The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Leo Tolstoy
Tools of Characterization
Thoughts and Opinions
After learning of Ivan's death, the first thing his three friends and colleagues think of is their own promotions. What kind of impression does it make on us when? How can we take seriously anything Peter Ivanovich does at the funeral when we know that all he's thinking about is doing what one should do in this circumstance, and getting to that bridge game?
The narrator of Ivan Ilych gives us an intimate view into the characters' heads. Even if we barely know a character – as we barely know Ivan's three friends at the beginning of the story, when we hear their thoughts after Ivan's death – we get all the information we need.
In a story so concerned with the falsity of people and a whole way of life, the contrast between what a character is thinking and what he/she does or says can be used to devastating effect. Tolstoy does just that, in the first chapter. Most of the time the characters' thoughts reveal how petty they are. But in the case of the story's main character, Ivan Ilych, Tolstoy uses thoughts to illustrate Ivan's larger transformation. We see him change from a pleasure-seeking fellow who thinks exclusively about how he can please himself and move up the career ladder to the frightened, lonely, and hateful man who can think of nothing but death. The miraculous redemption at the end takes place almost entirely in his head.
The majority of Ivan's negative characteristics come across in how he treats his family. Earlier in life he's unwilling to show any sympathy or pity for his wife, and simply retreats from the family whenever she causes him discomfort. Eventually his wife comes to think that he's the cause of everything bad in her life. It's no surprise, then, that when he hits a tough spot of his own, his wife and daughter don't give him much in the way of support. Even in the midst of his family, Ivan comes to be a profoundly lonely man.
Of course, that doesn't reflect too well on the other family members, particularly in the case of Praskovya Fedorovna. She refuses to take her ailing husband seriously, and seems to willfully ignore the fact that he is dying. Even though he's dying, it bothers Lisa to have to deal with her father at all, since he's so difficult. The family life of the Golovins basically serves as a theater for each one of them (excepting Vasya) to display their own selfishness. That they stick together and go through the motions of being a family reveals how much stock they put in keeping up appearances.
The narrator introduces Praskovya Fedorovna as "a short, fat woman who despite all efforts to the contrary had continued to broaden steadily from her shoulders downwards and who had the same extraordinarily arched eyebrows as the lady who had been standing by the coffin" (1.28). Tolstoy's description of her makes it hard to take her seriously after that, isn't it. Then there's "playful, well-groomed, and elegant" Schwartz (1.28), whose winking, laughing eyes seem so out of place at a funeral and show that his mind is quite elsewhere. And then there is Vasya, who has "the look that is seen in the eyes of boys of thirteen or fourteen who are not pure-minded" (1.48), but whose teary face at last suggests that perhaps he really did care about his father.
There are no particularly big actions in this book, but the little actions tells us a lot. Two of Ivan's friends – including Fedor Vasilievich, one of his two closest acquaintances – don't even make it to his funeral, though they do make it to the bridge game afterwards. Praskovya Fedorovna cries a whole lot and then proceeds to go straight to talking about how she can get more money out of the government (and reveals that she's thought a whole lot about this). Gerasim, on the other hand, keeps Ivan company whenever he asks and is willing to sit and support Ivan's legs on his shoulder for hours on end.
Ivan's habits before his illness sets in paint him as a stereotypical member of his social class. He gets up at 9am every day, reads the paper over coffee, and goes to work. He likes to hang out with his friends, play bridge, and finds his greatest happiness in getting "grand slams." He throws parties to which he invites only proper people. He's sociable, but superficial. As for his family, he tries to avoid spending any more time with them than he has too. And besides bridge, what's his favorite thing to do, and the only thing that can dependably bring him and his wife together? Home decorating!
Speaking of home decorating, Ivan and Praskovya's home is itself a pretty good sign of who they are. It's a middle-class home. It's meticulously decorated – reflecting all the care they've put into selecting each piece of furniture. It's designed to impress other people. And it's, well, just like everybody else's house. For more on why Tolstoy takes issue with the Russian middle class, take a look at "Setting."
Ivan and most of his friends are officials in the justice department. They're respectable, fairly well paid, and educated. Tolstoy characterizes them as ambitious, overly concerned with formalities, and not terribly independent-minded. And one other thing: Tolstoy goes to great pains to show that these people are thoroughly average. It's also telling that Ivan likes his job mostly because of the sense of power that it gives him, and that (in spite of what he thinks) his real power isn't all that impressive. Then, of course, the many doctor characters are essentially defined by their profession.
Ivan himself is a member of the middle class, even quintessentially so. As such, they're all characterized by what Tolstoy sees as the standards of their class: over attention to manners and appearance, lack of real morality, artificiality, greed, selfishness, pettiness, and ordinariness. Ivan and the rest are vehicles for Tolstoy to satirize the middle class. The one indisputably good character of the story, on the other hand, is the servant Gerasim, who's a peasant. Gerasim isn't selfish, and he has a simple and honest approach to life that Ivan finds incredibly refreshing. He's the only person who doesn't try to disguise the fact that Ivan is dying.