Sunday, June 18, 2017

Notes on Tolstoy's "Death of Ivan Ilyich" The Aesthetics GREAT SCENES THREE: "If it's time to go, it's time to go."

The Aesthetics. Great Scenes Three: If it’s time to go it’s time to go.

On the way to the theater, Ivan Ilyich’s family drops by the sickbed of the dying man:

“After dinner, at seven o’clock, Praskovya Fyodorovna came into his room in evening dress, her full bosom drawn up tightly by her corset, and with traces of powder on her face. She had reminded him in the morning that they were going to the theater. Sarah Bernhardt had come to town, and at his insistence they had reserved a box. He had forgotten about this and was offended by the sight of her elaborate attire. But he concealed his indignation when he recalled that he himself had urged them to reserve a box and go . . .

[P.F. comes in looking “self-satisfied but somehow guilty.” Purely pro forma, she asks him how he is feeling, “not because she wanted to find out anything; she knew there was nothing to find out.” She explains that she has to go to the theater with the others, although “she would much prefer to sit at home with him.” Then she asks if the others can come in.

‘Oh, and Fyodor Petrovich (the fiancé) would like to come in. May he? And Liza?

‘All right.’

His daughter came in all decked out in a gown that left much of her young body exposed, the body, which was the cause of so much agony for him. And she was making a show of the flesh. Strong, healthy, and obviously in love, she was impatient with illness, suffering and death, which interfered with her happiness.

Fyodor Petrovich came in as well, in evening dress, his hair curled à la Capoul, a stiff white collar encircling his long, sinewy neck, an enormous white shirtfront over his chest, narrow black trousers hugging his strong thighs, a white glove drawn tightly over one hand, an opera hat clasped in the other.

Behind him the schoolboy son crept in unnoticed, wearing a new uniform, poor fellow, with gloves on and those awful dark circles under his eyes, whose meaning Ivan Ilyich understood. He had always felt sorry for his son. Now he found the boy’s frightened, pitying look terrible to behold. It seemed to Ivan Ilyich that, except for Gerasim, Vasya was the only one who understood and pitied him.

They all sat down and asked again how he was feeling. Next came silence. Liza asked her mother about the opera glasses. This led to an argument between mother and daughter over who had mislaid them. This made for unpleasantness.

Fyodor Petrovich asked Ivan Ilyich if he had ever seen Sarah Bernhardt. At first Ivan Ilyich did not understand the question, but then he said, ‘No. Have you seen her?’

‘Yes,  in Adrienne Lecouvreur.’

Praskovya Fyodorovna said she had been particularly good in something or other. Her daughter disagreed. They started a conversation about the charm and naturalness of her acting—the exact same conversation that people always have on that subject.

In the middle of the conversation Fyodor Petrovich glanced at Ivan Ilyich and stopped talking. The others also looked at him and stopped talking. Ivan Ilyich was staring straight ahead with glittering eyes, obviously indignant with them. The situation had to be rectified, but there was no way to rectify it. The silence somehow had to be broken. No one ventured to break it, and they all began fearing that the lie dictated by propriety would suddenly be exposed and the truth become clear to all. Liza was the first to speak. She broke the silence. She wanted to conceal what they all were feeling, but her tongue betrayed her.

‘Well, if it’s time to go, it’s time to go (Однако, если ехать, то пора),” she said, glancing at her watch, a present from her father. And smiling at her young man in a significant but barely perceptible way, about something between only the two of them, she stood up, rustling her dress.
They all got up, said goodbye, and left.”


This whole scene is typically wonderful Tolstoy writing about the social concourse of human beings. He has such a keen feel for the little unsaid things that go on between people, the hypocrisy, the pretending, the way people lie to each other on a daily basis. Here the main feeling is constraint. The relatives do not really want to be here, at the bedside of a dying man—even though that man is a very close relative. Nobody knows what to say in the face of death, and they all attempt to talk around the issue. Mother and daughter take refuge in bickering. The fiancé tries to ask a question relevant to his own life, but no longer relevant in the world of the dying.

Then suddenly they panic in the face of the dying man’s silence, even his indignation. Panic almost overwhelms them as they all look for a way to maintain the decorous lie. Nobody can think what to say, and then Liza, the daughter, commits what later has come to be known as a Freudian slip. Inadvertently, some neuron in her brain blurts out what is on the mind of them all. If Ivan Ilyich is going (dying), then it’s high time he be on his way.

The Russian has an impersonal expression here, with no subject expressed. A literal translation would be, “Well then, if to go, then it’s time.” This is especially appropriate, since no subject (we, or you) is expressed, but a double meaning comes through: (1) If it’s time for us to go to the theater, we better be off (2) If it’s time for you, Ivan Ilyich, to go, then get going. Most translators into English of the story have something like, “Well, if we’re going, we best be off,” which is not that bad but which does not encompass the issue the way an impersonal expression does.

Maybe the most strikingly creative thing about this whole scene is that Liza is not apparently aware of what she has blurted out. Neither, apparently, are any of the others. But we the readers are aware. We wonder if Ivan Ilyich is. When they all leave for the theater he feels a sense of relief: the lie isn’t there any more; it went out the door with them.

1 comment:

  1. Great blog post and really helpful...... and your blog are very interesting and inspiring.

    Dark circles