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

Chapter 5





[5] [6] [7] [8]



  1. The first four chapters of the novel have brought Ivan Ilich to a point where his illness has developed so far as to be out of control. So serious is the situation that Ivan Ilich seems already near death. His visiting brother-in-law here states that Ivan Ilich is already a dead man. This emphasis upon the extent to which Ivan's condition has already deteriorated continues throughout chapter five and at the end of chapter six he even imagines that he sees "death" looking at him from behind some flowers in the sitting room. The reader may well wonder why such emphasis is placed on Ivan's death, or his nearness to death, or the apparition of death at this point in the novel. After all, there are still six more chapters (half of the novel, if we are counting chapters) before he will in fact die. Let us note, at least, that Ivan is, in a sense, pronounced virtually dead already in chapters five and six, and that it is therefore possible that the final six chapters will be concerned to do more than provide further repetition of this motif. At the least it is clear that Ivan Ilich might as well be dead at this point, that his life is really just a kind of death.
  2. According to Wikipedia "Nephroptosis (also called floating kidney or renal ptosis) is an abnormal condition in which the kidney drops down into the pelvis when the patient stands up." The Russian for "floating kidney" ("bluzhdajushchaja pochka") derives from the word "bluzhdat'" ("to roam, wander") and is etymologically related to the root "blud-" found in such words as "bludnitsa" ("loose woman, whore") and "bludnoj syn" (the Biblical "prodigal son"). Thus, there is a subtle implication of error or sin or improper behavior (a wandering beyond the permitted boundaries) in this possible diagnosis of "whatever is the matter with" Ivan Ilich. And yet we have been told that Ivan Ilich's life has been a model of staying within the bounds of decency and appropriateness.  Two possibilities suggest themselves:  the "floating kidney" has really nothing to do with what ails Ivan Ilich and is simply a mockery of the doctors' incompetence, or Ivan Ilich has mistaken the life he has been leading for real life (perhaps it has only been as real as a game of cards) and that he has mistakenly wandered away from real life into an inauthentic and counterfeit existence. In this case the pretentious incompetence of the doctors' is caused by their looking in the wrong place for the illness besetting Ivan Ilich; what is really besetting him is spiritual rather than material in origin.  As always, the narrative is so constructed that both of these outlooks are correct with the spiritual narrative or view encased within the material one.
  3. Note how Tolstoy colors Ivan Ilich's behavior.  Here he "looked at her darkly"; earlier in the chapter his expression "became blacker than night." Thus, his actions in life take on the funereal color of death.  This is in the same vein as the emphasis on the black clothing worn by all the living people in Chapter One of the novel and Ivan's particular resentment of Schwartz ("black" in German) whose liveliness and playfulness (=life is a game) remind him of himself in younger and healthier days.
  4. Since this diagnosis, too, will come to nothing the phrasing here suggests that neither the anatomical nor the physiological facts have any relevance to the question of what is wrong with Ivan Ilich.
  5. As the diagnosis of the floating kidney suggested the idea of "going astray" so, too, does the suspicion of trouble in the "blind gut" (i.e., the appendix) suggest the idea of the complete inability to see what is wrong, of blindness to the actual cause of Ivan Ilich's trouble.
  6. Tolstoy uses the word "zadushevnyj" ("intimate, sincere") to describe the need to think inwardly about the "anatomical and physiological" details of the operation of the blind gut. The word "zadushevnyj," however, is derived from the root word "dusha" ("soul") and thus clearly suggests Ivan Ilich's complete confusion of his spiritual life with his physiological life; put another way, Ivan Ilich is unaware of his "soul," his spiritual life, and is spiritually dead. Even if only obliquely and etymologically, however, it would seem that, at last, and apparently for the first time in a long time, the conception of an inner, spiritual life has at last occurred to him. In Chapter Six he will remind himself that he "lived by his official duties," that he thought that his official life was his life. It is perhaps not strange then that he thinks that his inner life involves no more than the condition of his colon. Almost at once, though, his pain drives him to the thought that it is "not a question of my appendix or my kidney, but of life . . . and death" and soon thereafter: "I think of mending my appendix, and all the while here comes death!" Thus, the ground is prepared of the first mention, in Chapter Six, of an "inner voice," the voice of that life within, a life quite distinct from the life which Ivan Ilich has made for himself.
  7. Emile Zola (1840-92), a French writer, author of many popular novels
  8. Ivan Ilich's pain is here described by the use of seven modifiers.  The first four are unsurprising: "familiar" (all too familiar), "old" (by now the pain is clearly "getting old"), "dull," "aching" (from the verb meaning "to whine, complain").  All of these might well be used by Ivan Ilich to characterize pain that is continual and tiresome if not excruciating, just the sort of pain to elicit a self-pitying whine.  The last three modifiers, "insistent," "quiet," "serious," however, do not evoke the same spirit of complaint.  They seem rather to suggest that there is some point to the pain, as though it were quietly, seriously, persistently trying to attract Ivan Ilich's attention. The connotation would seem to be that while pain is pain, there is also another dimension beyond, or perhaps within, the pain.
  9. The phrase "with all the strength of his soul" is, of course, a common enough expression, but like many other such cliches in the text this one also bears a suggestive significance.  In this case it suggests that, after all, Ivan Ilich does still have a soul and that soul hates the insincere affection of Praskovya Fyodorovna and the idea of calling in the doctor yet again, perhaps because it senses that medical care is irrelevant to the real, spiritual problem that is besetting Ivan Ilich
  10. The use of the word "proshchaj" here is unusual and suggestive. It is most commonly used when bidding farewell before a long absence or at the bedside of a person on the verge of death.


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