Death of Ivan Ilych
Sum up the reactions of Ivan Ilych's colleagues to the news of his death. What is implied in Tolstoy's calling them "so-called friends"?
Ivan's colleagues are "so-called friends" because unlike true friends they have no real sympathy or empathy for Ivan, his life, or his soul. Their immediate concern is of promotions, who will be selected to take Ivan's place, and the amount of money the new position will bring in. They are superficial, worldly and materialistic. They admit to never seeing him ("I haven't been to see him since the holidays. I always meant to go.") unless a "holiday" custom demands it. Their true natures are summed up tersely with the thought that each one expresses: "Well, he's dead but I'm alive." Anyone so selfish cannot be a real friend, because the basis of friendship is selflessness.
What comic elements do you find in the account of the wake that Peter Ivanovich attends?
Peter's lack of sense is one of the comic elements of the account: "Peter Ivanovich continued to make the sign of the cross…afterwards, when it seemed to him that this movement of his arm in crossing himself had gone on too long, he stopped…" Peter is conscious only of externals and not of the actual meaning of the things he does. The fact that he feels reproached by Ivan's corpse and feels refreshed by Schwartz's ridiculous figure lends further humor to the account. In spite of the fact that he is at a wake, Schwartz shows that he is "above" his surroundings by taking out a pack of cards. It is funny because these men are wholly insensible to anything but their own shallow selves. They are out of place with these uncomfortable formalities regarding death.
3. In Tolstoy's description of the corpse and its expression, what details seem especially revealing and meaningful?
The fact that the face of the corpse conveys reproach is meaningful because it is as though Ivan is now delivering a message to his "friends" about the reality of life and death. He had been like them before his final suffering: he had only been interested in his career, in having a good time, etc. Now he has "gone to the other side." His features are hardened, sunken and yet "more dignified." Through death, Ivan has become a person of substance. His expression serves as a warning that one must take the life of the soul seriously. Those who don't take it seriously find this expression to be "out of place," as Peter does.
4. Do you think Tolstoy would have improved the story if he had placed the events in chronological order?
The opening scenes at the law courts and at the wake are essentially satirical and poke fun at the empty lives of Ivan's colleagues. The rest of the story is meant to show how Ivan passed from emptiness (or spiritual death) into fullness (or spiritual life), by, ironically, dying to himself. If Tolstoy had placed the beginning scenes at the end of the story for chronology's sake, the final tone of the story would have been satirical rather than spiritual and would have expressed an unintended reversal of tone and voice.
5. Would you call Ivan Ilych, when we first meet him, a religious man? Sum up his goals in life, his values, and his attitudes.
Ivan is certainly not a religious man. His goals are wholly concerned with this world, not with the next. He values his position in life, his estate, his affairs, his pleasures, and himself above all. His attitudes are superficial and somewhat mean. His father, brothers and sisters-in-law detest him: he has no friends, and yet he is not without conscience -- for example when he had done horrid things, he genuinely feels disgusted with himself, yet sees that others do them and that one must to get on with the world.
6. By what "virtues" and abilities does Ivan rise through the ranks?
He rises through the ranks by pursuing the same "ideals" as those of the earthly Court of Justice. He gets married because he believes it will give him pleasure and that it is the "acceptable" thing to do. He rises in the ranks when the "reforms" come and new men are needed. He is a good official and is promoted and transferred from Province to Province, and knows how to…