We first learn of Ivan Ilych through his colleagues who have just received news of his death. Each one imagines the new opportunities Ivan’s absence will afford. And each one has the consoling thought: ‘Well, he’s dead but I’m alive!’ We follow his long-time friend Peter Ivanovich to the funeral service – his attendance necessitated by the ‘tiresome demands of propriety’ – and note his discomfort and emotional detachment. He plans to attend a card game afterwards on the grounds that the funeral should not hinder his spending the evening agreeably. Even Ivan’s wife, Praskovya Fedorovna, seems concerned only with matters pertaining to herself. How she suffered as he lay dying! With each interior perspective, Tolstoy exposes the narcissistic indifference typical of Ivan’s so-called friends and family. These are the false relationships with which he surrounded himself. Ivan Ilych led a pleasant but conventional life. Correct living and the approval of those he deemed of high station were his priorities. Ivan’s disposition in life was cheerful, good-natured, and sociable. But his was a fragmented existence because he preferred comfort and propriety over authentic experience; the superficial over the meaningful. As a result, Ivan became increasingly bored and restless. There was a discordance in Ivan’s morality in terms of his thoughts and actions. In school he behaved in ways he thought to be repulsive and morally wrong, but was able to assuage his conscience with the belief that people of good standing did not regard them as wrong. In this way, he avoided the mental disturbance that naturally accompanies an action when it goes against one’s moral grain; he was able to forget his transgressions. By externalizing his conscience, Ivan effectively made all his actions impersonal. Ivan took pride in decorating his new house (perhaps symbolic of his inner world); but Tolstoy tells us the result was a sad imitation, a common attempt by those in his class to give the appearance of wealth. He was living the impoverished reality of a false life, an empty fabrication bereft of originality. For Ivan, death was an abstraction, something that happened to other people. His denial belied unconscious fantasies of immortality. But in mid-life, at the age of about 45, Ivan entered a new phase. Inescapable pain brought on by a seemingly inconsequential injury sustained while working on this house made it impossible to ignore the fact that his own death was not only possible, but imminent. Ivan’s dawning awareness of death depressed him. But with his depression came the ability to see things more clearly. He noticed the falseness and indifference of others (e.g., his wife, his daughter, his doctor, and colleagues) and it filled him with anger and hatred. He wavered between the hope that his condition would improve and complete despair, knowing that ‘It’ was the only true reality. What tormented him most was the deception of others (the ‘lie’) and their unwillingness to grasp his situation.
How it trivialized what was happening to him. In the depths of his torment, he was alone. Only one person truly gave him comfort: the butler’s young assistant, Gerasim. Unlike the others, Gerasim did not deny the reality and importance of Ivan’s situation. He was the only one who attended to Ivan’s real needs, keeping him company and holding his legs to give him comfort. Ivan grew to depend on him alone. Gerasim’s honesty and care allowed Ivan to experience perhaps for the first time an authentic relationship with another human being. With Gerasim’s faithful companionship, Ivan began to accept his fate. He knew nothing could save him and he was filled with anguish and complete despair. But his attention gradually shifted from falseness to truth. He began to feel that he understood his wife. He was plagued by the horrible suspicion that his life was fraught with falseness. And each time he tried to justify his false existence, his pain annd torment increased to an unbearable level. In his final three days, Ivan grieved intensely for all that was irretrievable lost. Two hours before his death, he accepted that his life was not right. And he asked ‘But what is the right thing?’ He caught sight of a light and realized that reparation was still possible. At that moment he felt his son kiss his hand; as he opened his eyes and saw his son and wife, Ivan was filled with compassion for them. His regret and concern for them deepened his resolve to set things right. For Ivan, reparation meant surrendering to death (to release his loved ones from their suffering). As his fear of death dissolved into light, Ivan triumphed: death was defeated. His love defeated death. At the funeral, Peter Ivanovich noticed how Ivan’s face was more handsome and dignified that when he was alive. The expression on his face said that ‘what was necessary had been accomplished, and accomplished rightly.’ But his expression also served as a warning to the living, a warning articulated by Gerasim: ‘It’s God’s will. We shall all come to it some day.’ And although Peter denied the relevance of the warning to himself, it is certain that in time he too will embark on a similar passage. We can already see the incipient crack in Peter’s defense as he momentarily allows himself to imagine the horror of Ivan’s suffering.