Ivan Ilyich dies at the age of 45, a respected judge on the Court of Justice. He is the son of an important and well-respected man who has risen to prominence in St. Petersburg, Russia despite the fact that Ivan’s father rarely does anything notable. Indeed, Ivan’s father is the kind of man who works superfluous jobs but earns large amounts of money. Growing up, Ivan is well-liked and stands out amongst his siblings, a precocious and charming young boy. In school and in his subsequent career, he finds himself attracted to authority, imitating important people and learning their ways of moving through the world. When he begins to study law, he has occasional misgivings about some of the things he’s required to do, “disgusted with himself” until he realizes that his superiors are behaving in the same way. From this point on, he stops scrutinizing his own actions.
Ivan grows up surrounded by power and influence, no doubt noting his father’s prominence and getting used to the idea of upward mobility. For this reason, he finds it relatively easy to ignore his initial misgivings when he’s in school, though it’s noteworthy that he does stop to consider whether or not he’s embarking upon a moral way of life, given than nobody else seems to pay attention to such matters. Nonetheless, though, his desire to emulate authority figures and advance in his career eclipses any concern he might have about how he conducts himself—a sign that his thirst for power is overwhelmingly strong.
After graduating from law school, Ivan becomes an assistant to the governor and moves to one of the provinces surrounding St. Petersburg. Before he leaves, he buys expensive clothing and beautiful luggage, upon which he has the words Respice finem embroidered. Once he arrives in the provinces, he excels at his job, becoming reserved and bureaucratic even as he cultivates a certain social charisma that makes it easy to deal with people. During this time, he casually dates a couple of young women, goes out drinking with his friends, and sometimes visits prostitutes. Despite this slightly devilish behavior, though, he maintains a respectable image, and nobody faults him for his youthful antics.
When Ivan buys himself expensive clothing and luggage before starting his new job, readers see the extent to which he wants to cultivate a certain image for himself. To that end, he wants to be seen as a rich, successful, and powerful young man, regardless of what he actually does. And even though he behaves somewhat wildly, he manages to achieve his goal of becoming a respectable figure in society—an indication that status in his social circle has less to do with how a person behaves and more to do with how he or she presents him- or herself.
After five years as the governor’s assistant, Ivan starts a new job as an examining magistrate in the courts. This requires him to move to a new province, where he makes more connections and cultivates the respect of his peers. As a judge, he delights in his newfound power, realizing that people are directly at his mercy now. Even if he doesn’t subject people to humiliation, he likes to wield his power by behaving kindly to defendants, subtly reminding them that, although he’s being nice, he has the ability to make their lives miserable. As he gets used to his work, he gets good at putting objective distance between his judgment and any given case, making decisions based on nothing other than facts and never letting his emotions interfere.
When Ivan becomes a judge, he delights in his newfound power, demonstrating once again that this kind of prominence is exactly what he has always wanted in life. Any misgivings he may have had about his profession or behavior have clearly faded to nothing, as he takes pleasure in the idea that people are at his mercy. Furthermore, the fact that Ivan learns to put objective distance between his emotions and his decisions simply proves that he is becoming less and less connected to his own humanity, prioritizing his career and status over his feelings.
While making friends in high society, Ivan starts playing whist, enjoying the card game along with his increased salary and burgeoning reputation. He also begins to see a young woman named Praskovya Fyodorovna. Praskovya is attractive, well-respected, and is a good match for Ivan on the dancefloor, which is where he decides—based on her impressive moves—that it might not be such a bad idea to marry her. Although he has never put much thought into getting married before, he now recognizes that Praskovya is not only beautiful and sought-after, but also comes from a rich family, meaning that she will bring some wealth into their marriage. Thinking this way, he proposes to her.
Ivan getting married has little to do with his actual emotions, since he bases this decision on financial and social concerns. Treating his relationship with Praskovya like a kind of social currency, he proposes to her simply because she will bring him wealth and respect. Once again, then, readers see how invested he is in his reputation and status, prioritizing such matters over his true feelings.
Praskovya and Ivan get married, and at first everything is wonderful. The presents, the furniture, the romance—they all immensely please Ivan. However, things take a turn for the worse around the time that Praskovya becomes pregnant, at which point they begin to argue. Ivan seeks refuge in his work, focusing on his career whenever he and Praskovya launch into an argument. Realizing that his marriage won’t always be a source of happiness and agreeability, he applies himself with extra fervor to advancing his career, knowing that this pursuit will ultimately please Praskovya even as it enables him to avoid her. This dynamic only intensifies when Praskovya gives birth to their first child, and it is perhaps because of their strained home life that Ivan gets promoted within three years, so focused has he been on his work.
In this period of his life, Ivan’s devotion to his career intensifies because of his inability to address the problems in his life. Rather than working with Praskovya to cultivate a healthier, more agreeable relationship, he distracts himself by focusing on what he has always focused on: power, wealth, and status. Needless to say, none of these things will actually restore the dynamic between him and Praskovya, but he doesn’t stop to consider this—or, if he does, he doesn’t care.
Praskovya and Ivan have other children, and their strained relational dynamic continues. After seven years, Ivan is transferred to a new province, and though his salary is higher, the family’s living costs are also higher. Consequently, he begins to worry about money. To make matters worse, two of his children die, and Praskovya begins to blame him for the family’s hardships. However, her scorn doesn’t bother him all that much, since he sees it as his role to do whatever he can to distance himself from family life while simultaneously making his loved ones’ existence slightly more pleasant by providing for them.
Ivan finds purpose in his role as a provider, insisting to himself that it’s all right to withdraw from family life because he’s doing so in order to improve his loved ones’ lives. In reality, though, it seems rather obvious that he simply wants to distract himself from his unhappiness. After all, he didn’t marry for love, so it’s unsurprising that his relationship with Praskovya depresses him. For this reason, he devotes himself to his career, using his obsession with authority and wealth to ignore his overall discontent.