The Death of Ivan Ilych
by Leo Tolstoy
The Death of Ivan Ilych Society and Class Quotes
How we cite our quotes: Citations follow this format: (Chapter.Paragraph). We used Alymer Maude's translation.
His father had been an official who after serving in various ministries and departments in Petersburg had made the sort of career which brings men to positions from which by reason of their long service they cannot be dismissed, though they are obviously unfit to hold any responsible position, and for whom therefore posts are specially created, which though fictitious carry salaries of from six to ten thousand rubles that are not fictitious, and in receipt of which they live on to a great age.
Such was the Privy Councillor and superfluous member of various superfluous institutions, Ilya Epimovich Golovin.(2.2-3)
Tolstoy is commenting on a whole class of middle-class officials who, in his opinion, got paid to do nothing. This wasn't just a middle-class thing, though. The nobility in Russia also had lots of technically useless posts in the government and law system, which they kept just for the titles, the salaries, and the occasional thing to do. Tolstoy doesn't mention this, but it's good to keep in mind.
At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong, he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them. (2.5)
Ivan's social class has norms of what's appropriate that Ivan naturally felt were wrong. From the slight sarcastic cast of the passage, we assume that according to the narrator, those things really were wrong. Ivan's social class has created their own morality with its own false, more permissive notions of what's proper and what isn't. A similar thing happens again just a little later in the chapter (see 2.9).
Having graduated from the School of Law and qualified for the tenth rank of the civil service, and having received money from his father for his equipment, Ivan Ilych ordered himself clothes at Scharmer's, the fashionable tailor, hung a medallion inscribed respice finem on his watch-chain, took leave of his professor and the prince who was patron of the school, had a farewell dinner with his comrades at Donon's first-class restaurant, and with his new and fashionable portmanteau, linen, clothes, shaving and other toilet appliances, and a travelling rug, all purchased at the best shops, he set off for one of the provinces where through his father's influence, he had been attached to the governor as an official for special service. (2.5)
Again, Tolstoy gives us an unusual amount of detail to bring out the importance of material things. Ivan really wants to be exactly what his own class idealizes: a stylish and moneyed official who impresses others. There's quite an irony tucked away here too: Ivan's medallion has respice finem on it, which actually means (in Latin) "respect the end," or "pay attention to death." That's exactly what Ivan, and the whole world in which he lives, doesn't do.