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

Chapter 4


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[5] [6]


[8]  [9] [10] [11] 

[12]  [13] [14]


  1. Tolstoy uses the Russian equivalent of "mood" ("raspolozhenie duxa," lit., "disposition of spirit") to indicate that a physical symptom may be a sign of spiritual distress.  In this way it is suggested that Ivan Ilich's physical illness is actually a symbol of his spiritual distress, the "consciousness" of which is only now, once his ideal of life has finally been reached, beginning to make itself known to him.
  2. The first few paragraphs of chapter four present Ivan Ilich as experiencing symptoms very similar to those exhibited by Praskovya Fyodorovna when she was pregnant: the well-known "morning sickness" in pregnancy is reflected in Ivan Ilich's difficulties with taking food and the strange taste in his mouth; the increasing sense of pressure and weight in the abdomen is also common to both experiences. Most striking of all is the common behavior patterns of the two, the sudden outbursts, the demands, and the vulgar scenes. As though to point up these similarities the text reports that Praskovya Fyodorovna asserts, with her usual exaggeration, that Ivan Ilich had always had a "terrible character," and that it had needed all her good nature to put up with it for twenty years (i.e., since the time of her first pregnancy). The text continues by noting that "what was true was that now their quarrels were started by him" (thereby suggesting a comparison with those quarrels of twenty years before which were started by her).  In this way the onset of Ivan Ilich's illness, which culminates in his death, is linked to the onset  of pregnancy, which culminates in the birth of new life.
  3. This is the first of several phrases and incidents in the novel that can be understood as allusions to the story of the death by crucifixion of Jesus as reported in the New Testament. This set of motifs in the story is discussed by various scholars, including the present author ("A Note on the Miracle Motifs in the Later Works of Lev Tolstoi." In The Supernatural in Slavic and Baltic Literatures: Essays in Honor of Victor Terras, 191-99. Columbus, Ohio: Slavica Publishers, 1988). The presence of these allusions in the text is challenging, because the miracle of the Resurrection--that people are saved by the death and resurrection of Jesus--was explicitly denied by Tolstoy in his study of the Gospels (e.g., in The Gospel in Brief, A Harmonization and Translation of the Four Gospels, and What I Believe). I will indicate these allusions as such as the text progresses.
  4. Note the explicit comparison which the text offers between the cold and impersonal treatment Ivan Ilich receives from the doctors and that which he himself accorded to those whom he encountered in his own official capacity. A strict reading of the Russian text says that the behavior of the doctor toward him as patient was "the very same as that which he knew in himself in court." A few lines later we read: "It was all just as it was in the law courts. The doctor put on just the same air towards him as he himself put on towards an accused person." The text is so emphatic and unambiguous on this point that the reader must conclude that it is important to come to the conclusion that Ivan Ilich's life has been just as much a sham and just as disconnected from the real life and real concerns of individual people as the doctors' lives are now shown to be.
  5. The Russian text has it that "it was not a question about the life of Ivan Ilich." The suggestion seems to be that the doctors are not concerned about the life of their patient, but only about the identification of his illness. The distinction between health and illness now asserts itself at the expense of the distinction between life and death. In one sense, then, the novel has two levels of concern. On one level we are offered the story of Ivan Ilich's progress from health to illness to death; on another level we are dealing with a concern about the proper distinction between life and death. The first, and more superficial, level invites a three-part structuring of the narrative, the other a two-part structuring.  It is one of the compositional distinctions of The Death of Ivan Ilich  that Tolstoy has enabled the simultaneous co-existence of these two patterns of organization.
  6. Note that Ivan Ilich has now changed from a patient to a man on trial as the comparison between the doctor's office and the court has now been realized.  The Russian word "podsudimyj" ("defendant; an accused") etymologically means "subject to judgement"; this reminds us of the indications in Chapter One that it would be the reader's role to judge of the life of Ivan Ilich.
  7. The extensive description of Ivan Ilich's relationship with his doctor makes it clear that the doctor is quite unequal both to the treatment of his patient's illness and to the meeting of his emotional needs. The text here states that Ivan Ilich "still" obeyed the doctor's instructions, reminding us of the confusion and apparent incompetence of the doctor and his office described in the preceding paragraph. Even so, Ivan Ilich attempts to continue to follow doctor's orders, apparently hoping that by going through the "proper channels" the desired result of full recovery might be assured. Thus, his first attempts to come to grips with his illness resemble the efforts that he made within the system to seek redress when he was, unfairly as he thought, passed over for promotion. On that occasion following the approved procedure had availed him not at all; his recovery of his appropriate (in his view) position in the service came about almost miraculously, through an entirely unexpected and, from Ivan Il'ch's point of view, extremely fortunate change in the leadership of the ministry. So here in dealing with his illness the prescribed, approved measures will fail to produce recovery; before the end, Ivan Ilich will consider going to a religious shrine to seek a miraculous cure. Even this second major failure of the artificial system of life to which Ivan Ilich is dedicated, however, fails to lead him at once to the obvious conclusion--that his pleasant, seemly, official life is not a real life and offers no help for or protection from the vicissitudes of that real life. At this point Ivan Ilich can still derive some comfort from the thought that he is doing what he is supposed to do and still hoping that this seemly action within the system will produce the desired results.
  8. Thus, it is suggested that all of his efforts to recover by taking approved steps within the limits of the life which he has developed for himself are just so much self-deception, and the implication of this would naturally be that his life as a whole is just as much a self-deception as his attempts to follow doctor's orders.
  9. From this passage one might well infer a connection between Ivan Ilich's illness and the episodes of Praskovya Fyodorovna's first pregnancy and his being passed over for promotion at work. All three have in common that they reveal that Ivan Ilich's understanding and expectations of life are entirely faulty and not congruent with life as it actually is. Life is actually not analogous to a game of cards, but Ivan Ilich seems quite unable to understand this!
  10. Ivan Ilich's underlying belief that vint is a perfect analogue of life is made virtually explicit here. This passage emphasizes yet again the point that the card game, the symbol of Ivan Ilich's life as he has lived it so pleasantly until now, is ridiculously incommensurate with life as it actually is. The further implication is that the pain and the putrid taste in his mouth, the symptoms of his disease, are functioning as symbols of the call away from the false life of the card game and, by implication, toward the true life. In this sense, Ivan Ilich's illness brings him into life as much as it leads him out of it. This apparent confusion can only be resolved by supposing that the text is suggesting that there are two forms of life--one false and the other true. The card game stands for that false life of pleasant superficiality and the other a true life where suffering and illness are real and personal, but so also, potentially, are joy and well-being.
  11. Here is one of the first signs that Ivan Ilich is at some level aware of the idea that he may be not just sick, but dying.  His unanswered question for the doctor, "Is my condition dangerous," hinted at this, but here he feels that something is killing him, and that "something" is the imperfection of his life as he understands it and also his own unrestrainable anger at those imperfections.  In this way the text introduces the first subtle suggestion that what is killing him is the life he leads.
  12. Ivan Ilich means to say that his shilly-shallying over which of the various treatments to follow has come to an end and that he is resolved to stick faithfully to one treatment in order to treat his illness.  In other words, he has decided that he is only ill and that the treatment, if followed strictly, will make him well.  And yet this thought, "Now it is finished," is phrased so as to foreshadow exactly the words that Ivan Ilich, at the moment of his death in Chapter Twelve, will hear spoken above him: "It is finished."  The phrasing suggests that perhaps Ivan Ilich is at this point not just sick, but in fact already as good as dead.  We remember his feeling that the little upsets of his life at home and work were "killing" him.  This suggestion that Ivan Ilich is already as good as dead, even though he is still alive, will be offered again and again in the next couple of chapters and may well lead to the conclusion that Ivan Ilich's "life" is in fact really a form of death.
  13. Ivan Ilich means, of course that he will spend no more time considering which of the various treatments to follow. But the reader is becoming more and more familiar with the device of suggestive contrast between the superficial, conventional, contextualized meaning of a statement and its more pointed underlying significance.  Here that underlying meaning is "I will stop thinking"; that is, Ivan Ilich resolves to deal with his troubles by abandoning the only mechanism which has any chance of alerting him to the fact that his real illness is that his life, as he has lived it, is no more genuine and substantial than a game of cards.  Fortunately for him, Ivan Ilich proves unable to stop thinking.  The final four chapters of the novel, in fact, are mainly an extended record of his thoughts, and it is that persistent thinking which finally leads to the resolution of "that which had been besetting him from all sides."
  14. It has been noted that references to the passion of Jesus are to be found in this text.  This paragraph has two of them:  the Russian words "sovershalos'" and "koncheno" are the equivalents to the words of Jesus from the cross which English-language Bibles translate as "It is finished" (John 19:30).  "Sovershilos'" is the word established for this use in the Russian Orthodox Church in Tolstoy's time; "koncheno" is the word used by Tolstoy in his own translation (in the early 1880s) of the Gospels in "Soedinenie i perevod chetyrex evangelij" ("Harmonization and Translation of the Four Gospels")
  15. It is noteworthy that it is Schwartz--the person who is most vibrantly alive--is most irritating to Ivan Ilich.  A bit later we will find that another character--the servant Gerasim--possesses this same "aliveness," as shown by his perfect teeth, his unfailing energy, and his springy step, and yet Gerasim has quite the opposite effect on Ivan Ilich.  He is comforted by Gerasim, and only by Gerasim, rather than irritated by him.  We wonder: what is the difference between Schwartz's "aliveness" and Gerasim's.  Perhaps it is that Schwartz's life is "playful" (lit., like a game) and comme il faut (conventional, artificial) and therefore unreal, an illusion, just as Ivan Ilich's life had always been "ten years ago," before he got sick.  The logic of this is oblique and deeply buried, but its effect is to suggest that Ivan Ilich's life as he has known it is not really life at all, and it is sickness that is showing this to him.