In a courthouse, Ivan Yegorovich Shebek and Fyodor Vasilyevich argue about a case while Pyotr Ivanovich—another judge—reads the newspaper. Looking up from the pages, he interrupts his colleagues with grave news: one of their fellow judges, Ivan Ilyich Golovin, is dead. As the men crowd around the newspaper, they read the statement, which informs readers that Ivan Ilyich’s wife, Praskovya Fyodorovna Golovina, has announced the death of her husband, along with the details of the upcoming funeral. Ivan’s colleagues knew that he had been sick for quite some time, and they reflect upon what his death will mean for the courts. More specifically, each man considers how his own life will be positively impacted by Ivan’s passing, though none of them say such thoughts aloud.
Although The Death of Ivan Ilyich is about the long and painful suffering that Ivan Ilyich undergoes before dying, it begins after he has already died. By focusing on Ivan’s colleagues’ reaction to his death, Tolstoy draws attention to the ways in which healthy people conceive of mortality. Although Ivan Ilyich’s friends act upset, their initial thoughts about his passing have to do with their own lives, as they wonder how his death will impact their daily routines. In this way, Tolstoy demonstrates that people often manage to avoid thinking about profound matters like mortality by focusing on rather trivial, selfish concerns.
Immediately after hearing the news of Ivan Ilyich’s death, Fyodor Vasilyevich thinks about how he’ll most likely move into someone else’s job during the inevitable reshuffling of positions. This, he knows, will enable him to make even more money. Meanwhile, Pyotr Ivanovich privately thinks about how he will be able to get his brother-in-law a job in the courthouse, pleased that his wife will actually be happy with him for once. Despite these thoughts, though, he notes aloud that Ivan’s death is quite sad, and the four men discuss their colleague’s illness, talking about how none of the doctors Ivan saw could decide how to help him. They then wonder about the financial state in which Ivan left his family and decide that they will have to go visit Praskovya, his wife.
That each of Ivan’s friends think about how they’ll benefit from his death illustrates not only that humans often distract themselves from sadness by focusing on comparatively petty matters, but also that Ivan Ilyich surrounded himself with people who are especially interested in power, wealth, and status. Though the men discuss how sad it is that Ivan died and left behind his family, it’s clear that they’re primarily interested in how this turn of events will improve their own lives, a sign that they care about social and professional advancement above all else.
As Pyotr Ivanovich and his colleagues discuss Ivan Ilyich’s death, they find themselves overwhelmingly relieved that they weren’t the ones to die. “There you have it,” each man thinks. “He’s dead, and I’m not.” They also consider the fact that they now must go through the motions of meeting certain social expectations like attending Ivan’s funeral and visiting Praskovya. Exasperated by this prospect, they dread such “tedious” obligations.
Ivan’s colleagues only pay superficial though to the prospect of mortality, as they find a foolish sense of comfort in the idea that Ivan died instead of them. Of course, Ivan didn’t die instead of them, but simply before them, but each man is unwilling to grapple with the inevitability of his own death. Consequently, they focus on superficial matters like the social obligations they must now fulfill, once again proving that they’re eager to avoid thinking about death and that they don’t actually care very much about their friend or his grieving family.
Of all Ivan’s colleagues, Pyotr Ivanovich was his closest friend. After dinner that night, Pyotr regretfully sets out for the funeral. When he enters, he spots another one of his colleagues, a somewhat mischievous man named Schwartz who is always in good humor. Schwartz stands out amongst the other funeralgoers, apparently unaffected by the morose proceedings. He even winks at Pyotr from across the room, as if to say that Ivan Ilyich has really “messed things up” by dying and that he did so in a way that neither Schwartz nor Pyotr would have.
The lack of true empathy amongst Ivan’s friends comes to the forefront of the novella in this moment, as Pyotr Ivanovich appreciates Schwartz’s irreverent attitude at Ivan’s funeral. Although the two men are supposedly there to mourn the loss of their friend, they are completely uninterested in emotionally investing themselves in the ceremony, instead trying to set themselves apart from the sadness swirling all around them. In doing so, they prove how little they care about even those to whom they’re closest.
Pyotr Ivanovich hesitantly enters the room that contains the coffin. As he steps inside, he awkwardly crosses himself, thinking that one can never go wrong making the sign of the cross in such situations. Still, he’s not sure what he’s supposed to do in this context, so he also gives a slight bow. As he does so, he furtively glances around the room, taking stock of who’s present. Fully entering the room, he notices Ivan’s peasant servant, Gerasim, who is scattering pinches of carbolic on the floor to mask the smell of Ivan’s decaying body—a smell Pyotr didn’t notice until this moment. Reluctantly, Pyotr makes his way to the coffin and looks at his friend, noting that Ivan’s face looks beautiful but also somehow disapproving, serving as a reminder that Pyotr himself will someday die, though Pyotr feels as if this doesn’t actually apply to him.
Pyotr is intent upon denying his own mortality. This is why he’s so unsure of himself as he enters the room that holds Ivan’s coffin, fearing any encounter with death that might force him to contemplate his own inevitable end. That he takes stock of who’s in the room as he approaches the coffin is yet another reminder of how he and his colleagues focus on trivial social matters as a way of keeping thoughts about death at bay. And even though Ivan’s corpse forces Pyotr to wrestle with the reality of death, he still manages to convince himself that he won’t meet the same end as his friend—a sign of his unwillingness to accept his own mortality.
Crossing himself once more, Pyotr Ivanovich hurries out of the room. Again, he sees Schwartz, who is waiting for him in the adjoining room. Schwartz gives him a characteristically playful look, and this makes Pyotr feel better, as he sees that Schwartz refuses to let the funeral depress him. His very way of holding himself communicates that Ivan’s death will not keep him from organizing the routine game of whist that he, Pyotr, and some other friends had planned on playing that night. Furthermore, Pyotr sees that Schwartz thinks there’s no reason why they shouldn’t have a grand and enjoyable evening, and Schwartz confirms this by informing him that they will soon be meeting up at Fyodor Vasilyevich’s house to play cards.
Pyotr Ivanovich and Schwartz’s focus on gambling spotlights their obsession with money, which they see as something that will help distract them from having to struggle with the difficult idea of death and mortality. Their desire to play whist that very evening also underscores their lack of empathy for Ivan and his family, as readers see that they’re more interested in having a pleasant evening than expressing their condolences to Praskovya. In turn, it becomes clear that their presence at the funeral is nothing more than an act of social posturing, something intended to maintain their guise of respectability.
Just when Pyotr is about to follow Schwartz out of the funeral, Praskovya intercepts him and leads him into the sitting room to have a discussion about Ivan Ilyich’s death. On his way, Pyotr looks sheepishly at Schwartz, whose freedom to leave he suddenly envies. Once in the sitting room, though, he makes sure to seem attentive and sad, listening as Praskovya talks about the terrible suffering Ivan experienced in his final days. As she speaks, Pyotr notices that Praskovya only talks about Ivan’s agony in terms of how it affected her. Still, she talks about how Ivan screamed without stopping for the last three days of his life, and Pyotr can’t help but think about having met Ivan as a schoolmate. His friend’s suffering, he realizes, is a sign that he himself could succumb to a similar fate. Once again, though, he assures himself that this won’t happen.
When Pyotr’s plans to escape the funeral are thwarted, he has no choice but to put on a sympathetic face, trying to convince Praskovya that he’s genuinely sad about Ivan’s death. However, he soon realizes that she—like him—is mainly interested in herself. After all, she focuses only on how Ivan’s suffering impacted her life, not on how he felt while dying. Still, this conversation once more forces Pyotr to consider mortality. Somehow, though, he manages to deny the inevitability of his own death yet again, proving just how determined he is to keep these uncomfortable thoughts at bay.
Praskovya starts talking about her finances, making it clear that she wants to figure out how she can get the government to give her as much money as possible in the aftermath of her husband’s death. Pretending to deliberate on this matter for a moment, Pyotr eventually tells her that he can’t help, claiming that she most likely won’t be able to convince the government to give her more financial assistance. As soon as she sees that Pyotr won’t help her wring money out of Ivan’s death, Praskovya makes it clear that she has no interest in talking to him, so he gets up and exits the sitting room.
Like Pyotr Ivanovich, Praskovya is primarily interested in how she can benefit from Ivan Ilyich’s death. Once again, then, it becomes clear that Ivan was surrounded by people who are greedy and selfish. After all, even his wife doesn’t seem to truly care about his death in a genuine, emotional sense.
Pyotr Ivanovich sees Ivan’s adult daughter, Liza, who nods at him in a way that makes him feel as if she thinks he’s guilty of something. Her fiancé stands behind her and does the same, and just as Pyotr is about to turn away, he sees Ivan’s young boy, Vasya, who looks exactly like his father did at that age. The child’s teary eyes strike Pyotr as the image of a young person who has suddenly “lost his innocence,” and the boy frowns at him as Pyotr quickly nods in his direction before turning around and entering the room with the coffin, where the funeral service has just started.
Whether or not Liza and Vasya actually look at Pyotr with contempt is unclear, since it’s quite possible that Pyotr Ivanovich is projecting his guilt about leaving the funeral onto the way they gaze at him. Either way, this moment frames Pyotr Ivanovich as an unsympathetic man. It also suggests that Ivan Ilyich’s family looks upon his colleagues with scorn, perhaps feeling that Ivan’s career ruined his life.
Pyotr Ivanovich refuses to look at Ivan Ilyich’s body during the ceremony and leaves as soon as he can. On his way out, he encounters Gerasim, who gives him his coat. Knowing that Gerasim was fond of Ivan and stayed with him until the very end of his life, Pyotr asks if he’s feeling sad, but Gerasim simply responds, “’Tis God’s will, sir. ’Twill come to us all.” When Pyotr is finally outside, he’s relieved to smell the fresh air, and he hastily makes his way to Fyodor Vasilyevich’s house, where he spends a pleasant evening playing whist with his friends.
Gerasim’s words are worth noting, not only because they suggest that he—unlike Pyotr or any of his colleagues—has accepted the inevitability of death, but also because of his elevated diction. Although Tolstoy has gone out of his way to make it clear that Gerasim is from a peasant family, the young man speaks more eloquently than anyone else in the novella, ultimately signaling the appreciation Tolstoy had for peasants, whom he thought had the purest, most admirable faith and approach to life, unsullied by greed or selfishness. While Gerasim embraces the fundamental truth of mortality, then, Pyotr Ivanovich rushes off to play cards, hoping that this activity will distract him from thoughts about death.