The Death of Ivan Ilych begins at the chronological end of the story. During an interval in an ongoing court case, a group of judges gathers together in a private room. The conversation turns to the Krasovski case, a well-known trial of the 1880s, and a discussion ensues about whether the case is subject to the judges' jurisdiction. The discussion is interrupted when Peter Ivanovich, Ivan's closest acquaintance and a judge who chose to tread the newspaper rather than engage in the discussion, announces that Ivan Ilych has died. The funeral notice, surrounded by a black border, reports with typical formality both the time of death and the time of the funeral. Although Ivan Ilych was a well-liked and agreeable colleague of the men in the room, their first thought upon hearing the news of his death was of "the changes and promotions it might occasion among themselves or their acquaintances." Peter realizes that it might now be a good time to apply for his brother-in-law's transfer from a provincial city. The serious topic of Ivan's death is broached only for a moment, and is quickly replaced by trivialities. Along with thoughts of transfer and promotion, the death of a near acquaintance arouses in the men the "complacent" feeling that "it is he who is dead and not I." And Ivan Ilych's closer acquaintances, his "so-called friends," cannot help but feel burdened by the tedious demands of propriety: attending Ivan's funeral and paying a visit of condolence to the widow.
After telling his wife of Ivan's death and the possibility of getting her brother transferred, Peter Ivanovich sacrifices his usual nap and drives to Ivan's house. He enters and notices a coffin-lid against the wall. At the top of the stairs, Peter sees his colleague Schwartz, who winks at him playfully. Peter understands by Schwartz's mannerisms that he wants to arrange the location of their evening game of bridge. Schwartz makes a silent gesture toward the room where Ivan's body lies, and Peter enters feeling uncertain about how to conduct himself. Knowing that a failsafe response on such occasions is to cross oneself, yet unsure if he should bow while doing so, Peter adopts a middle course. He begins crossing himself repeatedly while making a slight movement resembling a bow. When it seems to him that the repetitive motion has gone on too long, he stops and begins to look at the corpse. The face of the corpse wears a fulfilled expression, "as if what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly." At the same time, however, it wears an expression of disapproval, as if offering a warning to the living. The warning seems especially discomforting and inapplicable to Peter, and he hurriedly leaves the room, regardless of propriety. In the adjoining room Peter runs into Schwartz, and Schwartz's elegant figure and playful personality, somehow above such depressing influences as death, immediately rejuvenate him. Schwartz whispers to Peter that such an incident as a church service should not pose an obstacle to them spending the evening agreeably, i.e., to them playing bridge. But just at that moment, Praskovya Fedorovna (Ivan's widow), emerges from her room, recognizes Peter, and asks to speak to him privately before the church service begins. She leads him to an inner drawing room, elaborately upholstered and full of furniture and knick-knacks. Peter remembers the care with which Ivan arranged this room, and recalls being consulted about the upholstery. As Peter seats himself on a low pouffe with spasmodic springs, Praskovya considers warning him to take another seat, but changes her mind when she realizes that such a warning would be inappropriate in her present condition. On her way toward the sofa, she catches her shawl on a carved table edge. Peter rises to detach it, but the springs of the pouffe, relived of his weight, rise also and push him forward. The widow begins detaching the shawl herself, and Peter sits down once again on the pouffe, "suppressing the rebellious springs." Yet the widow has still not managed to free herself. And Peter, amid the creaks and groans of the pouffe, rises again to help her detach the shawl. After the episode, the widow takes out a "clean cambric" handkerchief and begins to weep.
Ivan's butler enters the room to report to Praskovya the price of Ivan's plot in the cemetery (220 rubles), and Peter overhears her inquiring into the prices of different plots. Having asked Peter to smoke several moments before, and noticing now that his cigarette ash is endangering the table, she passes him an ashtray. Praskovya then turns the conversation to Ivan's death. She mentions that he screamed incessantly for the last three days, an ordeal, she relates, that caused her unbelievable suffering. The thought of Ivan's suffering strikes Peter with horror, "despite an unpleasant consciousness of his own and this woman's dissimulation." The image of Ivan's face with its warning once again rises to Peter's mind, and he begins to feel afraid for himself. Yet the thought that it was Ivan who had died and not him, along with the image of Schwartz's resiliency and resistance to depression, reassures Peter and assuages his fear.
After some more talk of Ivan's suffering, Praskovya gets down to business and begins probing Peter about possible strategies to squeeze the most possible money out of the government on the occasion of her husband's death. Finding Peter unable to devise a plan to obtain more money, she searches for a way to politely dismiss her visitor. Noticing this, Peter leaves the room. Just as he is about to pass into the death-chamber, Peter notices Ivan's son emerging from under the stairs. Peter then enters the death-chamber, sits through the service while managing to resist any depressing influence, and is one of the first to leave the room when the service ends. In the anteroom, Gerasim (the butler's assistant, and Ivan's sick nurse) helps Peter with his coat. When Peter mentions that the death and funeral are a sad affair, Gerasim responds, "It's God's will. We shall all come to it some day." Once outside, Peter feels refreshed by the cool air. He gets in his sledge, drives to meet Schwartz, and arrives at an opportune time to join the card game.
Tolstoy's placement of the chronologically final chapter at the beginning of the work is significant for several reasons. It not only provides an intimate view of the social milieu that Ivan Ilych occupied and left behind, it also established contrasting attitudes toward death and highlights the major themes of the novel. It is clear from the outset that Tolstoy is highly critical of the life and values of the late nineteenth-century Russian bourgeoisie. He satirizes the lack of authenticity, the selfishness, and the hypocrisy of upper class human relationships. When Ivan's colleagues and friends learn of his death, their first thought is of how they can turn Ivan's vacant position to their benefit. Promotion not pity is their first concern. Even Peter, who has known Ivan since childhood and feels "obliged" to him, sees Ivan's death as instrumental to the achievement of his interests. Attending Ivan's funeral and paying a visit of condolence to the widow are seen by Ivan's friends as demands of propriety, and not as opportunities to pay one's last respects and to comfort the grieving. Yet for the members of Ivan's society, even grieving is an inauthentic mask. Conduct is governed by propriety and convention. Individuals act as they should, not as they feel.
The falseness of relations, the insincerity of interaction, and the primacy of self-interest are mercilessly satirized by Tolstoy, and revealed as inadequate and ultimately unfulfilling. Tolstoy's elaborate description of Peter's crossing-bowing routine on entering the death-chamber highlights the falseness of behavior that adheres to standards of propriety and decorum. Praskovya Fedorovna invites Peter into her drawing room not for mutual comfort, but to find out how to maximize her husbands' government pension. Materialism impedes human connection. And the knick-knacks, furniture, and elaborate upholstery that have such a dominant presence in the drawing-room substitute for and provide obstacles to sincere communication. Recall how Praskovya's shawl is snagged by the ornately carved table edge. It is clear the chapter I, in part, serves as an attack on the empty and valueless life of the society of which Ivan was a part.
Another principal function of chapter I is to establish contrasting attitudes toward death or mortality. For the group of judges that gather together in the beginning of the novel, the serious topic of Ivan's death is the subject of discussion for only a matter of moments before it is replaced by the trivial topic of distances between city regions. And the general unwillingness to consider death, to confront one's own mortality, is characteristic of all the members of Ivan's society, from Schwartz to Praskovya to Peter himself. Essentially, Peter's attitude toward death can be seen as fluctuating between the solemn and concerned (as expressed and evoked by Ivan's countenance) and the playful and relieved (as expressed and evoked by Schwartz's countenance).
Several times in the chapter Peter finds himself in a position to confront the prospect of death, and thus, the meaning of life. When Peter first looks at the corpse and notices the fulfilled yet admonishing expression on Ivan's face, when Peter talks with Praskovya about Ivan's suffering, and when Gerasim mentions the inevitability of death, Peter is presented with the opportunity to comprehend the significance of Ivan's death, to step outside of the socially accepted perspective. Yet each time Peter is about to cross over, to consider what is truly important, either the playful attitude of Schwartz, or the socially conditioned response that, "it is he who died and not me," brings him back. Thus, characteristic of Ivan's society is the habit of adopting an attitude toward life that disregards the unpleasantness of life. The members of Ivan's society cannot comprehend their own death, and thus, they can have no understanding of the meaning of life.