Study Guide

The Death of Ivan Ilych Chapter 1

By Leo Tolstoy

Chapter 1

  • There's a recess in a trial at the Petersburg Law Courts.
  • A trio of court men – Ivan Egorovich Shebek, Fedor Vasilievich, and Peter Ivanovich – are gathered for a friendly chat in Shebek's room during the break.
  • Peter Ivanovich notices in the Gazette that a certain Ivan Ilych has died, and says this to the others.
  • The paper contains an announcement of his funeral from his widow, Praskovya Fedorovna Golovina. (Important setting info: Ivan's date of death is February 4, 1882).
  • Ivan Ilych, the narrator tells us, was a colleague and friend of the three fellows, and well liked by all of them.
  • In fact they liked him so well that they instantly react to his death by thinking about what promotions might result from it.
  • Promotions mulled over, Peter Ivanovich starts up a heartfelt conversation about the deceased.
  • Apparently Ivan had suffered for some time from a mysterious disease. The doctors couldn't agree on what it was.
  • Joking about the great difficulties in actually making a visit to Ivan's family (the house is in another part of the city. How could they possibly be expected to visit?), the three men go back to court.
  • The narrator tells us that, promotions aside, everyone's first reaction to Ivan's death is: "at least it wasn't me."
  • Their second thought is of what a bummer it will be to have to sit through the boring funeral service and see Ivan's widow.
  • Anyway, after the court session, Peter Ivanovich goes home and tells his wife over dinner that his dear friend Ivan has died and that he must pay his family a visit.
  • He also tells her there might be a promotion for a relative in the works.
  • Peter Ivanovich goes by carriage to Ivan's home, after donning elegant eveningwear.
  • Near the entrance, he finds Schwartz, another friend and colleague. What Schwartz really wants to do, Peter Ivanovich can tell, is arrange a bridge game for the evening. "Why let this dreary funeral business get you down?" seems to be his attitude.
  • Peter Ivanovich goes upstairs to the room where Ivan's body is laid out.
  • He doesn't know quite what he's supposed to do in these circumstances but is sure he's got to do something, so he figures he might as well cross himself a few times for good measure and make something resembling a bow.
  • Having shown his respect, Peter Ivanovich approaches Ivan's corpse and has a look at it.
  • It's pretty dead looking, and wasted away by sickness.
  • Still, Peter thinks Ivan's face shows that "what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly" (1.27). It has a certain dignity.
  • It's not too long before looking at the corpse makes Peter Ivanovich very uncomfortable, and he quickly leaves the room (after crossing himself again).
  • Fortunately Peter runs into the contagiously good-humored Schwartz, who perks him up and tries to make arrangements for the bridge game.
  • Somewhat less luckily, Praskovya Fedorovna – Ivan's unattractive and arched-eye-browed widow – interrupts them by announcing that it's time for the service.
  • She recognizes Peter Ivanovich and asks him to come with her to another room to talk before the service begins.
  • Praskovya Fedorovna wants to show everyone how sad she is, but she just comes across as being fake.
  • Peter Ivanovich also tries to pretend to be compassionate.
  • They are both gratified by this, and arrive together at the drawing room.
  • Praskovya Fedorovna confides tragically to Peter Ivanovich that Ivan Ilych suffered terribly in his last days.
  • This fills Peter with horror: he'd known Ivan most of his life, and for the first time it really hits him that Ivan could just as well be…him. (Gulp.)
  • He's even startled enough to forget his disgust at how obviously he and Praskovya Fedorovna are faking all of their feelings.
  • Peter Ivanovich gets over the horror once Praskovya Fedorovna starts describing Ivan's suffering in more detail.
  • This was Ivan, not me, he convincingly reassures himself. He can't see something awful like this happening to him.
  • Just for good measure, Praskovya Fedorovna again bemoans how hard it all is and bursts into tears.
  • After some more comforting from Peter she quickly dries up and moves on to what she really wants to talk about: how she can milk more money from the government now that she's a widow.
  • Praskovya Fedorovna has evidently researched this question very carefully already, and Peter Ivanovich doesn't have anything new to add. She quickly loses interest in him.
  • The discarded Peter leaves the drawing room and returns to the room with the corpse, passing Ivan Ilych's angry-looking daughter (with her equally angry-looking fiancé) and young son on the way.
  • The service takes place: "candles, groans, incense, tears, and sobs" (1.46).
  • Peter Ivanovich makes sure not to let the service get him down and leaves as soon as the dreadful affair is over.
  • He's got a bridge game to catch.

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