Upon learning that the judge Ivan Ilyich Golovin has died, Ivan’s friends and colleagues at the courthouse think privately about how they might benefit from his death. Pyotr Ivanovich, who was friends with Ivan Ilyich for many years, realizes that he might be able to help his brother-in-law transfer because of this new vacancy, and Fyodor Vasilyevich fantasizes about getting a promotion. However, none of the men say these thoughts aloud, instead expressing their sorrow that Ivan finally succumbed to his long, painful illness.
Ivan Ilyich’s friends don’t just think about the professional opportunities that his death has introduced—they also consider mortality, relieved that they weren’t the ones to die. At the same time, though, Pyotr Ivanovich is unsettled when he goes to Ivan’s funeral and hears about his friend’s suffering. Not only does this make him feel sorry for Ivan, but it also reminds him that he, too, will die someday. And yet, this thought remains abstract, and he manages to push it out of his mind by focusing on the idea of playing cards after the funeral. When he first enters the ceremony and sees all the sad faces and grieving family members, he becomes depressed, but soon spots a colleague named Schwartz, who winks at him and smiles in a way that conveys a lack of true sentiment, as if Schwartz is unwilling to let the morose proceedings interfere with his plans to organize a game of whist that evening. Before Pyotr Ivanovich can leave the funeral, though, Praskovya Fyodorovna Golovina—Ivan’s wife—takes him by the arm and leads him into the sitting room, where she tells him about Ivan’s prolonged, terrible death. As she speaks, Pyotr notices that she only talks about her husband’s suffering in terms of how it affected her, and then she asks him to help her receive the most money possible from the government in the aftermath of his death. Finally, when Pyotr admits that he doesn’t know how to help her, they return to the ceremony, and Pyotr leaves as soon as possible, spending the rest of the evening happily playing whist with Schwartz.
The story of Ivan Ilyich’s death is one of suffering, misery, and gradual decline. As a young man, he studies law and benefits from his father’s reputation. While in school, though, he begins to do certain things that repulse him: spending money frivolously, drinking, and having casual sex. These actions make him feel as if he’s embarking on an unsavory life. Over time, though, he recognizes that his superiors also indulge such behaviors, so he stops thinking about whether or not he’s leading a good life. Instead, he focuses on his career and social status, dressing himself in fine clothes and accepting a job as an assistant to the governor. He works diligently during this time and develops a certain social charm, eventually becoming an examining magistrate. He relishes his newfound influence in this position, feeling as if it’s enough to simply know that he has power even if he doesn’t need to wield it. In court he learns how to extract himself from extraneous concerns, approaching each case in an objective, unemotional manner. He soon meets Praskovya, whom he finds beautiful and charming. Though he’s never put much thought into the prospect of marriage, he decides that she’s a “decent catch” and that he might as well wed her.
Around the time Praskovya gets pregnant, she and Ivan begin to argue. From this point on, Ivan dislikes married life, applying himself even more fervently to his work. As he and Praskovya have more children, he becomes increasingly invested in his career, as it becomes an outlet that helps him avoid the sorrows of the home—sorrows that arise frequently and in good measure, as several of their children die and his relationship with Praskovya loses its appeal. Whenever Ivan and Praskovya start to fight, he retreats by reviewing documents in the evenings. Despite this dedication, though, his work life begins to deteriorate when he’s overlooked for a promotion several years in a row. This upsets him greatly, so he decides to confront his superiors and tell them that he deserves more than they’ve given him. On his way to do this, though, he learns that the entire ministry is about to undergo significant changes, and he manages to position himself so that he gets a promotion when this happens.
Ivan moves to Petersburg in advance of his family, wanting to set up their apartment while he begins his new job. He spares no expense, lavishly decorating the living quarters. While hanging curtains one day he falls and bruises his side, which he dismisses though the injury continues to hurt, focusing instead on setting up his home and pleasing Praskovya, who is happy when she and their children finally arrive. In this new chapter of life, they entertain well-respected guests, have dignified parties, and enjoy a pleasant existence, even if Ivan occasionally notices a strange taste in his mouth and a worsening pain in his side. Soon enough, though, these symptoms affect his mood, causing him to argue with Praskovya about the tiniest matters. Consequently, she urges Ivan to see a doctor and he agrees, though he dislikes having to subject himself to an expert, feeling that the doctor treats him the exact same way that he himself treats guilty defendants in court. During the appointment, the doctor talks about his kidney and “blind gut,” saying they will need to do a battery of tests to know what’s happening to him. Wanting to cut to the chase, Ivan asks if this condition is life-threatening, but the doctor ignores him and continues his obtuse diatribe. Finally, at the end of the appointment, Ivan asks once more if he’s going to die, but the doctor simply stares at him and says that he has already stated his opinion.
Frustrated, Ivan consults other doctors. No matter what they say or what he does, though, his symptoms intensify. He even turns briefly to wholistic medicine and, later, mystical practices, but these methods are equally ineffective as the conventional approaches, so he gives them up and resigns himself to following whatever regimen his doctor suggests. All the while, Praskovya and Liza (their adult daughter) go on with their lives as socialites, acting as if his illness isn’t all that serious. Ivan himself even tries to ignore his illness but is unable to do so because the pain and strange taste in his mouth distract him from the things he used to love so much, like presiding over courtrooms or playing whist. As time passes, he becomes gaunt and frail, a shell of his former self. Recognizing that his condition is only getting worse, he starts thinking that his doctors are foolish to focus on his kidney and “blind gut,” believing that they’re overlooking the most important matter: his imminent death. Thinking this way, he realizes that he’s never allowed himself to believe in his own mortality. Although he has always understood that everyone dies regardless of who they are, he has never applied this to himself, since he’s been too invested in his own unique experience to fathom its end. Now, though, he sees that he’s been wrong to think this way, and this realization causes him to question the very point of life. What, he wants to know, is this all for?
Retreating from this thought, Ivan attempts to distract himself by thinking about the things that used to bring him comfort, but his work and reputation are useless as he experiences an all-encompassing form of pain. No matter how hard he tries to convince himself that his work has given his life meaning, he can’t help but think that only his pain is real, and that everything else he has ever focused on has been nothing in comparison to this unavoidable, dreadful experience of agony. It is in this state of mind that he takes a turn for the worse, becoming bedbound in a small room where he receives doctors, his wife, and servants like Gerasim, a young peasant who selflessly helps him. In this capacity, Ivan develops a strong resentment for Praskovya and Liza because they seem incapable of fully understanding his predicament—an inability he links to their unwillingness to understand, since they don’t want to imagine the end of their own lives. Gerasim, on the other hand, recognizes that death comes for everyone, so he empathizes with Ivan and does whatever he can to make him comfortable, even allowing Ivan to prop his legs on his shoulders for hours at a time because this alleviates Ivan’s pain a bit.
Doctors periodically visit Ivan and examine him, but he hates them because he knows they won’t admit that there’s nothing they can do to save him. Accordingly, he thinks they’re perpetuating a lie that everyone else seems to also uphold, as evidenced by Praskovya and Liza’s behavior as they refuse to show him that they think he’s going to die. One evening they come into his bedroom before going to the opera, and as they discuss the upcoming show, they notice that he’s looking at them with unconcealed hatred. From then on, Ivan shrinks away from Praskovya’s touch, detesting her presence whenever she enters the room.
As Ivan’s health further deteriorates, he laments the apparent nonexistence of God. He then reviews memories of his childhood, feeling as if he can only live in the past. This, however, leads him to wonder if he’s lived his life incorrectly, but he dismisses this idea by reminding himself that he has always done everything “properly.” Nonetheless, he is unable to stop questioning his lifestyle and choices, taking up a dialogue with a voice deep within him. When he asks this voice what all of this suffering is for, it replies, “It’s just there. It’s not for anything.” As his pain intensifies, he thinks that everything has been getting worse and worse ever since his youth, when there was still some “light” in his life. He then decides that he has indeed lived improperly, but he doesn’t know what he should have done or why he must suffer. Looking at his family, he sees that they embody everything he used to believe in and, additionally, all of the superficiality upon which he has wasted his life.
In the days leading up to his death, Ivan agrees to take communion, which makes him feel somewhat better. But when Praskovya asks if he’s improving as a result and he says that he is, he plunges back into misery, knowing that this is a lie. He then begins to scream in pain, never ceasing until he dies three days later. On the final day, he flails his arms and touches his son Vasya’s head, and Vasya kisses his fingers. Just then, Ivan feels that he is tumbling through a hole and sees a light, and he knows that his life wasn’t as it should have been but that he can still make it “right.” Looking at his son and his other family members, he realizes that he’s hurting them by suffering, so he tries to say, “Forgive me,” though the words sound like, “For goodness.” Still, he assures himself that “he who need[s] to” will understand. Shortly thereafter, his pain recedes. Even when it returns, he doesn’t care because his life is about to end, but instead of encountering death, he sees light. “Death is gone,” Ivan tells himself, and then so is he.