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It is hard not to feel compassion for Ivan Ilych. In his whole life, dying really is just about the only important or worthwhile thing he does. All the rest of his life seems to be petty and unhappy. And his life is a thoroughly mediocre one at that. Even the narrator can't resist just telling us directly that "Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible" (2.1).
You see, it's only once Ivan Ilych comes face to face with his death and is forced to see his life for what it is that everything takes a turn for the better. Unfortunately that only happens a few hours before he dies. But then again, in those dying moments he actually appears to find the genuine happiness that had escaped him for the rest of his life. In fact, he might even find the meaning of….wait, wait, now we're getting ahead of ourselves We can't get to the good part before taking a look at Ivan's most ordinary and terrible life.
When the narrator calls Ivan Ilych's life horribly ordinary, he really means that Ivan Ilych is just like everybody else in his class. That would be the middle class, which the narrator really doesn't like.
Ivan is the very model of a modern middle-class man. He's got the classic middle-class job: an official in the sprawling, faceless court bureaucracy of St. Petersburg, in his case at the Court of Justice. ("The official" was already something of a standard character type in Russian literature at the time when Tolstoy wrote Ivan Ilych.) He's got a bit of money but not too much, and receives a good but unexceptional salary (which is not enough to cover his debts). He's married to a country girl who owns a little property, and he seems to have a thoroughly normal family life. Two kids: a popular daughter and a schoolboy son who's just like his father. The only catch is that Ivan is unhappy with all of this.
Like the other members of the middle class we see in this novella, Ivan also cares a lot about stuff – he's materialistic. He really enjoys buying things and especially buying things that can impress other people. So he's just thrilled with his new house in St. Petersburg and puts all the effort he can – it even becomes a consuming passion – into furnishing it perfectly. This means furnishing it just like all the other houses, although Ivan doesn't quite realize it:
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 themselves…His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional. (3.17)
You see the thing about Ivan is that he thinks he's much more special and important than he is. He wants to be recognized by all his middle-class friends. To get their recognition, he makes himself just like them. Which is to say, not important or special at all. He's just like everyone else.
That also brings us to Ivan's middle-class sense of propriety. He cares a lot about what other (middle-class) people think is appropriate, and is terrified at the thought of them finding anything unseemly in his life. But all that really matters to him is keeping up appearances, which is obvious when it comes to his marriage. His marriage is awful, but so long as it looks normal enough on the outside and Ivan and Praskovya Fedorovna seem a happy pair, he's satisfied: "He only required of it those conveniences – dinner at home, housewife, and bed – which it could give him, and above all that propriety of external forms required by public opinion" (2.24).
For most of his life, Ivan believes his life is actually a very happy one. He mostly believes this because it's a very pleasant one. He just wants to enjoy himself , have fun, and not have his day-to-day life interrupted by anything unpleasant or "inappropriate." And he finds things like needy wives and children unpleasant. To say nothing of disease or…death. Better not to even think about those things.
What Ivan considers pleasant is also very stereotypical for his class. The narrator conveniently divides his pleasures up into three categories: work, social life, and bridge:
The pleasures connected with his work were pleasures of ambition; his social pleasures were those of vanity; but Ivan Ilych's greatest pleasure was playing bridge. He acknowledged that whatever disagreeable incident happened in his life, the pleasure that beamed like a ray of light above everything else was to sit down to bridge with good players. (3.25)
Ivan likes to work primarily because it makes him feel important. He likes to impress his superiors, and even more he enjoys "the consciousness of his power, his ability to ruin anybody he wished to ruin" (2.28). This is again a case of Ivan thinking himself terribly special when he's only ordinary. Of course he can't "ruin anybody he wished to ruin" – he's only Assistant Public Prosecutor.
As for Ivan's social life, it's mostly a matter of dinner-parties with respectable people who can keep up a witty conversation (and, in particular, appreciate Ivan's own wit). "Just as his drawing-room resembled all other drawing-rooms so did his enjoyable little parties resemble all other such parties" (3.22). He doesn't have any genuinely close friends (which is pretty obvious when we see how his friends react to his death).
Then of course, there's bridge. The fact that bridge is the best thing in Ivan's life speaks for itself.
Because Ivan only cares about living a pleasant life, any sign of unpleasantness and he's out of there. When his wife's pregnancy makes her moody, he just refuses to deal with it, and retreats into his work life; he views her demands that he spend more time with her as unreasonable. And when his daughter is born and the new baby in the house needs attention, he also refuses to deal with it. He just leaves that to his wife.
Moral of the story? Ivan's understanding of happiness is self-centered. It's all about him and his enjoyment of life. If anyone else starts making claims on him and he gets rid of them. And heaven forbid anything unpleasant should happen to him, since that would be a colossal injustice on the universe's part. That's the way Ivan feels after he's turned down for a promotion, which is the one time anything really unpleasant does happen to him. Until he gets sick, that is.
When Ivan becomes ill (after falling while putting up curtains – a suitably inane way to begin his march toward death), his pleasant life becomes impossible. He's in constant pain, and it colors every moment. Because Ivan can't bear discomfort, this makes him angry and incapable of enjoying just about anything. It doesn't even take real pain to make Ivan's usual good mood turn rotten, just mild discomfort:
But this discomfort increased and, though not exactly painful, grew into a sense of pressure in his side accompanied by ill humour. And his irritability became worse and worse and began to mar the agreeable, easy, and correct life that had established itself in the Golovin family (4.2)
After a certain point, not even bridge can console him.
Beyond the pain, Ivan's illness brings him something even worse: fear. He starts to realize that the thing he'd never thought about before – death – might happen to him. In fact, it's going to. After some point, Ivan Ilych, with all of his pleasures and memories and attachments to interior decorating, will cease to be. And that's scary. Especially since all of Ivan's life he's only cared about himself. A world without himself just makes no sense to him.
Ivan Ilych can't wrap his mind around his death. Not only can he not comprehend what ceasing to be would really mean, he can't understand how he could be the victim of such an enormous injustice. "It cannot be that I ought to die. That would be too terrible" (6.3).
Once Ivan's pain becomes particularly bad, he gets into a nasty bind. His life is so unpleasant and so devoid of joy that he no longer wants to be alive, and there's no way out but death. But death itself is so frightening and awful that Ivan bring himself to want that either. He's stuck between the two, hating his current state and hating his only way out:
Always and for ever the same, always these endless days and nights. If only it would come quicker! If only what would come quicker? Death, darkness?...No, no! anything rather than death! (8.15)
And that's not even all of it. When Ivan is ill, his former way of living only for himself comes back to bite him in two ways. First, he finds himself alone, except for Gerasim. And that's no surprise. How could he expect his wife and family or his friends to deal with him when he is now so unpleasant to be around? They're probably only treating him as he would treat his family and friends if their positions were reversed.
Second, Ivan comes to feel that his own life has been unhappy, in spite of how pleasant it seemed. Worse, it's been meaningless. It seems to have been for nothing – the illness that's killing him after all, he owes to a fall while putting up drapes. But just what kind of meaning is Ivan looking for? Does it have anything to do with God?
Does Ivan's religion seem to come out of nowhere? Up until Chapter 9 – that is for almost all of his life – we barely hear any mention of God or church at all. Ivan might go to church to keep up appearances, but we don't hear anything about his religious life. When Praskovya Fedorovna has Ivan take communion near the end of his life, we get the impression that he hasn't done that in a while.
Besides that, Ivan's early thoughts about death certainly don't make it sound like he believes in an afterlife. What's so scary to him is that death means becoming nothing: "When I am not, what will there be? There will be nothing" (5.16). He goes on thinking that way until about a month or so before he dies. Likewise, Ivan asks what his suffering is for, but never asks God for an answer.
Then, suddenly, in Chapter 9, Ivan starts thinking about God. He explicitly asks God what it's all for, and seems to interpret what's happening to him as a punishment:
He said to himself: "Go on! Strike me! But what is it for? What have I done to Thee? What is it for?" (9.12)
A bit later, we hear him thinking about the judge, before whom Ivan claims he is "not guilty" (9.26). Then of course there's the end...
So why does all this religious questioning come into the picture? What do you think? (You might be left wondering what is the meaning of Ivan Ilych's life. For more on that question, have a look at "What's Up with the Ending?")