Study Guide

The Death of Ivan Ilych Society and Class

By Leo Tolstoy

Society and Class

"Had he any property?"

"I think his wife had a little – but something quite trifling." (1.12-13)

Very quickly, Ivan's family is revealed by his friends to be part of the middle class. They're not rich, but they do have property, which was pretty rare in the Russia of that day. The language of Ivan's friend – "quite trifling" – immediately gives us a sense of Ivan as someone who is petty and unimportant, at least according to Tolstoy.

When they reached the drawing-room, upholstered in pink cretonne and lighted by a dim lamp, they sat down at the table – she on a sofa and Peter Ivanovich on a low pouffe, the springs of which yielded spasmodically under his weight. Praskovya Fedorovna had been on the point of warning him to take another seat, but felt that such a warning was out of keeping with her present condition and so changed her mind. As he sat down on the pouffe Peter Ivanovich recalled how Ivan Ilych had arranged this room and had consulted him regarding this pink cretonne with green leaves. The whole room was full of furniture and knick-knacks, and on her way to the sofa the lace of the widow's black shawl caught on the edge of the table. Peter Ivanovich rose to detach it, and the springs of the pouffe, relieved of his weight, rose also and gave him a push. The widow began detaching her shawl herself, and Peter Ivanovich again sat down, suppressing the rebellious springs of the pouffe under him. But the widow had not quite freed herself and Peter Ivanovich got up again, and again the pouffe rebelled and even creaked. When this was all over she took out a clean cambric handkerchief and began to weep…she stopped weeping and, looking at Peter Ivanovich with the air of a victim, remarked in French that it was very hard for her. Peter Ivanovich made a silent gesture signifying his full conviction that it must indeed be so. (1.33)

According to Tolstoy, there is "middle class" written all over this passage. Tolstoy doesn't spend too much time in the novella describing any physical surroundings in great detail, but here he gives us a pretty detailed picture of the Golovins' drawing room, particularly the furniture. All of this is typical furnishing for a middle-class home that would be recognized by his readers. More specifically, it's a middle-class home that's trying to look wealthy. We get various indications that Ivan and his wife cared a lot about how their house looked. Also, Praskovya Fedorovna speaks in French – as the elite class did, and the middle class did in imitation.

Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible. (2.1)

The narrator puts his own evaluation of Ivan Ilych's life on the table right away: it was awful. That might sound like a very elitist or aristocratic thing to say. It's also a bit problematic, because Gerasim, as a peasant, is certainly simpler and more ordinary than a middle-class official like Ivan Ilych. And Gerasim's the one good guy in the story.

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.

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: there are damasks, dark wood, plants, rugs, and dull and polished bronzes – all the things people of a certain class have in order to resemble other people of that class. His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional. He was very happy when he met his family at the station and brought them to the newly furnished house all lit up, where a footman in a white tie opened the door into the hall decorated with plants, and when they went on into the drawing-room and the study uttering exclamations of delight. He conducted them everywhere, drank in their praises eagerly, and beamed with pleasure. (3.17)

Here is the irony of Ivan's whole life in one passage. Ivan wants his house to be impressive and fancy, and puts an enormous amount of effort into making it look that way. But he has the same ideas as everyone else, so his house ends up looking like all the others. According to Tolstoy, the tastes of the whole middle class are bad imitations of the aristocracy's (that might be Tolstoy's snobbery coming out again).

But just through his most unpleasant matter, Ivan Ilych obtained comfort. Gerasim, the butler's young assistant, always came in to carry the things out. Gerasim was a clean, fresh peasant lad, grown stout on town food and always cheerful and bright. At first the sight of him, in his clean Russian peasant costume, engaged on that disgusting task embarrassed Ivan Ilych. (7.5)

Once Ivan gets ill, Gerasim is the only person in Ivan's life who doesn't seem false, and therefore the only person who can comfort him. Unlike everyone else in the novella, Gerasim is a peasant. He even wears a "Russian peasant costume." Tolstoy is definitely trying to make a point here.

Praskovya Fedorovna mentioned some roles in which Sarah Bernhardt was particularly good. Her daughter disagreed. Conversation sprang up as to the elegance and realism of her acting – the sort of conversation that is always repeated and is always the same. (8.55)

Even in the way they talk, Praskovya Fedorovna and the others are unoriginal and ordinary. Just like Ivan with his house, they are trying very hard to be sophisticated, original. Instead they turn out just like everyone else.

He lay on his back and began to pass his life in review in quite a new way. In the morning when he saw first his footman, then his wife, then his daughter, and then the doctor, their every word and movement confirmed to him the awful truth that had been revealed to him during the night. In them he saw himself – all that for which he had lived – and saw clearly that it was not real at all, but a terrible and huge deception which had hidden both life and death. This consciousness intensified his physical suffering tenfold. He groaned and tossed about, and pulled at his clothing which choked and stifled him. And he hated them on that account. (11.14)

Ivan's condemnation of the falsehood of everyone around him – not just his family, but his footman and his doctors as well – is also a condemnation of his class. All of these people are entirely caught up within the world of their class; their falsity is tied into the falsehood of that world. By hiding or ignoring death, one gets away with hiding what's important in life.