Lawyers and Literature
James R. Elkins


"The Death of Ivan Ilych" in Leo Tolstoy, The Death of Ivan Ilych and Other Stories 95-156 (New American Library, 1960)

Ivan Ilych is "an intelligent, polished, lively and agreeable man," a lawyer in his mid-forties, dying of an unknown cause. [105]. Ilych, his death near, realizes that his life has gone astray, become unreal, fraudulent. The problem, as Ilych begins to understand it, is that his life has been a mistake. "In the loneliness of his pain Ilych understands at last that his life had been trivial and disgusting." Tolstoy's fictional lawyer, Ivan Ilych, provides a psycho-literary case story of a lawyer who set out with high hopes, followed the well-worn path, and ended up with a life of baffling disappointment.

Tolstoy's evocative story traces the evolution of Ilych's mistaken life, a life of immediate interest because he was a lawyer, a success, and a professional who carefully and consciously crafted the separation of his professional and family life. While no fictional lawyer is going to provide the perfect mirror in which we can see fully ourselves, Ilych is not easily dismissed. Ilych, as so many of us, follows a rather well-worn path. And he has a strong sense of his own rectitude (perhaps another characteristic of our profession), pursues his legal career with dedication, and does not let his personal and family life interfere with his law work.

Tolstoy begins Ilych's story with his days as a law student when Ilych was "capable, cheerful, good-natured, and [a] sociable man, though strict in the fulfilment of what he considered to be his duty. . . . " [105]. Upon completion of his law studies, Ilych dresses himself with the help of a "fashionable tailor" and appointed himself in the fashions of a gentleman, "all purchased at the best shops." [105]. He finds his first position with the help and influence of his father. In his work, Ilych "arranged as easy and agreeable a position for himself as he had had at the School of Law. He performed his official tasks, made his career, and at the same time amused himself pleasantly and decorously." [106]. He "performed the duties entrusted to him . . . with an exactness and incorruptible honesty of which he could not but feel proud." [106]. There were, it is true, indiscretions, an affair, visits to "a certain outlying street of doubtful reputation" and some "obsequiousness" to a superior (and even the superior's wife), but even this was "done with such a tone of good breeding that no hard names could be applied to it." [106]

In his first position, as each that followed, Ilych succeeded. As an examining magistrate, Ilych remained "decorous," inspired respect, and preserved the separation of his official duties and private life. [107]. Ilych was a good lawyer. He had "a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality." [107-108]

Ilych knew how to keep his eye on the ball. Sculpting unwieldy human problems into legal shape is what lawyers get paid to do. Ilych used his self-limiting vision both to make life more comfortable and to insure his success. Ilych's narrow view of his role as a lawyer was ameliorated by the fact that he "never abused his power [and we are told it was considerable]; he tried on the contrary to soften its expression, but the consciousness of it and of the possibility of softening its effect, supplied the chief interest and attraction of his office." [107]

In his position as magistrate, Ilych makes connections, and takes up "an attitude of rather dignified aloofness toward the provincial authorities. . . . " [108]. In his circle of wealthy and legal friends he "assumed a tone of slight dissatisfaction with the government, of moderate liberalism, and of enlightened citizenship." [108]. He grew a beard and learned to play bridge. Ilych is one of the boys, an insider, a pro, an established professional, a success. He has, in contemporary parlance--made it.

Ilych meets and marries Praskovya Fëdorovna Mikhel. She becomes pregnant and jealous. Ilych tries to ignore his wife's moods and enjoy life as he had before marriage but he finds it increasingly difficult. Ilych deals with the discord he attributes to Praskovya Fëdorovna by spending more time at the office. "As his wife grew more irritable and exacting and Ivan Ilych transferred the centre of gravity of his life more and more to his official work, so did he grow to like his work better and become more ambitious than before." [110]. Marriage and family life became a useful facade. "He only required of it [married life] those conveniences--dinner at home, housewife, and bed--which it could give him, and above all that propriety of external forms required by public opinion." [110]. Whenever things went badly with Praskovya Fëdorovna "he at once retired into a "separate fenced-off world of official duties where he found satisfaction." [110-111]

There are more children, and further deterioration of the marriage, to which Ilych is "impervious." [111]. After seven years as magistrate Ilych becomes a Public Prosecutor, a position that allows him to demonstrate his competence and exercise more power. The new position "gave him pleasure and filled his life, together with chats with his colleagues, dinners, and bridge. So that on the whole Ivan Ilych's life continued to flow as he considered it should do--pleasurably and properly." [112]. The disputes with Praskovya Fëdorovna continue, punctuated with "rare periods of amorousness," however short in duration. [111]

Over time Ilych becomes more and more aloof, an aloofness he accepts as normal.

His aim was to free himself more and more from those unpleasantnesses and to give them a semblance of harmlessness and propriety. He attained this by spending less and less time with his family, and when obliged to be at home he tried to safeguard his position by the presence of outsiders. . . . The whole interest of his life now centered in the official world and that interest absorbed him. [111]

Ilych is passed over for a judgeship and takes it badly. The result is that he "experienced ennui for the first time in his life, and not only ennui but intolerable depression. . . . " [113]. The depression lifts when he receives a promotion and long coveted higher salary. As a result Ilych is "more cheerful and contented than he had been for a long time." [114]. The change suited Praskovya Fëdorovna and the future looked bright.

Ilych evolves different identities for his personal and professional lives.

In official matters, despite his youth and taste for frivolous gaiety, he was exceedingly reserved, punctilious, and even severe; but in society he was often amusing and witty, and always good-natured, correct in his manner, and bon enfant, as the governor and his wife--with whom he was like one of the family--used to say of him. [106].

* * * *

The pleasures connected with his work were pleasures of ambition; his social pleasures were those of vanity. . . . [119].

Following the pattern established in his earlier official positions Ilych, in the new position at the justice ministry, attempts

to exclude everything fresh and vital, which always disturbs the regular course of official business, and to admit only official relations with people, and then only on official grounds. A man would come, for instance, wanting some information. Ivan Ilych, as one in whose sphere the matter did not lie, would have nothing to do with him: but if the man had some business with him in his official capacity, something that could be expressed on officially stamped paper, he would do everything, positively everything he could within limits of such relations, and in doing so would maintain the semblance of friendly human relations, that is, would observe the courtesies of life. As soon as the official relations ended, so did everything else. Ivan Ilych possessed this capacity to separate his real life from the official side of affairs and not mix the two, in the highest degree, and by long practice and natural aptitude had brought it to such a pitch that sometimes, in the manner of a virtuoso, he would even allow himself to let the human and official relations mingle. He let himself do this just because he felt that he could at any time he chose resume the strictly official attitude again and drop the human relation. And he did it all easily, pleasantly, correctly, and even artistically. [117-118].

Simply put, Ilych makes an art of official aloofness. The compartmentalization of his personal and professional life allows him to do what his official duties require and ignore everything else.

There are disappointments and set-backs along the way. Ilych, working on a ladder one day in his study, falls, but is unable to locate any visible injury. Later, the family has a dance, and there is a quarrel with Praskovya Fëdorovna about forty-five rubles she has spent on the confectioner's bill. "It was a great and disagreeable quarrel. Praskovya Fëdorovna Fedorovna called him ‘a fool and an imbecile,' and he clutched at his head and made angry allusions to divorce." [119]. But the quarrel quieted. In fact, "life flowed pleasantly." "They were all in good health. It could not be called ill health if Ivan Ilych sometimes said that he had a queer taste in his mouth and felt some discomfort in his left side." [119, 120].

The fall, insignificant at the time, is followed by a persistent, irritable pain. When Ilych finally visits a doctor he has the misfortune of seeking the services of a physician who mirrors his own approach to professional life. To Ilych the question is: Is this illness serious or not? But to the physician "the real question was to decide between a floating kidney, chronic catarrh, or appendicitis." [121]. The physician does not understand Ilych, or make any effort to do so.

The pain grows worse and "the taste in his mouth grew stranger and stranger." [125]. Ilych describes the taste as "loathsome." "There was no deceiving himself: something terrible, new, and more important than anything before in his life, was taking place within him of which he alone was aware." [125]

After an evening of bridge, and good bridge at that, but with an ever present "gnawing pain," he overbids a hand and becomes upset at his friends.

They had supper and went away, and Ivan Ilych was left alone with the consciousness that his life was poisoned and was poisoning the lives of others, and that his poison did not weaken but penetrated more and more deeply into his whole being." [126-127]

Ilych begins to feel that he is living "all alone on the brink of an abyss, with no one who understood or pitied him." [127].

One evening, a brother-in-law visits and Ilych observes a glance, a look, that confirms that he is indeed sick. He retires to his room to read and reflect on his pain, and in doing so he stumbles into a new insight: "It's not a question of appendix or kidney, but of life and . . . death. Yes, life was there and now it is going, going and I cannot stop it." [129]. "There was light and now there is darkness. I was here and now I'm going there! Where? A chill came over him, his breathing ceased, and he felt only the throbbing of his heart." [120]

Ilych is overtaken now by the realization that he is dying and that he is afraid: "When I am not, what will there be? There will be nothing. 'Then where shall I be when I am no more? Can this be dying? No, I don't want to.'" "It cannot be that I ought to die." "How is one to understand it?" [130, 131, 132]

Ilych struggles against these intruding thoughts of death; he attempts to subdue them and recover the happiness he had so taken for granted. He returns to the law courts and

enter[s] into conversation with his colleagues, and sit[s] carelessly as was his wont, scanning the crowd with a thoughtful look and leaning both his emaciated arms on the arms of his oak chair; bending over as usual to a colleague and drawing his papers nearer he would interchange whispers with him, and then suddenly raising his eyes and sitting erect would pronounce certain words and open the proceedings. But suddenly in the midst of those proceedings the pain in his side, regardless of the stage the proceedings had reached would begin its own gnawing work. Ivan Ilych would turn his attention to it and try to drive the thought of it away, but without success. It would come and stand before him and look at him, and he would be petrified and the light would die out of his eyes, and he would again begin asking himself whether It alone was true. And his colleagues and subordinates would see with surprise and distress that he, the brilliant and subtle judge, was becoming confused and making mistakes. He would shake himself, try to pull himself together, manage somehow to bring the sitting to a close, and return home with the sorrowful consciousness that his judicial labours could not as formerly hide from him what he wanted them to hide, and could not deliver him from It. And what was worst of all was that It drew his attention to itself not in order to make him take some action but only that he should look at It, look it straight in the face: look at it and without doing anything, suffer inexpressibly. . . . [N]othing could be done with It except to look at it and shudder. [133].

Ilych, fighting the thought of death, is troubled by the stance of his friends and colleagues who act as if there were nothing wrong with him. There was "falsity around him and within him," a falsity that seemed to poison his relations with everyone in his life. [See Ronald V. Sampson, The Psychology of Power 126-139 (New York: Vintage Books, 1968) (1966)]. Ronald Sampson interprets the falsity that surrounds Ilych's life as central to the psychological and moral teaching of the story. Sampson puts it this way: "The way in which human beings customarily deal with facts that are painful or otherwise unacceptable is to deny them or, if this is not possible, to ignore them." We see this, first, in the way Ivan Ilych has lived his life, and then, in the "world of protective falsehood and pretense" devised by those around him. It is, says Sampson, "this enveloping, stifling aura of unreality and deception that tortures Ivan Ilych more than all else."

Suffering from loneliness and despair, Ilych, perhaps for the first time in his life, finds a need for truth. Consumed by thoughts of his impending death, he begins to question how his life has gone astray. There was a time, Ilych remembers, before the suffering, when he enjoyed life. Of that time, he remembers his days as a law student, and realizes that the real pleasures of those early times have been lost. "It is as if," Ilych says, "I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death." [148]

Later, Ilych finds his life best explained by an image: "a stone falling downwards with increasing velocity. . . . " [150]. And so he finally comes around to ask of himself, "What if my whole life has really been wrong?" [152]

It occurred to him that his scarcely perceptible attempts to struggle against what was considered good by the most highly placed people, those scarcely noticeable impulses which he had immediately suppressed, might have been the real thing, and all the rest false. And his professional duties and the whole arrangement of his life and of his family, and all his social and official interests, might all have been false. He tried to defend all those things to himself and suddenly felt the weakness of what he was defending. There was nothing to defend. [152]

"Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done," it suddenly occurred to him. "But how could that be, when I did everything properly?" [148]

Return to: "The Death of Ivan Ilych": Instructor's Notes

 

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