Home > English > Literature Classic Books > The Death of Ivan Ilych > Chapter 2
The Death of Ivan Ilych
Classic Book   



Chapter 2

Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and

therefore most terrible.

He had been a member of the Court of Justice, and died at the

age of forty-five. His father had been an official who after

serving in various ministries and departments in Petersburg had

made the sort of career which brings men to positions from which by

reason of their long service they cannot be dismissed, though they

are obviously unfit to hold any responsible position, and for whom

therefore posts are specially created, which though fictitious

carry salaries of from six to ten thousand rubles that are not

fictitious, and in receipt of which they live on to a great age.

Such was the Privy Councillor and superfluous member of

various superfluous institutions, Ilya Epimovich Golovin.

He had three sons, of whom Ivan Ilych was the second. The

eldest son was following in his father's footsteps only in another

department, and was already approaching that stage in the service

at which a similar sinecure would be reached. the third son was a

failure. He had ruined his prospects in a number of positions and

was not serving in the railway department. His father and

brothers, and still more their wives, not merely disliked meeting

him, but avoided remembering his existence unless compelled to do

so. His sister had married Baron Greff, a Petersburg official of

her father's type. Ivan Ilych was *le phenix de la famille* as

people said. He was neither as cold and formal as his elder

brother nor as wild as the younger, but was a happy mean between

them—an intelligent polished, lively and agreeable man. He had

studied with his younger brother at the School of Law, but the

latter had failed to complete the course and was expelled when he

was in the fifth class. Ivan Ilych finished the course well. Even

when he was at the School of Law he was just what he remained for

the rest of his life: a capable, cheerful, good-natured, and

sociable man, though strict in the fulfillment of what he

considered to be his duty: and he considered his duty to be what

was so considered by those in authority. Neither as a boy nor as

a man was he a toady, but from early youth was by nature attracted

to people of high station as a fly is drawn to the light,

assimilating their ways and views of life and establishing friendly

relations with them. All the enthusiasms of childhood and youth

passed without leaving much trace on him; he succumbed to

sensuality, to vanity, and latterly among the highest classes to

liberalism, but always within limits which his instinct unfailingly

indicated to him as correct.

At school he had done things which had formerly seemed to him

very horrid and made him feel disgusted with himself when he did

them; but when later on he saw that such actions were done by

people of good position and that they did not regard them as wrong,

he was able not exactly to regard them as right, but to forget

about them entirely or not be at all troubled at remembering them.

Having graduated from the School of Law and qualified for the

tenth rank of the civil service, and having received money from his

father for his equipment, Ivan Ilych ordered himself clothes at

Scharmer's, the fashionable tailor, hung a medallion inscribed

*respice finem* on his watch-chain, took leave of his professor and

the prince who was patron of the school, had a farewell dinner with

his comrades at Donon's first-class restaurant, and with his new

and fashionable portmanteau, linen, clothes, shaving and other

toilet appliances, and a travelling rug, all purchased at the best

shops, he set off for one of the provinces where through his

father's influence, he had been attached to the governor as an

official for special service.

In the province Ivan Ilych soon arranged as easy and agreeable

a position for himself as he had had at the School of Law. He

performed his official task, made his career, and at the same time

amused himself pleasantly and decorously. Occasionally he paid

official visits to country districts where he behaved with dignity

both to his superiors and inferiors, and performed the duties

entrusted to him, which related chiefly to the sectarians, with an

exactness and incorruptible honesty of which he could not but feel


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.

In the province he had an affair with a lady who made advances

to the elegant young lawyer, and there was also a milliner; and

there were carousals with aides-de-camp who visited the district,

and after-supper visits to a certain outlying street of doubtful

reputation; and there was too some obsequiousness to his chief and

even to his chief's wife, but all this was done with such a tone of

good breeding that no hard names could be applied to it. It all

came under the heading of the French saying: *"Il faut que

jeunesse se passe."* It was all done with clean hands, in clean

linen, with French phrases, and above all among people of the best

society and consequently with the approval of people of rank.

So Ivan Ilych served for five years and then came a change in

his official life. The new and reformed judicial institutions were

introduced, and new men were needed. Ivan Ilych became such a new

man. He was offered the post of examining magistrate, and he

accepted it though the post was in another province and obliged him

to give up the connexions he had formed and to make new ones. His

friends met to give him a send-off; they had a group photograph

taken and presented him with a silver cigarette-case, and he set

off to his new post.

As examining magistrate Ivan Ilych was just as *comme il faut*

and decorous a man, inspiring general respect and capable of

separating his official duties from his private life, as he had

been when acting as an official on special service. His duties now

as examining magistrate were fare more interesting and attractive

than before. In his former position it had been pleasant to wear

an undress uniform made by Scharmer, and to pass through the crowd

of petitioners and officials who were timorously awaiting an

audience with the governor, and who envied him as with free and

easy gait he went straight into his chief's private room to have a

cup of tea and a cigarette with him. But not many people had then

been directly dependent on him—only police officials and the

sectarians when he went on special missions—and he liked to

treat them politely, almost as comrades, as if he were letting them

feel that he who had the power to crush them was treating them in

this simple, friendly way. There were then but few such people.

But now, as an examining magistrate, Ivan Ilych felt that everyone

without exception, even the most important and self-satisfied, was

in his power, and that he need only write a few words on a sheet of

paper with a certain heading, and this or that important, self-

satisfied person would be brought before him in the role of an

accused person or a witness, and if he did not choose to allow him

to sit down, would have to stand before him and answer his

questions. Ivan Ilych never abused his power; he tried on the

contrary to soften its expression, but the consciousness of it and

the possibility of softening its effect, supplied the chief

interest and attraction of his office. In his work itself,

especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired 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. The work was new

and Ivan Ilych was one of the first men to apply the new Code of


On taking up the post of examining magistrate in a new town,

he made new acquaintances and connexions, placed himself on a new

footing and assumed a somewhat different tone. He took up an

attitude of rather dignified aloofness towards the provincial

authorities, but picked out the best circle of legal gentlemen and

wealthy gentry living in the town and assumed a tone of slight

dissatisfaction with the government, of moderate liberalism, and of

enlightened citizenship. At the same time, without at all altering

the elegance of his toilet, he ceased shaving his chin and allowed

his beard to grow as it pleased.

Ivan Ilych settled down very pleasantly in this new town. The

society there, which inclined towards opposition to the governor

was friendly, his salary was larger, and he began to play *vint* [a

form of bridge], which he found added not a little to the pleasure

of life, for he had a capacity for cards, played good-humouredly,

and calculated rapidly and astutely, so that he usually won.

After living there for two years he met his future wife,

Praskovya Fedorovna Mikhel, who was the most attractive, clever,

and brilliant girl of the set in which he moved, and among other

amusements and relaxations from his labours as examining

magistrate, Ivan Ilych established light and playful relations with


While he had been an official on special service he had been

accustomed to dance, but now as an examining magistrate it was

exceptional for him to do so. If he danced now, he did it as if to

show that though he served under the reformed order of things, and

had reached the fifth official rank, yet when it came to dancing he

could do it better than most people. So at the end of an evening

he sometimes danced with Praskovya Fedorovna, and it was chiefly

during these dances that he captivated her. She fell in love with

him. Ivan Ilych had at first no definite intention of marrying,

but when the girl fell in love with him he said to himself:

"Really, why shouldn't I marry?"

Praskovya Fedorovna came of a good family, was not bad

looking, and had some little property. Ivan Ilych might have

aspired to a more brilliant match, but even this was good. He had

his salary, and she, he hoped, would have an equal income. She was

well connected, and was a sweet, pretty, and thoroughly correct

young woman. to say that Ivan Ilych married because he fell in

love with Praskovya Fedorovna and found that she sympathized with

his views of life would be as incorrect as to say that he married

because his social circle approved of the match. He was swayed by

both these considerations: the marriage gave him personal

satisfaction, and at the same time it was considered the right

thing by the most highly placed of his associates.

So Ivan Ilych got married.

The preparations for marriage and the beginning of married

life, with its conjugal caresses, the new furniture, new crockery,

and new linen, were very pleasant until his wife became pregnant—

so that Ivan Ilych had begun to think that marriage would not

impair the easy, agreeable, gay and always decorous character of

his life, approved of by society and regarded by himself as

natural, but would even improve it. But from the first months of

his wife's pregnancy, something new, unpleasant, depressing, and

unseemly, and from which there was no way of escape, unexpectedly

showed itself.

His wife, without any reason—*de gaiete de coeur* as Ivan

Ilych expressed it to himself—began to disturb the pleasure and

propriety of their life. She began to be jealous without any

cause, expected him to devote his whole attention to her, found

fault with everything, and made coarse and ill-mannered scenes.

At first Ivan Ilych hoped to escape from the unpleasantness of

this state of affairs by the same easy and decorous relation to

life that had served him heretofore: he tried to ignore his wife's

disagreeable moods, continued to live in his usual easy and

pleasant way, invited friends to his house for a game of cards, and

also tried going out to his club or spending his evenings with

friends. But one day his wife began upbraiding him so vigorously,

using such coarse words, and continued to abuse him every time he

did not fulfil her demands, so resolutely and with such evident

determination not to give way till he submitted—that is, till he

stayed at home and was bored just as she was—that he became

alarmed. He now realized that matrimony—at any rate with

Praskovya Fedorovna—was not always conducive to the pleasures

and amenities of life, but on the contrary often infringed both

comfort and propriety, and that he must therefore entrench himself

against such infringement. And Ivan Ilych began to seek for means

of doing so. His official duties were the one thing that imposed

upon Praskovya Fedorovna, and by means of his official work and the

duties attached to it he began struggling with his wife to secure

his own independence.

With the birth of their child, the attempts to feed it and the

various failures in doing so, and with the real and imaginary

illnesses of mother and child, in which Ivan Ilych's sympathy was

demanded but about which he understood nothing, the need of

securing for himself an existence outside his family life became

still more imperative.

As his wife grew more irritable and exacting and Ivan Ilych

transferred the center of gravity of his life more and more to his

official work, so did he grow to like his work better and became

more ambitious than before.

Very soon, within a year of his wedding, Ivan Ilych had

realized that marriage, though it may add some comforts to life, is

in fact a very intricate and difficult affair towards which in

order to perform one's duty, that is, to lead a decorous life

approved of by society, one must adopt a definite attitude just as

towards one's official duties.

And Ivan Ilych evolved such an attitude towards married life.

He only required of it 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. For the

rest he looked for lighthearted pleasure and propriety, and was

very thankful when he found them, but if he met with antagonism and

querulousness he at once retired into his separate fenced-off world

of official duties, where he found satisfaction.

Ivan Ilych was esteemed a good official, and after three years

was made Assistant Public Prosecutor. His new duties, their

importance, the possibility of indicting and imprisoning anyone he

chose, the publicity his speeches received, and the success he had

in all these things, made his work still more attractive.

More children came. His wife became more and more querulous

and ill-tempered, but the attitude Ivan Ilych had adopted towards

his home life rendered him almost impervious to her grumbling.

After seven years' service in that town he was transferred to

another province as Public Prosecutor. They moved, but were short

of money and his wife did not like the place they moved to. Though

the salary was higher the cost of living was greater, besides which

two of their children died and family life became still more

unpleasant for him.

Praskovya Fedorovna blamed her husband for every inconvenience

they encountered in their new home. Most of the conversations

between husband and wife, especially as to the children's

education, led to topics which recalled former disputes, and these

disputes were apt to flare up again at any moment. There remained

only those rare periods of amorousness which still came to them at

times but did not last long. These were islets at which they

anchored for a while and then again set out upon that ocean of

veiled hostility which showed itself in their aloofness from one

another. This aloofness might have grieved Ivan Ilych had he

considered that it ought not to exist, but he now regarded the

position as normal, and even made it the goal at which he aimed in

family life. His aim was to free himself more and more from those

unpleasantness 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 chief thing however

was that he had his official duties. The whole interest of his

life now centered in the official world and that interest absorbed

him. The consciousness of his power, being able to ruin anybody he

wished to ruin, the importance, even the external dignity of his

entry into court, or meetings with his subordinates, his success

with superiors and inferiors, and above all his masterly handling

of cases, of which he was conscious—all this 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—pleasantly and


so things continued for another seven years. His eldest

daughter was already sixteen, another child had died, and only one

son was left, a schoolboy and a subject of dissension. Ivan Ilych

wanted to put him in the School of Law, but to spite him Praskovya

Fedorovna entered him at the High School. The daughter had been

educated at home and had turned out well: the boy did not learn

badly either.

Help | Feedback | Make a request | Report an error
Classic Book Go to top