The Death of Ivan Ilyich
The Death of Ivan Ilyich
by Leo Tolstoy
THE LITERARY WORK
A novella set in St. Petersburg and in the provinces of Russia from the 1850s to 1882; published in Russian (as Smert Ivana Ilycha) in 1886, in English in 1887.
A magistrate in Russia’s legal bureaucracy, Ivan Ilyich preoccupied himself with promotions, prestige, and the quest for ever higher standards of living. These preoccupations, however, dissolve after a minor accident in his home leads to a mysterious illness that slowly takes his life.
Leo Tolstoy had reason enough to lead a happy life. Born into an aristocratic and wealthy family in 1828, his material needs were easily met. His greatest novels, War and Peace and Anna Karenina (also in Literature and Its Times) brought him the adulation of his contemporaries and enduring fame as one of the world’s greatest writers. Yet, despite his successes he suffered great emotional torment. He longed for the mother who died in his infancy, and he lost his father and other important family members during his childhood. The fear of his own death haunted him, sometimes propelling him toward religious orthodoxy, at other times creating nearly psychotic levels of anxiety. The subject of death surfaces frequently in his writings, but is treated most fully and with the greatest emotional depth in The Death of Ivan Ilyich.
Bureaucracy in nineteenth-century Russia
Throughout the nineteenth century, czars and ministers attempted repeatedly to reorganize Russia’s burgeoning administration to keep pace with changes confronting the nation. They needed an administrative system that, among other things, would support imperial expansion, guide the emancipation of serfs, regularize the government of the provinces, and modernize the nation’s laws and their enforcement. While Russia obtained a measure of success with each of these objectives, the bureaucracy remained inefficient. Corruption was common place. Payment for empty, upper-level jobs that demanded little work was expected. Many departments and offices were redundant, while some appeared to have no use at all. Yet despite its inefficiencies and continued attempts at reform, the system remained largely intact until the Russian Revolution.
The difficulty in reforming the Russian bureaucracy was related to its design in the previous century, when Peter the Great (1682-1725) revised the government to imitate administrative bodies in Western Europe. Following the Swedish model of government, he instituted “colleges,” or ministries, for branches such as finance, justice, commerce, and foreign affairs. Rather than having a single chief minister, each ministry was governed by a board of 12 individuals. The colleges were responsible to the Senate, which did not have independent deliberative power but served as a council to do the bidding of the czar, who was the undisputed center of political control. Over this whole apparatus Peter the Great devised the office of the procurator-general—a particularly Russian position, which was given wide powers of surveillance to make sure that the Senate and other ministries were enacting the czar’s will. Another important practice modeled on those of Western Europe was the structure for placement and promotion within the ministries. In 1722 Peter developed the Table of Ranks, which consisted of 14 grades and indicated one’s rank in the civil service, the military, and at court (one could hold different ranks in each area of service). Somewhat democratic, the system required that gentry and nongentry alike all begin at the bottom rank, and that the nongentry, upon attaining the eighth grade of service, receive the hereditary rights of the nobility. Although this system of ranking and promotion was revised slightly over the years, it remained intact until 1917.
Neither the administrative system of colleges nor the Table of Ranks provided the machinelike precision that its founders had sought. In theory, the college structure, with its 12-person leadership, would ensure that collective wisdom prevailed in policy decisions. In practice, it led to frequent stalemates and a lack of personal responsibility. Early in the nineteenth century, Czar Alexander I replaced the colleges with ministries headed up by one minister, though some structures of the college system lingered on. In general, the leadership structure and the number of ministries changed, or rather continued to change throughout the nineteenth century, while the rank and file in the civil service experienced little reform, living and dying by a system of rankings that promoted abuse, bitterness, and stagnation. The nobility monopolized the upper-level positions. The many nobles already occupying the higher ranks tended to select other nobles for promotions. Some nobles even jumped ahead several ranks because they had been registered for civil service at birth, and they received regular promotions when they were still children. Practices such as these created resentment, especially among those in the lower ranks who did the bulk of the work, and, as a revenge tactic, learned to do it as inefficiently as possible.
Throughout the nineteenth century, corruption, an emphasis on surveillance, and over-centralization plagued government administration. Especially in the provinces, away from Moscow and St. Petersburg, citizens suffered bribery and extortion at the hands of government officials who ostensibly were being paid to serve them. Each czar instituted increasingly powerful agencies of surveillance that not only tried to suppress political and religious dissent, but also kept an eye on other policing agencies. The climate of paranoia and officiousness gave the people the urge to document everything, which increased the load of paperwork to be scrutinized and acted upon. Such a climate also made them less inclined to take responsibility for their decisions, which led to an increasingly centralized bureaucracy, involving the highest levels of the ministry and even the czar himself in the trivial details of government. Rather than collapse under its own weight, however, it took a revolution to undo the system. As Vladimir Lenin predicted, the proletariat would “break up the bureaucratic apparatus … shatter it to its very foundations, until not one stone is left upon another” (Lenin in M. N. Pokrovskri, p. 68).
Reforms in the ministry of justice
Despite the systematic intransigence of Russia’s bureaucracy, the 1860s witnessed the “Great Reforms,” which included the emancipation of the serfs, the establishment of elected assemblies at the provincial and county levels (called zemstvos), and changes in the military. But perhaps the most striking of all the reforms was the thorough revision of the nation’s legal system. In a few short years, Russia’s judiciary system was transformed from one of the worst in Europe to, arguably, one of the finest.
Indeed, in the first half of the nineteenth century, the word “system” hardly applied to the chaotic assemblage of courts and procedures in charge of enforcing the equally chaotic law of the land. Throughout the nation, there was little consistency in the powers and jurisdictions of the various courts, and the procedures for trials in one court might not apply in another. Appeals could delay a case for years, and the slowness of the procedure often ruined the fortunes of the litigants before their affairs were settled. Juries were nonexistent. The fate of the litigants rested in the hands of judges who were often appointed because of their political connections, not for their knowledge of law. Ignorant and prone to corruption, many judges succumbed to political influence, since they could easily be replaced if their decisions were unpopular with the officials on whom the courts depended.
In the decades before the 1860s, there was much talk of legal reform but very little action. In 1833, Count Michael Speransky provided a much needed codification of Russian law, but the legal system itself remained unaffected. By 1862, S. I. Zarudny and K. N. Zamiatnin had formulated a set of “Basic Principles” for a restructured judiciary, and these principles met with the approval of learned jurists, university authorities, and Czar Alexander II as well as his Council of State. Statutes were formulated in accordance with these principles, and in 1864, they were enacted first in Moscow and St. Petersburg, and then throughout the country.
These judicial reforms of 1864 gave Russia legal system modeled on those found in Western Europe, particularly in France. It created a permanent judgeship and a judiciary independent of other ministries. Procedural matters became regularized, juries were instituted, and equality of all citizens before the law was some-what accepted. Consistency and order began to characterize the system of courts as well. In the provinces, justices of the peace heard cases that involved reprimands, fines under 300 rubles, or jail sentences from three months to a year. More significant cases would be handled by regional courts headed by judges who were appointed by the czar at the recommendation of the judicial ministry, which ensured a more learned and competent judgeship. The appeal process was also improved by the establishment of separate courts for civil and criminal actions while the Senate, acting as the Supreme Court, remained the final appellate body. Finally the statutes established an official bar for lawyers, which brought standards of education and discipline to professional litigants.
FRUSTRATIONS WITH BUREAUCRACY
In his memoirs, Baron Korf recounts the dismay felt by an official who temporarily headed up the secretariat of Czar Nicholas I:
In the midst of matters of first-rate importance, on which the sovereign’s attention should be concentrated, they loaded him with an innumerable multitude of trivial affairs, and yet how simple and convenient it would have been to lighten the emperor’s labours at least by half, without doing any harm to the business of government.
(Korf in Seton-Watson, p. 210)
Despite these sweeping changes, some limitations remained. Military and ecclesiastical courts still had a great deal of power in that they decided a wide range of issues, from criminal cases to divorce proceedings. Moreover, the notion of equality before the law did not take root thoroughly. Czars, ministers, reactionaries, and revolutionaries regarded themselves as above the law when it suited their political aims. At the other end of the spectrum came groups deemed “beneath” the law, that is, not deserving of its benefits. By the 1880s, some of the legal reforms had been rolled back, particularly those dealing with emancipated serfs, and curbs had been put on the privilege to exile “undesirables.” Nevertheless, the changes enacted in 1864 acquired great political importance, making the courts a center of public interest where participants enjoyed greater freedom of expression than anywhere else in Russian society. Of all the Great Reforms, the ones overhauling the judicial system were widely considered the most successful.
While at recess during a trial, four members of the law courts in St. Petersburg are discussing another, more famous case. One of the four glances through a recently delivered news-paper and announces that their colleague, Ivan Ilyich Golovin, has died. The news causes them to express sadness outwardly; inwardly they consider how his death might lead to promotions or new positions for themselves. One of the four, Pyotr Ivanovich, had studied law with Ivan IIlyich and was his oldest friend. Yet even he seems inconvenienced by the death, irritated that he must now pay his last respects rather than go to dinner and play cards with his friends.
While paying his respects, he meets Ivan Ilyich’s wife, who wants to have a word with him in private. Clearly uncomfortable, Pyotr Ivanovich makes a few sympathetic remarks, which interests the wife much less than how she might receive a larger pension from the government than it had already offered upon her husband’s death. When it becomes clear that she knows more about these affairs than Pyotr Ivanovich, they politely yet awkwardly end the interview. During the memorial service that follows their discussion, Pyotr Ivanovich recognizes other members of the Golovin household: the daughter, who appears to resent the inconvenience of these proceedings; her fiancée, who looks equally annoyed; and the son, whose red-rimmed eyes reveal his grief. Upon leaving the household, Pyotr Ivanovich again struggles to find a socially acceptable remark to make about Ivan Ilych’s death to the peasant boy Gerasim, who cared for Ivan Ilyich during his final weeks. While helping Pyotr Ivanovich into his carriage, Gerasim serenely replies that Ivan Ilyich’s death is God’s will and that we all have to die sometime. Pyoty Ivanovich proceeds to focus on the moment. Having escaped the atmosphere of death and realizing the evening is still young, he joins his friends for a game of cards.
Now that it has shown us a wide range of social reactions to the death of Ivan Ilyich, the novella turns to the man himself, revealing how he lived and the terror with which he confronted his own mortality. He was the son of a bureaucrat who had received a sinecure (paid position that demanded little work) in one of the many useless ministries in the Russian government. Like his father, Ivan Ilyich became a civil servant. He attended law school, established a reputation for being likeable and good-natured, and followed the trends and manners of those with high social standing. He graduated from law school with a degree that allowed him a position in the tenth rank of the civil service, and his father gave him money for his uniform and found him a position in an unnamed province (as an assistant to the governor). In his work he cultivated an efficient and at times severe manner, but in society he was pleasant and affable, ever seeking what was most fashionable and most proper, always taking his cues from the upper ranks of society. In both his work and his social life, Ivan Ilyich steered a firm course, guided by self-interested pleasure on the one side and social propriety on the other.
Thus lived Ivan Ilyich for about five years, after which he was promoted during the sweeping reforms of the justice system in 1864. He had a reputation for being the sort of “new man” the government needed to foster order and reason in the reformed court system, so he was assigned to a judicial post in a new province. As before, he pursued efficiency, a good reputation, and, most of all, the feeling of power that his work gave him. He prided himself on being above corruption and on reducing his cases to their absolute essentials, leaving no trace of his personal judgments or sympathies in them. He acclimated just as quickly to a new social circle, where he met Praskovya Fyodorovna. She fell in love with him, and though he had not intended to marry, he proposed nevertheless. After all, Praskovya Fyodorovna was attractive, came from a good family, and had a little money—a good match, Ivan thought, if not the dazzling one he would have hoped for had marriage been his intention.
Ivan Ilyich planned to conduct his marriage by the same values of pleasure and propriety that had served him so well to this point. But he soon learned that his marriage, however proper, was not going to be pleasant. He was dismayed by his wife’s unfounded jealousies and demands, her criticisms and her outbursts, all of which grew worse with the birth of each child. Alienated from his wife and children, he took refuge in his work; from his home life he sought only the expected conveniences of good food, a well-managed dwelling, and sexual pleasure.
Three years after his marriage, he was promoted to assistant public prosecutor, and later was promoted again to public prosecutor for a new province. Despite his higher salary, his household was always short of money. His wife despised the new town, and the raising of their children was a constant source of conflict. He endured these unpleasantries for many years, during which he became increasingly obsessed with promotions and salaries and refused many positions offered to him in hopes of a more prestigious post. In 1880 he hoped to receive a position as the presiding judge in a university town, but was passed over in favor of a close associate. Incensed, Ivan Ilyich argued with this associate and with superiors, creating a great deal of resentment toward himself. Seeing that any further promotion might be denied him, he began looking for any position that would provide a salary of 5,000 rubles.
He met with surprisingly quick success. On a job-prospecting visit to St. Petersburg, he landed a position in the Ministry of Justice that put him two ranks above his colleagues in the provinces, provided a 5,000-ruble salary, and an additional 3,000 rubles for relocating. Triumphant, Ivan Ilyich related the news to his overjoyed family, and he began to hope that he might yet obtain the pleasant and proper life that he believed was owed him. He rented an apartment and undertook all the arrangements for furnishing and decorating their new home. One day, while showing an upholsterer exactly how he wanted some draperies hung, he slipped off a stepladder. He avoided serious injury, but received a bruise on his side. The pain quickly receded, however, and Ivan Ilyich did not give the incident another thought, other than to joke about it with his family. For a time, his happiness was greater than it had ever been. His home was impeccable, his family circulated in the best social circles, and his work life was easy and orderly.
Ivan Ilyich’s injury, however, turned out to be no joke. He began to notice a strange taste in his mouth and felt a pressure in his side that, while not painful, caused discomfort. Gradually discomfort grew into a dull, constant ache, and he became irritable and distracted. His perplexed wife persuaded him to visit a famous physician, and the visit went as he had expected. The doctor was as brisk and indifferent in the examining room as Ivan Ilyich was in the courtroom, yet for all the confidence he exuded, he could not identify Ivan Ilyich’s illness. When the magistrate asked if his condition was serious, the doctor regarded the question as irrelevant and whisked the frightened magistrate out of his office.
His condition worsened. Ivan Ilyich’s breath became decidedly foul. His appetite failed him, and he was losing strength. He sought the opinion of another celebrated physician, who provided no more clarity or hope than the first. More doctors followed, but to no avail. Ivan Ilyich came to understand that his illness was fatal, that a life of pleasure and propriety—the only thing that mattered to him—was coming to an end. The prospect of his death became a constant terror, and he experienced an absolute break between himself and the living. He felt no connection even with his family, who could not accept his imminent death. In fact, Ivan Ilyich developed contempt for the living because they were happily unaware of their own mortality. Only Gerasim, one of the peasant servants in the household, became a source of consolation. The boy changed Ivan Ilyich’s bedding, administered medicines, and patiently allowed the invalid to put his legs on the boy’s shoulders to relieve the pain. Of all who spoke with Ivan Ilyich, only Gerasim saw no shame in dying, and no need to ignore the fact of death.
In his final days, Ivan Ilyich experienced an emotional and spiritual suffering that rivaled his physical pain, but he also achieved awareness of salvation. As his illness progressed he recognized that his life, guided by propriety and pleasure, was not really life at all, but delusion. The agony of these perceptions climaxed one evening when his wife persuaded him to take communion. Afterwards, when she asked if he felt better, he first said “yes,” but later, realizing that the answer was untrue, screamed “no” and continued screaming for three straight days. On the third day, how ever, his son reached out to hold his hand, and this gesture helped Ivan Ilyich realize that he could still have a true life by doing something for others, even if all he had left to do was to die. At this realization, a light penetrated his spiritual darkness. Beyond speech, he tried to ask his family to forgive him, and though he failed to communicate with them, he realized God had heard him. And with that realization, he died.
Changes in the Russian family
In the final moments of his life, Ivan Ilyich feels a new kind of grief—not for himself this time, but for his wife and his son who watch him die. Seeing their tears, he realizes that by hanging on to life he causes them great pain, and that his dying would free them to seek a better life. This last-minute empathy for his own family is not separate from the spiritual breakthrough that gives him the courage to let go of life, but rather lies at the very core of his transformation. In doing something for his family—even dying—he overturns his deepseated convictions that the family centers on him, existing for his convenience and requiring his presence for its sustenance. These convictions were far from unique to Ivan Ilyich, but belonged to a whole set of assumptions and practices about the family that were undergoing gradual change throughout the nineteenth century. The traditional Russian family included a married couple, their children, and unmarried adult relatives, and often more than one married couple lived in a household. The typical family was father-centered—or, more exactly, it was patriarchal, hierarchical, and authoritarian, with the oldest father holding sway over the other men. The men ranked higher than the women in a household, and both ranked higher than the children. Throughout most of the nineteenth century, Russian law supported this family arrangement, vesting all legal powers in the male head of the family, providing virtually no legal standing to women, and promoting strict obedience from children through bodily punishment. While a family strove for the collective good of the whole, it was the father who dictated how the family would work toward that good. Increasing modernization and urbanization, however, reshaped both the size of the traditional family, and the relationships within it. The demands of urban labor and work in the civil service promoted what we recognize today as the modern nuclear family—a married couple, their children, and occasionally an unmarried relative. Compared to the traditional family, which has its roots in the largely agrarian Russian society, these more modern families could better respond to transfers in work assignments or other sudden shifts in the job market. These smaller, more mobile families retained many of the patriarchal and authoritarian assumptions of the traditional family, but the roles became less rigidly distinct. Gradually the authority of the father weakened throughout the nineteenth century. Wives became more active in managing the business affairs of the household and enjoyed more protection from the law after wife beating became a criminal offense in 1845. Children could still be disciplined physically, but in general the relationship between father and offspring was dominated less by strict obedience and more by affection. In The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy provides his thoroughly modern man with a thoroughly modern family, one that, with the exception of servants, differs little from the nuclear family that has become the norm in developed countries throughout the world. Ivan Ilyich and his wife, Praskovya Fyodorovna, have two children, a daughter and a son, and they live a somewhat rootless existence, following Ivan Ilyich on his various governmental appointments. Their contact with an extended family is minimal. To cut down on expenses one summer, the wife and children stay with Ivan Ilyich’s brother-in-law and sister-in-law, who receive them tepidly and are glad to see them go. Within the family itself, Ivan Ilyich’s experience as a father and a husband reflects the decreased stature of these roles. His wife is openly critical of him and constantly questions their finances. The daughter also has a lot of freedom. She seems to visit her fiancé with minimal supervision, and she is clearly eager to cast off her affiliation with her parents and brother. The son remains very undeveloped as a character, but it is clear that his relationship to his father is shaped more by affection than obedience. In general, the family of Ivan Ilyich reflects a modern ideal that Tolstoy acknowledges, but, being deeply traditional in this regard, does not endorse. He himself idealized the older model, still evident in the lifestyles of Russia’s rural peasants; Tolstoy strove to model his own family after theirs.
As with many of his other fictional works, Tolstoy synthesized a wide range of events, personal experiences, and convictions into The Death of Ivan Ilyich. The premise of the novella came from the death in 1881 of Ivan Ilich Mechnikov, who was a judge in the court at Tula, a provincial town near Tolstoy’s estate. Tolstoy had learned of the death from Mechnikov’s brother, and from this news Tolstoy developed the idea for a story called The Death of a Judge. Tolstoy’s first idea was to tell the story through the judge’s diary, which, using the first person, would reveal the man’s struggles with his own mortality. Ultimately, however, Tolstoy chose to write the narrative in the third person, giving more scope to the social reactions to his character’s impending death and providing a wider view of his conventional, materialistic life. Tolstoy may have had a separate interest in Mechnikov’s occupation, as his original title for the story suggests. Here was a judge who had to render judgment on himself and stand before the highest judge of all. Considering Tolstoy’s life, his own activities support his having such an interest. The year Mechnikov died, Tolstoy frequently visited prisoners in the jail at Tula, sometimes accompanying them to the train platform as they were deported to Siberia. In his diary, he marvels at the arbitrariness of the deportations, finding that although some deportees were indeed corrupt, others received the same fate for trivial offenses or no offenses at all.
While the occasion for the story came from the death of a provincial judge, Tolstoy drew amply from his own life to give Ivan Ilyich the contours of his character, particularly in the face of death. Many years before the composition of The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy had had a terrifying encounter with his own mortality that surfaced recurrently the rest of his days. On the evening of September 3, 1869, Tolstoy was far from home on a business venture when he suddenly became unsettled, losing any sense of purpose in his trip. He and the servant boy with whom he traveled stopped for the night in the village of Arzamas. Tolstoy’s anxiety grew, and he became unsettled by the very room in which he was to stay—its dimensions, its white walls, its dark red furniture. When he later awoke in the dark, not knowing where he was or what he was doing there, he became entirely gripped by the fear of death. He felt not only its inevitability but also its presence in every moment of life. The terror of this night stayed with Tolstoy the rest of his days. Five years before beginning The Death of Ivan Ilyich, Tolstoy tried to shape the terror of Arzamas into a story. He never finished the tale, but the terror of death, along with the devastating awareness of wasted life, endured in Tolstoy’s mind until it became the thematic core of his successful novella.
Other incidental details also appear to derive from Tolstoy’s life. The perpetual enmity between Ivan Ilyich and his wife parallels the struggle between Leo and Sonya Tolstoy, particularly in the years leading up to The Death of Ivan Ilyich. During this time, Tolstoy’s interest in philosophy and his vocal criticisms of Russian Orthodoxy alienated him from his own family, which, to him, seemed concerned only with material wealth and pleasure. Conversely Tolstoy’s abandonment of a literary career and his desire to live alongside the peasants dismayed his wife, who was left alone to manage the estate and to raise the children. Their differences caused frequent and perhaps even violent arguments. Lastly, the circumstances surrounding Ivan Ilyich’s injury are drawn loosely from the author’s own experiences. His wife yearned for city life, and his older children needed to pursue advanced education in the city as well, so, in one of his few capitulations to his family, he helped them move to Moscow in 1881. The following year, Tolstoy put himself in charge of buying a house in the city and became absorbed in all the details of renovation—the wallpaper, the carpentry, and the furnishings. Here too we see Tolstoy using the details of his own life to decorate the world of his hapless judge.
Tolstoy’s novella was an immediate success. It was the first piece of substantial fiction that Tolstoy had published since the dazzling triumph of Anna Karenina ten years earlier, and it has come to be regarded as one of the finest novellas of all time. What it lacks in the expansive scope of Tolstoy’s novels, it gains in intense focus and compression. After reading the novella, the Russian composer Peter Ilich Tchaikovsky remarked in his diary that “more than ever, I am convinced that the greatest author-painter who ever lived is Leo Tolstoy” (Tchaikovsky in Troyat, p. 462). In a similar vein, the Russian critic Vladimir Stasov wrote to Tolstoy, claiming “no nation anywhere in the world has a work as great as this. Everything is little and petty in comparison with these seventy pages” (Stasov in Troyat, p. 462). The world at large was inclined to agree. The French writer Romain Rolland, one of Tolstoy’s first biographers, said the novella had a remarkable impact even among the normally staid, unshakable French bourgeoisie. Of those who responded less than favorably, perhaps the most noteworthy was the brother of the judge upon whom Tolstoy based his story. Although he did not like careerists like his brother, the other Mechnikov claimed that the judge’s enlightenment was far greater than even a master like Tolstoy could render it.
Most of the literary world, however, has been satisfied with Tolstoy’s achievement. The premise of Tolstoy’s novella, along with the delicate treatment he afforded its main character, has influenced the works of subsequent authors, from Arthur Miller’s Death of a Salesman (also in Literature and Its Times) to Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward. In these and many other works, authors owe a debt to Tolstoy’s rendering of the death of an average man, one who makes no great stir in the world, but whose suffering and salvation reveal his humanity and his dignity.
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