As narrated in this novella, the life of Ivan falls into two eras—life before his accident, and life after that accident. Chapters 2-4 tell the story of life before the accident (with chapter 4 serving as a transition as it records the onset of Ivan's illness, while stopping short of identifying the illness as terminal). The keynote of Ivan's life before his accident is summarized in the first sentence of chapter 2: "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." It is terrible in its superficiality.
Ivan's childhood and early professional life are spent in social conformity. His marriage, too, is "thoroughly correct," "easy and decorous." When his wife becomes irritable and family life demanding, Ivan retreats into his professional life. He unexpectedly gets a promotion, and he "was completely happy." Then Ivan becomes preoccupied with decorating his house, which represents a further stage of dehumanizing in his life. One day while decorating his house Ivan bruises himself when he missteps on a ladder. This becomes the turning point of his life, as it leads to an undiagnosed illness and then to deteriorating health. Chapter 4 tells of the growing pain in Ivan's side, of futile visits to doctors, of the gradual isolation of Ivan in his private world of illness.
Life of Conformity
Chapters 2-4 trace a sequence of phases through which Ivan's life passes, so we should follow the contour that the story lays down. The keynote for all three chapters is sounded at the outset, with its equation of Ivan's "ordinary" life and the fact that it is "therefore most terrible." Exactly what makes Ivan's life terrible? The verdict is voiced by the narrator, and if we follow the cues laid down in the text itself, we will see the ways in which Ivan's life is terrible—not externally, but morally and spiritually.
Externally, Ivan's life is not terrible, and we can profitably begin by tracing the things that make his external life successful, as narrated in the first half of chapter 2. It is a life in which conformity triumphs. Already as a schoolboy Ivan fit in completely. Upon graduating from law school, Ivan receives "an easy and agreeable" position. His life flows "pleasantly and decorously." When he transfers to a new town, he "settled down very pleasantly." He married "a sweet, pretty, and thoroughly correct young woman."
The sheer accumulation of details would itself lead us to protest against the superficiality and banality of such a life, but Tolstoy does not put the entire burden of interpretation on us as readers. He creates a narrator to serve as a tour guide through the story. As the vocabulary of conformity noted in the previous paragraph accumulates, we catch a distinct note of scorn toward what is being portrayed. When the element of conformity is highlighted to this extent, we cannot help but see that it is being mocked.
This relates to the rhetoric of narrative—the techniques of persuasion by which a story gets us to assess characters and events in the manner desired by the storyteller. Selectivity of material is one of these rhetorical strategies. What a storyteller chooses to include influences what we see and how we see it. Tolstoy chose to include details that add up to a life of conformity in which the protagonist does all the "right" things as prescribed by social norms.
For reflection or discussion: Literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves; it is also a window through which we look at life around us. Both of these are profitable premises from which to assimilate the first half of chapter 2. Where do you see your own lifestyle and inner inclinations laid out to view in the account of Ivan's life of conformity? At what points are you reminded of what you see in your society or neighborhood or circle of friends? How does the story bring conviction?
Protecting Life from Unpleasantness
The first phase of Ivan's life, from infancy through early marriage, is a life of ease. Of course this life is a spiritual void—a life without meaning. Additionally, Ivan himself is a moral nonentity, totally self-absorbed. This self-absorption is threatened when Ivan's wife becomes pregnant, and thereupon Ivan enters a new phase. The story is orchestrated in such a way as to lead us to see the strategies by which people manage to escape involvement with human suffering.
The first thing Ivan does is lose himself in his professional work. Correspondingly, his marriage and domestic life become a mere social convenience, not a high value. His work becomes a "separate fenced-off world of official duties, where he found satisfaction." Ivan becomes an organization man.
The second half of chapter 2 is conducted in such a way as to show that Ivan manages to shield himself from human suffering. When he receives a promotion and moves to a new town, the higher cost of living cancels the higher salary, his wife does not like the place, and two of their children die. Ivan simply spends "less and less time with his family." The "whole interest of his life" centers in his job. Everything considered, Ivan manages to sidestep suffering and finds that "life continued to flow as he considered it should do—pleasantly and properly."
Tolstoy has constructed his story in such a way that only dying will bring his protagonist to a state of awareness regarding the true issues of life. Until Ivan reaches that point, a series of intermediary and potential impetuses to awareness enter Ivan's life. In the second half of chapter 2, that impetus is domestic disappointment. But Ivan comes up with a defense mechanism against that disappointment. A key statement is that domestic life became something "in which [his] sympathy was demanded but about which he understood nothing."
For reflection or discussion: We should continue to operate on the premise that literature is a mirror in which we see ourselves and a window through which we see life around us. How is the second half of chapter 2 true to life as you know it?
Another Narrow Escape
In the first half of chapter 3, another form of suffering enters Ivan's life, accompanied by another possible occasion for Ivan to face life's true issues. Ivan's income is inadequate and his marriage unfulfilling. He becomes depressed and takes a leave of absence from work. It appears that he may need to embrace human suffering and learn from it.
But then the unexpected happens. By chance, Ivan lands an improved job. Having escaped suffering yet again, "Ivan Ilych was completely happy." His life and marriage reach a new level of triviality when furnishing the new home becomes the passion of his life. Even his official work "interested him less than he had expected." In short, Ivan has become interested in things rather than people. "Life was growing fuller," the narrator tells us in mockery. Again, "Everything was as it should be." At one point the narrator tells us that Ivan's "chief pleasure was giving little dinners to which he invited men and women of good social position," and a few paragraphs later that his "greatest pleasure was playing bridge."
In either case, we are to understand that Ivan is living life at the level of complete triviality and social convention. Tolstoy is adept at giving us aphoristic sentences that sum up various phases of his story and the broader issues of the story as a whole. Chapter 3 ends with one of these sentences: "So they lived, and all went well, without change, and life flowed pleasantly." As readers we are expected to supply what is omitted from that progress report, namely, that Ivan and his wife are totally superficial people, cut off from essential humanity. Ultimately their physical prosperity makes this type of life possible.
As we end chapter 3, we can profitably sum up what the story has presented up to that point. First, we have observed a life of complete social and moral conformity. Second, we have seen Ivan avoid family involvement and suffering through work. Third, we have viewed a life materialistic triviality, with devotion to physical things and the home prominent on the list of priorities.
For reflection or discussion: This story provides an anatomy of how many (most?) people in the affluent West (and perhaps worldwide) live. What are the keynotes of that lifestyle? In what ways is it your own lifestyle? By God's grace, to what extent have you avoided it?
The story gradually leads us to wonder what will bring Ivan to a state of moral and spiritual awareness. The answer comes in a seemingly trivial event that nonetheless becomes the pivot on which Ivan's whole life turns. In the middle of chapter 3, we read in passing about a bruise that Ivan sustained when he slipped on a ladder while decorating his house. The very triviality is ironically important: just as Ivan's life has revolved around the shallow trivialities of life, so his injury is undistinguished (a slip on step ladder).
To heighten this effect, the ladder incident is tucked into the middle of a chapter devoted to chronicling how Ivan managed to do everything in life "easily, pleasantly, correctly, and even artistically." However, a new note is sounded as we move into chapter 4.
This chapter is mainly devoted to the progress of Ivan's illness. Earlier Ivan had distanced himself from his wife's physical difficulties, and now she turns the tables on him. We read that "the more she pitied herself the more she hated her husband." She demands that Ivan go "to see a celebrated doctor." "He went," and with disappointing results. The doctor treats Ivan as he himself treats people in the law courts—as a professional case. The doctor is preoccupied with figuring out the physical cause of Ivan's pain and ignores Ivan's anguish: "It was not a question of Ivan Ilych's life or death, but one between a floating kidney and appendicitis."
One of the great triumphs of Tolstoy's story now enters aggressively. It is the literary technique known as psychological realism and consists of our entering the character's thought process. An early example occurs in chapter 4 with the account of what goes through Ivan's mind on the journey from the doctor's office to his home. We read that "all the way home he was going over what the doctor had said." He tries to translate the medical terminology into answers to his questions, "Is my condition bad? Is it very bad? Or is there as yet nothing much wrong?"
In addition to this uncertainty and anguish, Ivan finds himself ignored by and isolated from the people around him. His wife impatiently listens to his account of his visit to the doctor, finding the report "tedious." Her advice: "Mind now to take your medicine regularly." As Ivan himself becomes convinced that "something terrible" is taking place inside of him, "those about him did not understand or would not understand it, but thought everything in the world was going on as usual."
As Ivan's physical state deteriorates, his mental anguish increases. So does his isolation from those around him. Again a summary statement at the end of chapter 4 packs the punch: "And he had to live thus all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him."
For reflection or discussion: It is hard to beat this story for its truthfulness to life. For example: when have you or a family member or friend faced Ivan's situation of a physical ailment for which there is no medical help or even diagnosis? How does the suffering of Ivan in regard to that correspond to experiences in your own life? Suffering is what forces Ivan to probe beneath the pleasant surface of life; has this been your experience?
The overall shape of this story resembles Shakespeare's play King Lear so closely that one wonders whether it was in Tolstoy's mind as he composed his novella. Both stories revolve around the tragic theme of wisdom through suffering.
While that is common to all literary tragedies, the following paradigm is not. Both King Lear and The Death of Ivan Ilych first divest the hero of all external privileges that had given meaning to life. With space thus cleared, the second half of both works traces the hero's moral and spiritual progress forced by intense suffering.