The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Leo Tolstoy
Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina
Praskovya Fedorovna is the wife of Ivan Ilych. From Ivan's point of view, she just might be the worst wife ever. She's moody, petty, artificial, and uncaring, and Ivan comes to hate her once her once he falls ill.
Judging from the first impression we get of her – at Ivan's funeral in the first chapter – and the way she treats him throughout the novella, we can't really blame him for disliking her. Her lack of sympathy for her own husband seems astonishing. But we're not convinced that Praskovya Fedorovna is as bad as Ivan seems to think. She has a side to the story, too. But it's not easy to consider her perspective if you think about things only from Ivan's point of view.
The Money-Grubbing Widow
Talk about a bad first impression. When we meet Praskovya Fedorovna in the first chapter, after her husband has already died, we are completely turned off by her. Even her appearance seems off-putting, which Tolstoy describes more carefully than anyone else's in the novella. She's "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).
Everything Praskovya does with Peter Ivanovich seems fake and exaggerated – her sadness, her sighs, her tears, all of it. It's particularly telling that she seems to feel bad for herself when she tells Peter Ivanovich about Ivan's horrible sufferings in his last days. It's almost as if the truly horrible thing isn't how badly Ivan suffered, but how bad the whole thing was for her nerves:
After many details of the really dreadful physical sufferings Ivan Ilych had endured (which details he learnt only from the effect those sufferings had produced on Praskovya Fedorovna's nerves) the widow apparently found it necessary to get to business. (1.45)
And what's the business she wants to get to, after one last little explosion of tears? She seems to be preoccupied with how much money she can get out of the government now that she's a widow. As Peter Ivanovich notices, she's already researched this question thoroughly, which means that she's probably been thinking about it for quite a while. Certainly while Ivan was still alive.
In fact, the narrator tells us that when Ivan first gets ill, Praskovya Fedorovna decides she would want him to die, were it not for that money issue:
She began to wish he would die; yet she did not want him to die because then his salary would cease. And this irritated her against him still more. She considered herself dreadfully unhappy just because not even his death could save her, and though she concealed her exasperation, that hidden exasperation of hers increased his irritation also. (4.2)
Yikes. Is she really as bad as she seems?
The Tragically Neglected Housewife
In Chapter 2, we get a window into Praskovya and Ivan's horrible marital situation. She falls in love with him (for his dancing), he decides she's good enough, they marry, and things are great for a little while. Then, something goes wrong. Supposedly the problem is Praskovya Fedorovna. She gets pregnant, and then:
His wife, without any reason – de gaiete de coeur as Ivan Ilych expressed it to himself – began to disturb the pleasure and propriety of their life. She began to be jealous without any cause, expected him to devote his whole attention to her, found fault with everything, and made coarse and ill-mannered scenes. (2.19)
Praskovya Fedorovna suddenly gets moody, jealous, and demanding. According to Ivan, their marital problems are all her fault. But think about it for a moment. Doesn't it sound like the narrator's being a little ironic here, and telling us how Ivan thinks about the whole thing? (And doesn't it make sense, given the fact that she's pregnant, that she'd have some mood swings.) Ivan, after all, is the kind of person who would be upset by "coarse and ill-mannered scenes" (2.19). We should perhaps be a little bit skeptical. Is it actually for no reason that Praskovya Fedorovna gets jealous, and does she really demand Ivan's whole attention?
Think about it this way: Ivan himself seems to be a self-absorbed husband who won't tolerate anything that interferes with his life's humdrum pleasantness. A moody and demanding wife definitely interferes with is life, so he wants nothing to do with her. He reads her demands for more support as excessive, gets angry with her, and leaves her by herself while he retreats into his work.
Once the child is born, same thing. The recovering Praskovya Fedorovna wants help taking care of the child, and Ivan wants none of it. Again Ivan retreats, leaving his wife on her own, this time with a baby:
With the birth of their child, the attempts to feed it and the various failures in doing so, and with the real and imaginary illnesses of mother and child, in which Ivan Ilych's sympathy was demanded but about which he understood nothing, the need of securing for himself an existence outside his family life became still more imperative. (2.22)
Can we really blame Praskovya Fedorovna for becoming resentful of her husband? What can she do? And this goes on for years and years, over the course of which Praskovya Fedorovna loses several children and receives no sympathy or support from Ivan. No wonder she starts disliking him. Especially considering that as a "proper" middle-class woman, she reveal to anybody how miserable she is.
The Vengefully Neglected Housewife
We sympathize with Praskovya Fedorovna, but still, it's pretty hard to like her. Before Ivan becomes ill, it's already clear that she's just as superficial as he is. Her primary interests are buying things for the house and paying visits to "good" people. In fact, the relentless pursuit of better furniture and better friends is the only thing over which she and her husband can connect. It's what creates a state of truce when they first move to St. Petersburg.
Then, something goes wrong, and this time it's with Ivan. He becomes sick, moody, and demanding. This time around Praskovya Fedorovna treats him no better than he treated her. She doesn't interrupt her shopping or her visits to spend any additional time with her husband, and instead of feeling sorry for him as his pain gets worse, she blames everything on him:
Praskovya Fedorovna's attitude to Ivan Ilych's illness, as she expressed it both to others and to him, was that it was his own fault and was another of the annoyances he caused her. Ivan Ilych felt that this opinion escaped her involuntarily – but that did not make it easier for him. (4.22)
Ivan goes through one treatment after another and his condition worsens. But Praskovya Fedorovna doesn't change her routine or her attitude; exciting things are happening, after all, like Lisa and Fedor Petrovich's courtship. Praskovya also apparently refuses to acknowledge – to Ivan or to herself – that Ivan is actually dying. That makes it easier to treat him as just an annoyance and continue her life as usual.
Does Praskovya Fedorovna Feel Anything For Her Husband?
We have a lot of reason to think that Praskovya Fedorovna's relationship to Ivan is one of spite and hatred. Are there any signs that it isn't? That all depends on how you read Praskovya's "expressions of pity" for her husband – all those kisses or "exceptionally kind looks" she gives him. Take a look at this:
"Where are you going, Jean?" asked his wife with a specially sad and exceptionally kind look.
This exceptionally kind look irritated him. He looked morosely at her. (5.10-11)
This happens right after Praskovya Fedorovna's brother tells her that Ivan is a "dead man," which seems to shock her. Given that she deliberately gives Ivan the exceptionally kind look, it's hard to believe that at this point she doesn't acknowledge that Ivan is dying. Is the look purely put on, or is there some genuine feeling in it?
It's hard to believe that Praskovya Fedorovna feels any strong sense of pity for her husband, given all the spite she feels toward him. She also never makes a significant change in her own lifestyle to spend more time with him. But still, after that look there are a number of kisses and attempts to comfort Ivan that could be interpreted as expressions of sympathy. How do you view these moments? What's true of all of these potential attempts is that they backfire; they feel false to Ivan and only make him hate his wife more:
While she was kissing him he hated her from the bottom of his soul and with difficulty refrained from pushing her away. (5.32)
Ivan certainly thinks this is just another instance of Praskovya Fedorovna being false. But is he right? And would Praskovya Fedorovna have been more sympathetic if Ivan had let her, instead of recoiling every time she made a gesture? What do you think?