Study Guide

The Death of Ivan Ilych Happiness

By Leo Tolstoy


Schwartz was waiting for him in the adjoining room with legs spread wide apart and both hands toying with his top-hat behind his back. The mere sight of that playful, well-groomed, and elegant figure refreshed Peter Ivanovich. He felt that Schwartz was above all these happenings and would not surrender to any depressing influences. His very look said that this incident of a church service for Ivan Ilych could not be a sufficient reason for infringing the order of the session – in other words, that it would certainly not prevent his unwrapping a new pack of cards and shuffling them that evening while a footman placed fresh candles on the table: in fact, that there was no reason for supposing that this incident would hinder their spending the evening agreeably. (1.28)

Peter Ivanovich has just seen Ivan's corpse and been scared by it; it's made him think just a little about his own death. He wants to laugh, play games, have fun, and not face his own mortality. Because Schwartz seems unaffected by the funeral – all he's thinking about is the bridge game – he perks Peter up. Both Peter and Schwartz's happiness depends upon refusing to think about a certain dimension of reality. They need to pretend that nothing unpleasant exists.

Ivan Ilych was le phénix de la famille as people said. He was neither as cold and formal as his elder brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between them – an intelligent, polished, lively, and agreeable man. He had studied with his younger brother at the School of Law, but the latter had failed to complete the course and was expelled when he was in the fifth class. Ivan Ilych finished the course well. Even when he was at the School of Law he was just what he remained for the rest of his life: a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and sociable man, though strict in the fulfillment of what he considered to be his duty: and he considered his duty to be what was so considered by those in authority. Neither as a boy nor as a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light, assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly relations with them. (2.4)

Ivan is happy, in the sense of good-humored. He's usually in a good mood, he's friendly, he likes to laugh, and he finds it easy to enjoy himself. And because he's smart, sociable, and well-connected, he's set up from an early age for what will be, by society's standards, an enjoyable life. It's clear from the passage as well that Ivan buys into society's standards hook, line, and sinker.

But now, as an examining magistrate, Ivan Ilych felt that everyone without exception, even the most important and self-satisfied, was in his power, and that he need only write a few words on a sheet of paper with a certain heading, and this or that important, self- satisfied person would be brought before him in the role of an accused person or a witness, and if he did not choose to allow him to sit down, would have to stand before him and answer his questions. Ivan Ilych never abused his power; he tried on the contrary to soften its expression, but the consciousness of it and the possibility of softening its effect, supplied the chief interest and attraction of his office. (2.11)

What are the main things that make the adult Ivan happy? He certainly enjoys work, and as this passage tells us, he primarily enjoys it because he likes feeling powerful and worth while. Moving up the career ladder and acquiring more power gives Ivan something to do that feels important, and gives him a sense of accomplishment.

The preparations for marriage and the beginning of married life, with its conjugal caresses, the new furniture, new crockery, and new linen, were very pleasant until his wife became pregnant – so that Ivan Ilych had begun to think that marriage would not impair the easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous character of his life, approved of by society and regarded by himself as natural, but would even improve it. But from the first months of his wife's pregnancy, something new, unpleasant, depressing, and unseemly, and from which there was no way of escape, unexpectedly showed itself. (2.18)

Ivan approaches marriage as just another thing meant to make him happy. It's supposed to be pleasant: he gets nice things (furniture, crockery, a larger house), and a woman to take care of him. He's not willing to deal with it if it's unpleasant.

This was in 1880, the hardest year of Ivan Ilych's life. It was then that it became evident on the one hand that his salary was insufficient for them to live on, and on the other that he had been forgotten, and not only this, but that what was for him the greatest and most cruel injustice appeared to others a quite ordinary occurrence. Even his father did not consider it his duty to help him. Ivan Ilych felt himself abandoned by everyone, and that they regarded his position with a salary of 3,500 rubles as quite normal and even fortunate. He alone knew that with the consciousness of the injustices done him, with his wife's incessant nagging, and with the debts he had contracted by living beyond his means, his position was far from normal. (3.2)

Ivan's first real experience with unhappiness (his only one, before his illness) comes when he doesn't get the promotion he wants. He's been living beyond his means, and the prospect of not being able to sustain the lifestyle he enjoys is scary. He feels betrayed by everybody, both because he doesn't get the promotion and because nobody's willing to help him. All of it seems very unpleasant indeed, but nobody else seems to care. Unlike his death, however, this is a situation Ivan has power to remedy.

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, not noisy partners, and of course to four-handed bridge (with five players it was annoying to have to stand out, though one pretended not to mind), to play a clever and serious game (when the cards allowed it) and then to have supper and drink a glass of wine. after a game of bridge, especially if he had won a little (to win a large sum was unpleasant), Ivan Ilych went to bed in a specially good humour. (3.25)

This passage tells us what happiness meant for Ivan before he became ill. Power and achievement at work, good times with friends, and above all, games. It's all about fun. And since Ivan has the most fun playing bridge, that's the best part of his life. It's hard not to pick up on Tolstoy's sarcastic disgust here.

He looked at his partner Mikhail Mikhaylovich, who rapped the table with his strong hand and instead of snatching up the tricks pushed the cards courteously and indulgently towards Ivan Ilych that he might have the pleasure of gathering them up without the trouble of stretching out his hand for them. "Does he think I am too weak to stretch out my arm?" thought Ivan Ilych, and forgetting what he was doing he over-trumped his partner, missing the grand slam by three tricks. And what was most awful of all was that he saw how upset Mikhail Mikhaylovich was about it but did not himself care. And it was dreadful to realize why he did not care. (4.25)

Ivan no longer enjoys bridge. His constant pain prevents everything from being purely pleasant any more. But it's more than that. Ivan is starting to grow frightened that he'll die, and he's just beginning to realize what that means. Given all of this, winning a bridge game just no longer matters to him.

Gerasim with a firm light tread, his heavy boots emitting a pleasant smell of tar and fresh winter air, came in wearing a clean Hessian apron, the sleeves of his print shirt tucked up over his strong bare young arms; and refraining from looking at his sick master out of consideration for his feelings, and restraining the joy of life that beamed from his face, he went up to the commode. (7.7)

Gerasim represents a different kind of happiness that contrasts with the pleasantness Ivan and his friends fixate upon. Gerasim does not need life to be pleasant or fun; he just is happy to be alive. His face shows the "joy of life." That makes him capable of facing the uglier sides of life. But from where does Gerasim's happiness come? Why is he happy to be alive? Does it just make him happy to help people? Has he found happiness in religion?

And in imagination he began to recall the best moments of his pleasant life. But strange to say none of those best moments of his pleasant life now seemed at all what they had then seemed – none of them except the first recollections of childhood. There, in childhood, there had been something really pleasant with which it would be possible to live if it could return. But the child who had experienced that happiness existed no longer, it was like a reminiscence of somebody else. (9.21)

This is the point at which Ivan realizes that his whole life has been unhappy. Except for his childhood that is. What is it in his childhood that he finds so genuinely happy? And why is it that Ivan now recognizes that his life was unhappy before? Is it because his life can't provide him with any comfort now? You might wonder whether that means it was any the less happy then, when he was living it.

"So that's what it is!" he suddenly exclaimed aloud. "What joy!" (12.15)

Ivan finds real happiness in his last moments. Ivan's fear is gone. His pain isn't but he doesn't care about it. He's surrounded by light, and he seems to be feeling intense joy. Why is he happy? Where does the joy come from?