Ivan Ilych's life had been most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible.
This line comes from Chapter II of the novel, and is among the most famous in Russian literature. While a simple life is generally considered a virtue, Ivan's life is simple in the wrong way. He is a conformist. His values, desires, and behavior are wholly determined by the opinions and expectations of his social superiors. He chooses his friends based upon their social standing. He decides to marry because it is considered the right thing to do. Ivan's life is terrible because it is a life devoid of true freedom, of true individuality. Ivan does not use his own reason to direct his moral life. Rather, he imbibes his beliefs from aristocrats. In a sense, Ivan is a robot.
In his work itself, especially in his examinations, he very soon acquired a method of eliminating all considerations irrelevant to the legal aspect of the case, and reducing even the most complicated case to a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals, completely excluding his personal opinion of the matter, while above all observing every prescribed formality.
Ivan's professional ability to reduce complicated cases to mere forms on paper, to deal with potentially emotional and personal situations in terms of cold externals, reflects in all aspects of his life. Ivan deals with unpleasant situations and relationships by pushing them away and erecting barriers between himself and the disagreeable influence. When married life grows difficult for Ivan he spends more and more time at work, and when he is obliged to be at home he maintains a safe distance from his wife and family by inviting guests to join him. Ivan expects predictability from the world, and he retreats from it when the unexpected arises. Like his professional life, Ivan's personal life is formal and disconnected. By shutting out his wife, family, and the rest of the world, Ivan manages to shut himself in. He is isolated and alienated, and in the end his life is a mere form.
It is as if I had been going downhill while I imagined I was going up. And that is really what it was. I was going up in public opinion, but to the same extent life was ebbing away from me. And now it is all done and there is only death.
These lines are from chapter IX of the novel, shortly after Ivan hears the voice of his soul. For the first time Ivan begins to realize that social status is not the same as fulfillment. He feels that his desire to travel in the prescribed tracks of aristocratic society actually robbed him of life. Whether Ivan truly understands the implications of his 'realization' is open to question. Later in the novel, Ivan chooses to maintain his belief in the correctness of his life, rather than carry his realization to its logical conclusion. Regardless of the true extent of Ivan's understanding, however, the quotation reflects his spiritual awakening.
'Maybe I did not live as I ought to have done,' it suddenly occurred to him. 'But how could that be, when I did everything properly?' he replied, and immediately dismissed from his mind this, the sole solution of all the riddles of life and death, as something quite impossible.
This crucial passage appears in Chapter IX and reveals as much about Ivan's moral quandary as it does about Tolstoy's values. The fact that Ivan questions the correctness of his past life reflects Ivan's growing awareness of the true meaning of life, yet his inability to dissociate "proper" behavior from "right" behavior prevents him from seeing the error of his ways. Ivan still thinks that he will find happiness by imitating the behavior of his social superiors. He is not yet aware of Tolstoy's reigning values: compassion and love, and their importance in living a happy and correct life. Tolstoy's belief that living rightly will provide answers to all the riddles of the world, furthermore, only reinforces the importance of his values.
Suddenly some force struck him in the chest and side, making it still harder to breathe, and he fell through the hole and there at the bottom was a light Just then his schoolboy son had crept softly in and gone up to the bedside. The dying man was still screaming desperately and waving his arms. His hand fell on the boy's head, and the boy caught it, pressed it to his lips, and began to cry.
These climactic lines come from the final chapter of the novel. In the midst of his agony Ivan is spiritually reborn. As he passes into the light, Ivan finally realizes that his life was not what it should have been. It is not an accident that Ivan's epiphany coincides exactly with his hand falling on his son's head. For the first time in the novel, Ivan expresses deep pity for his son and wife. This spiritual intimacy, coupled with the physical closeness represented by touch, breaks down the screens Ivan has erected between himself and others. As Ivan bridges the gap, his isolation disappears, the meaning of life is revealed, and true joy fills him.