The Death of Ivan Ilych
How we cite our quotes:
Peter Ivanovich, like everyone else on such occasions, entered feeling uncertain what he would have to do. All he knew was that at such times it is always safe to cross oneself. But he was not quite sure whether one should make obseisances while doing so. He therefore adopted a middle course. On entering the room he began crossing himself and made a slight movement resembling a bow. At the same time, as far as the motion of his head and arm allowed, he surveyed the room. Two young men – apparently nephews, one of whom was a high-school pupil – were leaving the room, crossing themselves as they did so. An old woman was standing motionless, and a lady with strangely arched eyebrows was saying something to her in a whisper. A vigorous, resolute Church Reader, in a frock-coat, was reading something in a loud voice with an expression that precluded any contradiction. (1.24)
In a religious atmosphere, Peter Ivanovich feels out of place; he doesn't know exactly what to do. For him, religion is just a matter of going through the right motions, and doing what you're supposed to do. Not that the image of religion itself that Tolstoy paints right here is particularly flattering either. In this context, at least, it seems artificial, represented by the loud and imposing Church Reader.
The service began: candles, groans, incense, tears, and sobs. Peter Ivanovich stood looking gloomily down at his feet. He did not look once at the dead man, did not yield to any depressing influence, and was one of the first to leave the room. (1.48)
Just like Peter Ivanovich's gestures earlier, the service itself seems purely artificial. Tolstoy just describes the external trappings of it: the candles, incense, groans, and tears. The description is so short, rushed, and casual that the effect is actually rather funny. Moreover, after all the people we've met – including Ivan's own widow – it's even hard to believe that any of the sobs or groans are sincere. That's just what one is supposed to do at funerals, so people are obliging.
"Well, friend Gerasim," said Peter Ivanovich, so as to say something. "It's a sad affair, isn't it?"
"It's God will. We shall all come to it some day," said Gerasim, displaying his teeth – the even white teeth of a healthy peasant – and, like a man in the thick of urgent work, he briskly opened the front door, called the coachman, helped. (1.49-50)
Just as Gerasim is the only character who has an honest and genuine understanding of death, he's also the only character who seems to have a genuine and sincere belief in God. He accepts death as God's will. With his faith, it's hard for him to believe that death could be such a horrible thing. This is in stark contrast to Peter Ivanovich, who can't bear the thought of death. Gerasim's view also contrasts with the fakeness of the service we've just seen. Tolstoy won't let a description of Gerasim go by without mentioning how physically healthy he is. His physical health mirrors his spiritual health.