The Death of Ivan Ilyich

The Death of Ivan Ilyich

Summer Sequel Series

Part Two, Still Dead, Still Angry

They have sequels of dumb movies all summer for the daft. How about some summer sequels for the intelligentsia?


You may remember from our first go round that Ivan Ilyich was putting up some curtains and he kind of fell and hurt his side.

This being 19th century Russia, after he became ill, there really wasn’t much the doctors could do for him. They came around, said some things, but sure enough, he croaked.

But not before looking reality straight in the face. Mortality. All of that. Maybe this was one of the first existentialist texts. An important character is the simple servant boy Gerasim, who the dying Ilyich observes is the only person who doesn’t fear death, because of his simple faith and character. Thanks to this servant, he is able to see the truth about himself and the cosmos and dies more or less peacefully.

One of the most horrifying bits is the opening chapter where his colleague and supposed friend Peter Ivanovich and two others read the funeral notice and instead of feeling compassion for their departed friend, they wonder if this could mean a promotion for one of them. Then they feel annoyed at the necessity to now attend a boring, dreary funeral. When they do go to the funeral, Peter Ivanovich for a moment is frightened by death but then tells himself, “That happened to Ivan, but it’s not the sort of thing that will happen to me.” And finally they go off and play a happy game of bridge.

The sequel picks up a few years later.

Ivan Ilyich is still dead.

He did, I know, see flash of light when he died, and he put his head on his son’s head, and felt great love for his family and death, supposedly disappeared.

In the sequel, though, some years have passed and his friends are playing bridge.

Peter Ivanovich gets a very good hand. He bids five spades, and this should win them the rubber. He is momentarily confused by an incorrect ruffing of a diamond, but in the end he makes his book anyhow, and is greatly pleased by the outcome of the game.

The friends smoke a cigar and take a little break before beginning another game.

Suddenly there is a strange sound outside on the stairs. Plod, plod, plod. Something is coming up the stairs. Peter tells his servant to see what it is, but the servant is afraid. Peter angrily gets up and is about to go to the door when suddenly it is smashed open.

There stands Ivan Ilyich. Glaring at them.

“Awkward,” thinks Peter Ivanovich. But then, he comforts himself. There’s no way that his dead friend could have heard their conversation at the law courts. Or read his mind at the funeral, when he thought, “Oh well, I’m glad it happened to Ivan and not to me.”


In horror, Peter Ivanovich wonders if Ivan Ilyich might have read the book that was written about him by the great Tolstoy. In which case, he would know everything.

“Ivan,” he says weakly, “How good to see you. We thought you were dead. In fact, we attended your funeral. You were buried in the ground years ago. Are you not dead?”

Ivan just grunts and holds up a book.

Peter Ivanovich’s heart sinks. Yes, it’s The Death of Ivan Ilyich, by Leo Tolstoy. A short book. No War and PeaceBut just short enough for a dead person to manage.

“Ivan, you saw a white light and you sallied forth into heaven, surely,” says Peter Ivanovich.

Ivan grunts again. And then he throws the book down angrily. And he holds his cold white hands out, like a zombie, and starts walking towards Peter Ivanovich.

“Promotion!” he growls, “You were concerned about a promotion? I’ll give you a promotion!”

Luckily, there is a servant boy named Gerasim who has recently been hired, in fact poached from the domestic staff of the Ilyich residence. This young servant is good with a fire poker.

“I told you!” yells Gerasim, as he raises the poker at Ivan, “I don’t fear death. I live an authentic life.”

Ivan is startled to see Gerasim.

“Gerasim…” he says weakly, “But you…you were the innocent, the pure, the only one I admired, the only one…”

“Yeah, these guys made me a better offer, so I work for them now,” says Gerasim.

Then Gerasim impales Ivan in the side of the head with the poker. It comes right out the other side of his head. Ivan looks up at the ceiling and falls backward onto the ground, dead once more.

“Thank you boy,” says Peter Ivanovich curtly, “Take that away, and bring us the samovar.”

Gerasim drags out the body as Peter Ivanovich takes up the deck of cards.

“Gentleman,” he says to the company. “Time for one more rubber?”

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