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

Chapter 8











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  1. The use of a plural verb form ("ushli") with a singular subject ("Vasily Ivanovich") is a mark of deference shown by a social inferior when speaking of a social superior. The use of this form of speech by Peter is normal in the conventional interactions between master and servant, and is in marked contrast with the explicitly noted use of the familiar form of address by Gerasim several paragraphs earlier
  2. The word "zabyt'sja" (lit., "to forget oneself") may be defined in Russian as "terjat' soznanie" ("to lose consciousness").  The centrality of "consciousness" in Tolstoy's world-view has been mentioned before.  Ivan Ilich's desire to "lose consciousness" is an oblique admission that the distressed condition of his consciousness is a much worse problem than his deteriorating physical condition.  Thus, the text keeps insisting that the pain of the falseness and lying all around him is much worse than his physical suffering.  It is as though Ivan Ilich believes that if he could just lull his consciousness to sleep it would stop hurting him, stop insisting on the truth that it is dying or as good as dead, and permit the return of the comforting illusion that it is merely that his body, his physical self is ill. Consciousness is thereby identified with an inner, spiritual self which is making itself ever more insistently present as Ivan Ilich's bodily strength and confidence wanes.
  3. The usual way to say that one feels cold in Russian is to use the impersonal expression: "mne xolodno" (lit., "to me (it) is cold")  The doctor, however, uses the personal expression "ja xoloden" (lit., "I am cold") and thereby comes perilously close to the expression "ja xolodnyj" ("I am a cold (i.e., unfeeling) person").  This is another of the many examples of the significant hidden beneath the trivial and of the unwitting declaration of the truth.  We remember the brother-in-law's comment in Chapter Six:  "Why, he's a dead man."
  4. That is, to use a very informal and playful version of the standard question: "kak dela" ("how are things going").  Given the prominent role of card games as a metaphor for the empty and artificial life of Ivan Ilich, one might well imagine the doctor inquiring "How's tricks?"
  5. The cliche "vsemi silami dushi" ("with all the strength of (his) soul") also, of course, suggests that Ivan Ilich does after all, at least, have a soul which is capable of strong sensations, and therefore that he may not be completely lost spiritually.,
  6. This very important passage conveys several messages simultaneously. The most obvious concerns the attitude which both the doctor and Praskovya Fyodorovna have adopted toward Ivan Ilich and his illness. The Russian word which Maude translates as "adopted" is 'vyrabotal' ('worked out', 'constructed by effort'), suggesting the artificiality of their relation to him (despite their pleas of sincerity). The doctor's inability to "abandon" this attitude and Praskovya Fyodorovna's inability to "change" it are both reflections of the same Russian word 'snjat'' ('to take down', 'to take off, as clothing or covers'). Thus, the attitude which they have adopted toward him is a covering or screen (metaphorically, perhaps, a protective garment) which they have put between him and themselves. Once again, the familiar image of screens, curtains, fences, walls, enclosures, which we have seen so often in the attitudes of Ivan Ilich himself. A second point emerging from this passage is that Praskovya Fyodorovna's superficial attitude toward him is one of loving concern while at the same time it is clear that her actual attitude is one of hostile impatience for his death, that is, that her real attitude is the opposite of her professed attitude. A couple of paragraphs farther down she makes the facetiously intended but none the less curious statement that everything she does for him is done "for my own sake." The text adds this explanation: "He felt that he was surrounded and enmeshed in such a web of falsity that it was hard to unravel anything. Everything she did for him was entirely for her own sake; she told him she was doing for herself what she actually was doing for herself, as if that was so incredible he must understand the opposite." From this it emerges that the truth can be known by understanding everything we observe as its opposite. Thus, when Praskovya Fyodorovna says facetiously that she is doing what she is doing only for herself, we should understand that she actually means this seriously. Conversely, her "loving reproaches" are really manifestations of hatred. Finally, since it is in fact true that Praskovya Fyodorovna really is concerned only with herself--that is, she is telling the truth here--perhaps it is possible that the other claim she makes here is also true, namely her suggestion that Ivan Ilich "was not doing something he ought to do and was himself to blame" for his condition. She, of course, believes herself to be speaking of her husband's physiological distress, just as, in the case of her other comment she believes herself to be speaking facetiously. With respect to her husband's spiritual distress, however, it may be that she is unwittingly speaking the exact truth. What is required is to understand both what she says and what we as readers seem to see in reverse, the other way around, backwards (Russ. 'obratno') in order to see the situation rightly. Therefore, it is certain that her complaint that lying with his legs up on Gerasim's shoulders is "bad for him" (since she means it seriously) is bound to be wrong. In fact, contact of this sort with Gerasim must be good for Ivan Ilich. Following this line of thought we soon come to the conclusion that all the while we were being presented with what seemed to be an account of Ivan Ilich's life, we were actually seeing the story of his death, and now, when we seem to be observing the increasingly rapid process of his death, we are actually seeing the beginnings of renewed life. The major idea to be grasped from this passage is that Ivan Ilich himself by not "doing what he ought" has brought his spiritual illness and death upon himself.
  7. The use of the word "obsudjat" ("will discuss to a conclusion") suggests most clearly that not only is the behavior of the doctors like the behavior of the judges Ivan Ilich knows from his life at court (as noted earlier) but actually is virtually the same thing as their behavior.  The word "obsudit'" is derived from the same root from which come "sud" ("a court, legal process"), "sud'ja" ("a judge"), "sudit'" ("to judge, render judgement"). This conclusion is confirmed by the playfully condemnatory tone of the doctor in blaming the patient for his foolish actions and his generously being willing to forgive him.
  8. In Chapter Twelve Ivan Ilich's attempt to understand what his life has been is compared to the "sensation one sometimes experiences in a railway carriage when one thinks one is going backwards while one is really going forwards and suddenly becomes aware of the real direction." This confirms the idea presented in note 6, above, that this pattern of reversal is a characteristic feature of the structure of the novel.
  9. Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923), a world-famous French actress, toured Russia in the winter of 1882-83.
  10. Joseph Capoul (1839-1924) a French opera singer known for a hairstyle which featured curls falling over the forehead.
  11. The descriptions of the clothing of Praskovya Fyodorovna and Fyodor Petrovich make emphatic use of words suggesting the constriction of their dress:  Praskovya Fyodorovna with her "tolstymi podtjanutymi grud'jami" ("plump, tightly cinched, breasts"); Fyodor Petrovich with his "sheej, oblozhennoj plotno belym vorotnichkom" ("neck tightly encased by a white collar"), his "ogromnoj beloj grud'ju" ("enormous white breast"), his "obtjanutymi sil'nymi ljazhkami v uzkix chernyx shtanax" ("strong thighs fitted tightly in narrow black trousers"), and his "natjanutoj beloj perchatkoj na ruke" ("white glove drawn tautly onto his hand").  The suggestion would seem to be that even in the matter of clothing these people find it necessary to enclose themselves, hem themselves in, providing a visible refrain to the immediate cause of Ivan Ilich's despair, just prior to these descriptions: "the same old room, the same old curtains, the same little bottles."
  12. One of Sarah Bernhardt's most famous roles was that of Adrienne Lecouvreur in the play of that name by Scribe and Legouve. The heroine of the play is herself an actress, so we are presented here with the family's desire to hasten away from the bedside of its dying father and husband in order to be present at a play (an exercise in pretending and voluntary self-deception) in which the lead actress is most admired for her portrayal of the life of another actress. The distance between the family's proposed activity and the reality of life is astonishingly great. The detailed emphasis on their manner of dress, their costumes, as it were, is entirely in the same spirit.  Of course, the family's ability to carry on with its plan of an evening at the theater is made possible in the first place only by pretending that Ivan Ilich is only ill rather than dying. Ivan Ilich resents most of all that he is required to join the family in this pretense. Only Ivan Ilich's son is exempt from the hatred which Ivan Ilich feels toward his family for their constant lying about his condition and their insistence that he, too, join them in this lie. The son, Vasya, is mentioned here in the same sentence with Gerasim, the only other character who deals truthfully with Ivan Ilich, and who touches him in a meaningful way. In Chapter Twelve, Ivan Ilich's moment of grace coincides with his hand being grasped by his son. In the context of this passage, we might say that Gerasim and Vasya are concerned with life itself while the rest of the family and household prefers to deal with the imitation of life, both on the stage and in their own lives.
  13. There would seem to be a paradox here in that "there is no end" and the "end is inescapable" are asserted in contiguous clauses.  This foreshadows Ivan Ilich's attitude toward the image of the "black sack" which will make its first appearance in Chapter Nine.  He feels that "he and his pain" are being pushed into a constricting black sack and that he "was frightened yet wanted to fall through the sack, he struggled but yet co-operated."  This ambivalence is associated with Ivan Ilich's gradual realization that his life, as he has lived it, is not a real life at all, but only the semblance of a life, a playing at life.  If  life is not life, then is it death?  And what then is the end of that life that is not life?  The reversal, the looking at things backward which is so often seen in the text has its ultimate significance in the idea that Ivan Ilich's life is actually death and only the end of that false life offers the possibility of  true life.  "Life" is death and "death" is life.


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