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The Death of Ivan Ilych

Leo Tolstoy

Chapter III

Chapter II

Chapter IV

Summary

The year is 1880. Seventeen years have passed since the end of the previous chapter. Ivan is now a Public Prosecutor of long standing, able to decline proposed transfers until a desirable position comes along. Expecting to be awarded the post of presiding judge in a University town, however, Ivan's pleasant life is interrupted when he is passed over for the promotion. Ivan becomes angry. He quarrels with Happe (the man awarded the post) and his immediate superiors, but Ivan's behavior only further distances him from his superiors. Realizing that his salary is not enough to cover his family's living expenses and burdened by the injustice done him, Ivan obtains a leave of absence. He moves with his family to a country house owned by his wife's brother.

Dissatisfied with and depressed by his lifestyle, Ivan decides to travel to St. Petersburg to find a higher paying position and to punish those that failed to appreciate him. On his way to St. Petersburg, Ivan learns of a sudden change in the administration of the Ministry of Justice. A close friend of Ivan's has come into a position of great authority, and Ivan is now assured of receiving an appointment. Ivan is awarded a higher paying position in his former Department of Justice, and he now finds himself two stages above his old colleagues. Thrilled by his promotion and with no hard feelings toward his former enemies, Ivan returns to the country to share the news with Praskovya. Ivan is pleased to see his life resume its agreeable course, and relations between him and his wife improve. Soon after, Ivan departs on his own to take up his official duties and to make the necessary living arrangements before his family follows. He finds a "delightful" house in St. Petersburg and absorbs himself, even at the expense of his official work, with giving it a particular aristocratic character. As Ivan acquires the characteristic furnishings, he begins to note that the house is approaching the ideal he had set for himself.

One day as he is mounting a stepladder to hang some drapes, he makes a false step and slips, banging his side against the window frame. The bruised place is painful but soon passes, and Ivan feels fifteen years younger. Although Ivan is charmed by the final appearance of his house, "in reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like them." Ivan's family comes to live in the house, and things go particularly well. Occasionally Ivan becomes irritated when he finds a spot on the tablecloth or a broken window-blind string.

In Ivan's official business he admits only "official relations with people, and then only on official grounds." He also possesses the ability to separate his real life from his official life and not to mix the two. He and Praskovya take pleasure in holding occasional dinners from men and women of good social position. But Ivan's greatest pleasure is playing bridge. Whatever disagreeable event occurs in his life, Ivan can always sit down to bridge, to "the pleasure that beamed like a ray of light." A promising young man is courting Ivan's daughter, and life is flowing pleasantly.

Analysis

Just as Ivan retreated from the unpleasantness introduced by Praskovya's pregnancy, so too, when Ivan is passed over for promotion and finds that official complaints make the matter worse, he chooses to abandon his official post to seek another. The great sense of injustice that Ivan feels over the situation reveals his expectation that life, or official life at the least, should follow clear, simple, and proper conventions. And it would seem that this incursion of unpleasantness into Ivan's official refuge would signal to him that reality, or real life, was of a different nature than the semblance of propriety, predictability, and decorum that Ivan has created for himself. Yet Ivan is able to overlook this incongruity and to maintain his worldview when his friend's unexpected promotion lands him a new, higher paying position. Ivan disregards the fact that the pleasant course of his life is resumed purely by chance, and he maintains the illusion that his life is predictable and solid, capable of being shaped wholly by his own power.

When Ivan's new home furnishings begin to give his house an aristocratic, refined and elegant appearance, Tolstoy's phrase that "everything progressed and approached the ideal he had set himself," is reminiscent of the image of the fly approaching the bright light, noted in Chapter II. A peculiar bourgeois materialism manifests itself in Ivan's obsession with decorating his house. He envisions its splendor and admires its appropriateness before falling asleep. He deliberates about the shape of his cornices while in court sessions. It is clear that by bringing his home, a true status symbol, into line with the expectations and standards of the members of high society, Ivan is truly becoming a part of that society. He is reaching the highest rungs of the social ladder.

Given his rise in social status, Ivan's fall from the stepladder, therefore, is especially symbolic. Considering the fact that Ivan's fall is the apparent physical cause of the illness that leads to his death, Tolstoy seems to be hinting that Ivan's conformity to the views of high society will have dire consequences. The fact that Ivan was hanging drapes when he fell from the ladder adds another layer of significance to the event. Given that drapes function to enclose and shut out, Ivan's fall while attempting to hang them may point toward the potentially fatal effects of voluntary self-isolation from the world.

A close look at Ivan's different roles in society reveals that in each of Ivan's roles, he reduces life to an orderly and predictable, yet formal and impersonal, simulation of reality. In his official life as a judge he conducts formal relations with people, excluding everything "fresh and vital." In his social life as father and family man he maintains critical distance by means of formal contacts with guests of the "best society." And in his bridge-playing life as one of four "not noisy partners," he revels in the serious, clever, and congruent nature of the well-played game. Ivan ignores all of the messy and "unseemly" aspects of life. We begin to wonder where Ivan really lives, or if he truly lives at all.

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tread?

by ndizzles, February 18, 2014

"a judge who chose to tread the newspaper rather than engage in the discussion," you said tread instead of too read

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