Seventeen years after his wedding, Ivan is a senior public prosecutor. In the seven years since moving to a new province, he has declined opportunities to transfer because he thinks he’ll soon be promoted. However, he is unexpectedly passed over for promotion, and when he complains, his superiors hardly respond. The following year, he is skipped over once again. Ivan takes these developments as personal insults, feeling his power and influence dwindling. Feeling abandoned, he takes a leave of absence to rest in the countryside at his brother-in-law’s house. After just a short time of lounging with the family, though, he decides to make his way directly to St. Petersburg to address the fact that he deserves more respect than he has received. More specifically, he decides that he will take any job—in any capacity—that will pay him 5,000 rubles per year.
Ivan’s brief period of misfortune shows him that not everything in life will always work out in his favor. At the same time, though, this is nothing but a minor setback compared to the many travesties that could befall him. Nevertheless, Ivan sees his failure to attain even more upward mobility as a great injustice, apparently blaming his superiors and colleagues instead of himself. In this moment, then, readers see that Ivan tends to lash out at others when things don’t go his way. What’s more, his decision to find any job that will pay 5,000 rubles underlines the fact that he cares about money more than anything else.
On the train from the countryside to St. Petersburg, Ivan sits next to a colleague who tells him that the entire ministry is about to undergo a great change that will vacate multiple positions. As a result of this conversation, Ivan manages to secure a respected role in the courts in St. Petersburg because he knows an important colleague who has just risen to power. After a week of making arrangements in the city, he sends word to Praskovya and tells her that he will be receiving 5,000 rubles per year in addition to 3,500 to help them move back to the city. When he returns to the countryside, he tells Praskovya everything that happened, and she is just as excited as him, fantasizing about the life they will lead in St. Petersburg. For the first time in a long while, they are at peace with each another.
It’s worth noting that Ivan rises to prominence not because of his skill or hard work, but because he knows somebody important. This kind of nepotism perfectly illustrates why he and the people in his social circle care so much about reputation, since the best way to advance in this particular society is by leaning upon one’s status and connections. Furthermore, Ivan and Praskovya finally reconcile because they both appreciate wealth and status—a fact that underlines the superficial concerns that hold their relationship together.
Ivan goes to St. Petersburg before the rest of his family in order to begin his job and set up their new apartment. During this period, he throws himself into decorating their new residence, sparing no expense and outfitting it with all the latest styles. He’s so absorbed by this task that he daydreams about how beautiful the apartment will look even as he sits in court. One day, he sees an upholsterer hanging the drapes the wrong way, so he tries to show the man how he wants it. While standing on a ladder, he falls and hits his side against the knob on the window frame, leaving a painful bruise. However, he brushes this injury off, telling Praskovya in a letter that he feels 15 years younger now that he has the job he’s always wanted and lives in a beautiful apartment.
Ivan’s contentment has nothing to do with the particular nature of his new job. Instead of taking delight in his actual role in the courts, he fixates on the many perks that have come along with this position. In keeping with this, he obsesses over his apartment, devoting himself to decorating it. In fact, he applies himself with such fervor to the task of outfitting his living space that he physically harms himself. And though he decides that the bruise he receives while hanging the drapes is nothing to worry about, it serves as an indication that his shortsighted obsession with superficial matters in life may very well take a toll on his wellbeing.
When Praskovya and the children finally come to St. Petersburg, Ivan proudly takes them from room to room and shows them how he’s decorated the apartment. As he does so, Praskovya acts impressed even though the decorations are nothing special. In fact, they look exactly like what everyone else has in their homes, but this doesn’t bother Ivan or Praskovya. Later, Praskovya asks him about his injury on the ladder, and he makes a joke of it, reenacting the fall and saying that he’s lucky he’s so athletic, since the accident could have killed a lesser man. Although the bruise still hurts, he says, it’s improving and is nothing to worry about.
Although both Praskovya and Ivan like the way their new apartment is decorated, Tolstoy indicates that the style is rather unimpressive. That the decorations are the same ones everyone else in their social circle has is unsurprising, considering that Ivan and Praskovya are both so focused on how other people see them and, thus, are quick to conform to whatever styles their peers embrace. In fact, this fixation on earning respect in society eclipses Ivan’s concern for his own wellbeing, as evidenced by how little he cares about the injury he sustained while working on his apartment.
Ivan and Praskovya are happy in their new life, though they find that they still don’t have quite as much money or space as they’d like. Nonetheless, they both go through their days in a good mood, even if Ivan sometimes gets frustrated when he finds certain things out of order in the apartment. While Ivan spends the majority of his time cultivating an air of emotional detachment in court, Praskovya and their eldest daughter, Liza, busy themselves with social obligations. Like them, Ivan enjoys socializing, taking pride in having dinner and dance parties to show off their apartment. One by one, he and Praskovya stop associating with anyone they think is below their social status. They also encourage Liza’s budding relationship with a young man named Petrishchev, who is the only son of an examining magistrate.
During this period, Ivan and Praskovya think only about how to cultivate their reputation as a family, wanting to make the most out of their new social status. This is worth noting, since they have already spent so much time trying to improve their reputation—now that they’ve attained a new level of respect in society, they don’t simply relax into it and enjoy their lives but continue to obsess over their public image. This, in turn, suggests that superficial concerns of this nature persist no matter how much success a person earns.