Ivan is certain that he’s dying. Not only does this depress him, but it confounds him, too, since he can’t quite come to terms with the idea of his own mortality. For his entire life, he has thought about a popular syllogism: “Julius Caesar is a man, men are mortal, therefore Caesar is mortal.” This, Ivan has always believed, is true for everyone—including Caesar—but not true for himself. After all, he’s not Caesar, and he’s not anyone else, either. Instead, he has always been special and unique, has lived an entire life of his own that has been unlike anyone else’s experience on earth. Plus, it would simply be too awful for Ivan to die. This, at least, is what he has always thought.
Ivan’s conception of mortality is illogical. Although he recognizes that everyone must someday die, he sees himself as exempt from this fate, though he has no legitimate reason to think this. At the same time, though, his unrealistic viewpoint is understandable, since most people find it difficult to fully comprehend their own mortality. For Ivan, death is an abstract concept, not something that actually influences his subjective experience or the way he moves through the world. After all, he has, of course, never died before. And yet, he now finds himself hurtling toward death, completely unable to conceptualize what this means or how it has possibly brought itself to bear on his life.
Despite these preconceptions, Ivan knows he’s on his way toward death, and this causes him to wonder about the point of life. To avoid these thoughts, he tries to think about his career, remembering that his work life always took his mind off of unpleasant thoughts. And yet, none of his accomplishments mean anything now that he’s about to die, since nothing he did throughout his career can protect him from death. As a result, he now finds himself incapable of ignoring the pain in his side, which twists into him and causes him to question whether or not pain is the only truth in life. In the coming days and weeks, he tries to go to work like normal, but he can’t pay attention to his cases because of his pain, making him look foolish in front of his colleagues.
Ivan has devoted his entire life to his career. This is partially because he used it as a way to distract himself from his various discontents, but it’s also because he coveted power, status, and control. Now, though, he finds that not even his sterling professional reputation can give him the kind of control he needs in order to keep himself from dying. In fact, nothing at all can give him this kind of control, so he’s forced to surrender to the inevitability of death—something he has trouble doing because he’s used to manipulating his own authority to protect himself from undesirable situations.
Finding no relief in his work, Ivan sometimes enters the drawing room (where he first hurt himself) and tinkers with the various decorations. One day, though, Praskovya tells him to stop because he might injure himself again, and suddenly his pain flares up before him, and he’s unable to ignore it. As he experiences this, he thinks about how he sacrificed his good health for a measly curtain.
For perhaps the first time, Ivan grasps the utter vapidity of everything he used to covet. Now that he’s a sick, dying man, drapes and other purely aesthetic items mean very little. And yet, he has devoted his entire life to his public image, wasting his time thinking about the way a curtain hangs instead of thinking about his happiness or overall wellbeing.