who come before him in court.
  16. Like Peter Ivanovich and Schwartz in Chapter One, Ivan Ilich becomes a devotee of card-playing. The skills required to play whist (which will be referred to later as "vint," a variation of the game sometimes called "Russian whist" in English) are similar to those which bring him success in his career: his good humor and playful manner, his ability to calculate quickly and astutely, his knowledge of the rules of the game and the proper forms of play. The thrust here is to connect his "life" (Russ. zhizn') with his "official life" (Russ. sluzhba) and to reduce both to triviality by suggesting that they involve little more than the artificial conventions of a game of cards.
  17. Ivan Ilich dances as skillfully as he plays cards; as he "won over" Praskovya Fyodorovna with his dancing and by the "playful" relations he established with her, so also does his astute "playing" of cards leave him usually on the "winning" side after a rubber of whist.  Playing cards and courting a wife are represented as no more than two varieties of the same activity--and both are equally "pleasant."
  18. The Russian word "porjadochnaja" suggests a variety of meanings.  Clearly the surface significance is that Praskovya Fyodorovna exemplifies "good order" (Russ. porjadok) in the choice of a wife.  The word may also suggest that she is selected from a whole row (rjad) of similarly acceptable women. The word "porjadochnyj" may also be applied to physical objects to indicate that the object is well suited to its purpose.  Praskovya Fyodorovna will make a "serviceable" wife.  In short, the implication is really that there is nothing special or individual about her as far as Ivan Ilich is concerned.
  19. The word "soobrazhenija" (Engl. "considerations") forms a verbal link to the earlier comment about Ivan Ilich's ability to "quickly and astutely consider" the best way to play a hand of whist.
  20. Ivan Ilich's relationship with his wife, entered into more because it was a suitable and appropriate match than because he loved her, is portrayed as satisfactory and even pleasant as long as it involves only such material considerations as sexual relations, furniture, dishes, and tablecloths. It is disrupted, however, and becomes unpleasant when Praskovya Fyodorovna becomes pregnant, that is, when a new life enters into the situation. Thus, marriage, too, as Ivan Ilich wishes it to be, is suggested to be a social form  in which there is no place for life. By now it has already become clear that the story of the life of Ivan Ilich is really the story of his steady approach toward death. In the midst of his successful "life," real life is already a devastating threat. Later in this same passage the pregnancy is said to introduce something "new, unexpected, unpleasant, depressing (Russ. 'tjazheloe' = 'heavy, serious'), and unseemly" came into his life, "from which there was no way of escape." All of these adjectives apply equally well to the illness from which Ivan Ilich will soon begin to suffer. This is especially true of the adjective 'tjazheloe,' which is part of a familiar and standard expression when applied to disease (Russ. 'tjazhelaja bolezn'''). In the same way that Praskovya Fyodorovna's pregnancy seems to be an intimation of Ivan Ilich's illness, so also  her behavior while pregnant pre-figures that of her husband after he has become ill. Thus, the displays of unseemliness and unpleasantness, the unreasonableness, the vulgar scenes which will mark Ivan Ilich's behavior later on are all pre-figured here in the behavior of his pregnant wife. One must conclude, it seems, that just as there is a relationship between Ivan Ilich's official and personal life and the symbols of death, so too is there a relationship between the illness which leads to the end of that "life" and the discomborts associated with the genuine new life stirring within Praskovya Fyodorovna's womb.
  21. A French phrase used to mean "out of sheer wantonness" or, more vulgarly, "for the hell of it." Literally, the phrase means "from gaiety of heart" and, consequently, seems to suggest the possibility that Praskovya Fyodorovna's pregnancy and its attendant symptoms, since they represent new life, should rather be a cause of happiness than of irritation.  Here is still another example of a meaning beneath the meaning of these conventional phrases, suggesting (rather specifically, since she is pregnant) that there is another life beneath the superficial life of these conventional people.
  22. Having discovered that the pleasantness and propriety of his life has been badly injured by the behavior of his pregnant wife Ivan Ilich first tries to ignore her outbursts and demands, but when this fails he withdraws into his work in order to protect his "independence." Thus, he turns away from his family life to the still more artificial world of his life at work. Maude's translation here does not capture the organizing metaphor of this passage. Where Maude says "entrench himself" the Russian has "barricade himself" (Russ. 'ogradit' sebja'), and where Maude translates "secure his own independence" Tolstoi's text has "fence off his own independent world" (Russ. 'vygorazhivaja svoj nezavisimyj mir'). Thus, the Russian text suggests the motif of voluntary separation by walls or barriers, a process of self-enclosure, which is similar to the image created by the heavy black border of the funeral announcement and the framing edge of Ivan Ilich's coffin in chapter one. Some lines below the Maude translation does finally make the connection with "if he met with antagonism and querulousness he retired at once into his separate fenced-off (Russ. 'otdel'nyj vygorozhennyj im') world of official duties (italics mine)." Even here, though, Maude's translation refers to "his fenced-off world" while the Russian has "the world fenced-off by him" which makes Ivan Ilich responsible for the deliberate act of closing himself off from that which irritates him. Thus it is that in his desire to escape from the unpleasantness  of his personal life he more and more embraces the relative emptiness and artificiality of his official life. In thinking to protect himself by escaping the unpleasantness, he always accomplishes this result by isolating himself, by building a metaphorical fence around himself.
  23. The narrator's preference for the adjective supruzheskaja ("spousal," from "suprug/supruga," spouse) suggests that Ivan Ilich sees his relationship with Praskovya Fyodorovna as one in which each of them is playing, and is bound to play, a certain role, that of spouse, rather than as a relationship between two authentic individuals.  One might say that Ivan Ilich's strategy for defense against the importunities of his wife is to escape the role of spouse by taking refuge in the role of government official.  The inherently inauthentic nature of this "play-acting" at life is most strongly suggested in Chapter Eight where the family discusses their imminent outing to the theater to see the celebrated actress Sarah Bernhardt perform.
  24. The word "opredelennyj" (as here in "opredelennoe otnoshenie," Eng., "a definite (or "defined") relationship) occurs frequently in the story.  It is suggestive that it derives from the word "predel," Eng., "limit," "boundary" and thereby resonates with the various images of borders, edges, barriers, enclosures, curtains, screens and so on in which the story abounds.  To say that there is need for a defined relationship suggests that every aspect of life has its known and desirable limits, its rules describing the types of behavior which are and are not permitted within that aspect.  Extending this principle logically we come soon to the conclusion that life itself is just such a limited affair, and Ivan Ilich's hope to protect his "independent world" is illusory.
  25. Note the use of the same verb "privlekat'/privlech'" ("to draw, attract") to express the idea of Ivan Ilich's gratification of being able to "draw" anyone into court (or into prison) and his gratification with all aspects of his new duties being able to "draw" Ivan Ilich himself into his work at the office even more than before.  Thus again the idea of Ivan Ilich's life becoming ever more a voluntarily accepted decision to lock himself away from the world.
  26. The image of being surrounded by solid walls is picked up yet again in the use of the word  "nepronicaemyj" ('impenetrable').
  27. Here is a prime example of the ambiguity so often reflected in the style of the narrative:  is it simply that the cost of living is more expensive because of moving to a larger town, or is it that because of his promotion Ivan Ilich's real life has become more dear because it is slipping away ever farther into the false life of his increased official duties.
  28. Just as the birth of a child created unpleasantness in Ivan Ilich's life, so also does their death. Clearly, if these ineluctable evidences of real life--birth and death--are  both unpleasant, it must be that Ivan Ilich's "family life" is somehow false, not real life at all; his family life is rather a phenomenon in which the elements of real life have no appropriate place.
  29. Making the point yet again, Tolstoy's Russian uses the phrase "postoronnie lica" (lit. 'persons ranged along the sides, rather than in the center') to suggest once more the image of Ivan Ilich surrounded by a protective screen. Ivan Ilich thinks always to fence the offending behavior out, never realizing that he is also, necessarily, fencing himself in.
  30. The completeness of his isolation in his official life is mainly missed by Maude's translation "The whole interest of his life now centered in the official world and that interest absorbed him" [italics mine] but is vividly suggested by Tolstoy's use of the idiomatic expression "And that interest swallowed him," [italics mine] which Tolstoy offers as a separate, brief, and powerful sentence.