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

Chapter 3





[4] [5] [6]


[8] [9] [10]    [11]


[13] [14]


  1. The unpleasant circumstance mentioned here is Ivan Ilich's being passed over for an expected promotion. Since the event is "unpleasant" it has no place in Ivan Ilich's "pleasant" life and strikes him, a few lines later, as being most unjust. This unpleasant occurrence may be seen as one of several warnings which Ivan Ilich receives in the story that his "pleasant" and "seemly" and "well-ordered" life is at odds with the real life which surrounds it. In short, Ivan Ilich's skillfully arranged pleasant life may be just as artificial as his clever one-page summaries of the complex matters that come before him in court. Real life has intervened once before, in Praskovya Fyodorovna's changed behavior when pregnant, and now even his official life (into which he had fled to escape Praskovya Fyodorovna's bad behavior) is disrupted by this failure to provide him with the promotion that he believes he has earned. As before, so now, Ivan Ilich will react to this unpleasantness by attempting to isolate himself from it, by leaving it behind and quitting his post in the Ministry of Justice. On this occasion, however, he will be saved by a lucky change in the higher administration of his department. That these disruptions (later referred to as "stumbles") in the pleasant flow of his life may be seen as warnings seems rather clear from a passage some paragraphs later in which Ivan Ilich thinks that "it was impossible to go on living this way." The Russian text has the phrase "tak zhit' nel'zja" which may be understood to mean either that living so is "not possible" or "not permitted." The final indication that Ivan Ilich's life works neither as he imagines it nor as he would prefer it to work is the onset of his illness, which arises from a "stumble" from a step-stool. In the end it is his sickness which finally convinces him that his life, as he had arranged it and lived it, was false and artificial; as Tolstoy writes, his life was not "the real thing."
  2. We may wonder if there is any significance to the fact that the text specifies that all of this was decided in the mind of Ivan Ilich and in the soul of Praskovya Fyodorovna.  Perhaps there is a suggestion that Ivan Ilich and his wife are unable to distinguish between the products of the mind and of the soul.
  3. The emphatic repetition in this paragraph of the forms of the verb sxodit'sja/sojtis' ("to come together, to converge") seems to foreground the idea that Ivan Ilich's unexpected promotion, portrayed as a recovery from an unexpected and inappropriate stumble, also restores a welcome sense of unity and togetherness in Ivan Ilich and Praskovya Fyodorovna which has been absent since the very first years of their married life.  Not only is the happiness and propriety of their life restored, but also the emotional bond and sense of mutuality between them.  And yet this apparent sense of the full repair of Ivan Ilich's life is undercut in at least two ways:  the feeling of mutuality and togetherness owes at least some of its strength to the fact that "they lived together very little," and, in the end, Ivan Ilich's intention to move the whole family at once meets resistance and he leaves for the new city alone.  The suggestion would appear to be that Ivan Ilich's life has not been substantively changed or mended.  He has gotten a higher salary and a promotion in prestige, but the hoped for return of togetherness and emotional convergence proves to be an illusion which can be maintained only so long as the family is not actually together.
  4. Pasha is the diminutive form of Praskovya (Ivan Ilich's wife) and Lizanka of Elizaveta (their daughter)
  5. Just as metaphors in the text often possess literal significance, so actual occurrences (here, falling off a ladder) often suggest metaphorical associations (the ladder of success, moving up the ladder, rising another rung on the ladder) and may suggest a hidden cause for the actual event.  In this case the cause of Ivan Ilich's fall is merely his concern with the proper hanging of the curtains, but the step-ladder indicates a connection to his life in the service and suggests that it is not merely the curtains which precipitate his fall, his injury, and eventually his illness and death, but his entire all-consuming life in the service itself.  It is also important to note that what he is attempting to do on the step-ladder is to arrange the curtains properly, and this connects directly with the other various metaphors of screening and enclosure which play so prominent a role in the artistic rhetoric of the novel.
  6. An example of the dark humor of the narrative.  In fact, Ivan Ilich's fall from the step-ladder and the illness which followed would seem to have taken at least 15 years off of his expected span of life.  James Rice discusses humor in the novel at length in "Comic Devices in 'The Death of Ivan Il'ich'," Slavic and East European Journal, vol. 47, no. 1 (Spring 2003), 77-95.
  7. The Russian here says, literally, "I am not an athlete for nothing. Another might have killed himself [Russ. 'ubilsja']." This is a powerful indicator, once the principle of seeing the literal in the metaphorical in this story is understood, that Ivan Ilich himself is responsible for the condition in which he will find himself. In lavishing all his attention on the pleasant and proper arrangement of his new apartment, in behaving as though his new apartment were the center and essence of his life, he has actually been killing himself. In this way, apparently casual expressions (remember here the phrase, at the end of Chapter Two, that his life in the service "swallowed" him) point the way to a method of reading the text in which the apparent and the actual are at odds with one another. We begin to see metaphors as exact descriptions; we begin to understand that what seems to be a most pleasant life is actually a kind of death; we understand that apparent disasters (his wife's behavior change in pregnancy; being passed over for promotion) are actually timely warnings of possible rescue (the advent of new life; a chance to come out of the official shell which the service has created for him). At a certain point the logic becomes quite inescapable: his illness is not the cause of his death, but the mechanism which returns him to life.
  8. One thinks here of the similarity between the blemishes on the furnishings, which concern Ivan Ilich so much, and the blemish on himself, the bruise on his side, which he tries to disregard.
  9. The use of the word "вера" here is suggestive; its basic meaning of "belief" fits the surface sense of the statement, but its other associations--"faith," "religion"--might indicate that Ivan Ilich's deep concern with the material objects surrounding him is to him a kind of basic faith or creed.
  10. Even at moments when Ivan Ilich's life has in fact become the pleasant and easy thing he wants it to be we are reminded that this life is not his real life. We understand the text to be referring to the distinction between Ivan Ilich's life at home and his life at the office, but since we know that his home life is not less artificial than his office life we are struck by this oblique reminder that there is, beyond both of these artificial, surrogate lives, a real life which would seem to be uniformly ignored wherever he is.
  11. Vint is a card-game, similar to both bridge and whist, and it is sometimes referred to as Russian whist. Vint means a "screw" in Russian, and the name is given to the game because the four players, each in turn, round and round,  propose, bid and overbid each other until one, having bid higher than the others care to follow, makes the trump, and his vis-a-vis plays as his partner. (Source: Wikipedia)
  12. The name of a charitable society, fictional, but characteristic of the time.
  13. It would be hard to miss the importance of the image of playing cards to the novel, so insistent is Tolstoy's repetition of it. Ivan Ilich's love affair with the game of vint provides a virtual index of the history of his life.  We first hear of it as a new and more dignified social activity gradually displacing dancing and other more youthful pursuits for the increasingly successful official following his early promotions. Later it becomes a favorite activity, and here it is said to be the real joy of his life.  In following chapters the increasing physical distress of his illness causes him to be ever more seriously "off his game," culminating (in Chapter Four) in his spoiling an entire evening of cards with his resentment at his own egregious misplaying of a hand. By Chapter Six card playing has disappeared altogether along with virtually all of Ivan Ilich's other social activities. Thus, vint is not only the "real joy" of his life but a symbol of that life itself, and it is instructive to consider the elements of the image of the game. It is played by partners who sit opposite  and never touch one another (unlike  dancing, the activity it replaced in Ivan Ilich's earlier life); it is played according to strict rules of speaking (the bidding must consist only of pre-determined phrases, many of which are referred to as "conventions") and play (taking turns, correctness of play, close attention to the game to prevent embarrassing blunders).  In short, vint is a vivid example of rule-bound, conventional, controlled, and highly decorous activity.  As such, it mirrors very closely Ivan Ilich's ideal for his own life, an ideal which he tries to realize in the furnishing and arrangement of the apartment in which he lives. We have seen how it was that effort that led to his fall and the injury which precipitated the onset of his illness.  The game, the furnishings, the life of the office, the company he keeps are Ivan Ilich's life--and from them emerges illness and death. Again, that which seems to be one thing is in fact its opposite; Ivan Ilich's life is actually his death.
  14. The sentence as a whole means: "After vint, and especially after a narrow victory (a large margin of victory is unpleasant), Ivan Ilich would lie down to sleep in a particularly good mood."  But the manner in which the sentence is arranged conveys an alternate, and more somber, impression.  By dividing the phrase "lozhilsja spat'" ("(he) lay down to sleep') into two parts and reversing the order of the words Tolstoy produces a significant association with the final phrase of the preceding sentence, thus: "to drink a glass of wine.  And to sleep after vint . . ."  There is a play on words here as well: in Russian "wine" is "vino," matching closely enough with "vint" as to suggest that "vint" is interchangeable with "vino," a drug, a soporific, and that the result of each of them is unconsciousness, oblivion, sleep. Tolstoy elaborates his attitude toward alcohol as a means of hiding from imbibers the awfulness of their empty lives in an essay written not long after "Death of Ivan Ilich" called "Why Do People Stupefy Themselves?"
  15. This is the starting point of what is perhaps the most direct verbal reminder that things are not what they appear to be. It begins here at the end of chapter three and recurs throughout the final four chapters of the novel. Maude renders the last paragraph of chapter three as "So (Russ. "tak") they lived. And everything went along so (Russ. "tak")." Ivan Ilich's life is identified as "just so." In the last four chapters of the novel the thought that, strange as it seems, his life had been lived "wrongly" (as Maude translates it) occurs several times to Ivan Ilich. An exact translation of these passages would be that "he lived not so (Russ. "ne tak:)" with the result that his life, which had been thought to be "just so" turns out to have been its binary opposite ("not just so") instead, that in fact his "life" was really a form or intimation of death.