Ivan Ilych is an unexceptional, commonplace, nondescript man. His life is "most simple and most ordinary and therefore most terrible." The child of a "superfluous" member of superfluous government institutions, Ivan is the middle of three sons. He is neither as cold and formal as his older brother, nor as wild and reckless as his younger brother. He is a "happy mean" between the two, le phenix de la famille.
Around the age of thirteen, Ivan enters the School of Law. A sociable, agreeable, and proper student, Ivan is strict in the fulfillment of his duty, his duty understood as the dictates of those in authority. From early on, he is attracted to people of high social standing as a "fly is drawn to the light." He assimilates their values, behavior, and views on life. When he graduates from the School of Law, Ivan makes the conventional purchases of clothes and luggage, including a medallion inscribed with the motto respice finem, look to the end, and he sets out for his first position as an official for a provincial governor.
In the province, Ivan's life is pleasant and decorous. He performs his professional duties with exactness, and even his affairs and carousals are carried on with a "tone of good breeding." Ivan remains in the province for five years until the Russian governmental reforms of the 1860s create the demand for "new men." Ivan becomes just such a new man, accepting a post as examining magistrate in the reformed judicial institution, and moving to a new province.
In his new post, Ivan operates just as properly and decorously as before, always ensuring to exclude his personal opinion from his professional duties. He acquires the ability to reduce even the most complicated case to "a form in which it would be presented on paper only in its externals." His social life picks up where it left off. He finds the best circle of "legal gentleman" to associate with, and begins playing vint, a form of bridge. After two years in the province, Ivan meets Praskovya Fedorovna. Praskovya comes from a good family, is not unattractive, and has a little property. Although Ivan had no definite intention of marrying, and although he did not quite fall in love with Praskovya, he decides to marry her in part because his superiors consider it the right thing to do.
The early stages of married life are pleasant and easy, and life is proceeding decorously for Ivan until his wife becomes pregnant. From the first months of Praskovya's pregnancy, something "unpleasant, depressing, and unseemly" begins to show itself. Praskovya's behavior changes. She becomes moody, demanding, and jealous. Ivan gradually comes to realize that marriage is not always "conducive to the pleasures and amenities of life." In an attempt to secure his own independence, to escape from the unpleasantness, Ivan transfers more and more of his attention to his professional life. In order to lead a life approved by society, Ivan finds it necessary to adopt a formal attitude toward marriage. He begins to require only the conveniences of dinner, housewife, and bed. After three years in the province Ivan is promoted to Assistant Public Prosecutor. Four years later, he is transferred to another province as Public Prosecutor. In the new province, Ivan's marriage problems continue. He spends increasingly less time with his family, and invites company to visit whenever he must be at home. In this way, with the majority of his attention focused on work, chats and dinners with his colleagues, and bridge, Ivan's life continues to follow its pleasant course. Seven more years pass. A child dies. And Ivan's youngest son is ready to enter school.
Tolstoy is at pains to create Ivan as Everyman. He wants to connect Ivan, his thoughts, and concerns with a general audience, so that the reader feels, if not a sympathetic association, at least a mild identification. Ivan is the middle of three sons; he has the middle temperament of the three, and is, generally speaking, the "happy mean."
From this description, it is evident that Ivan's life proceeds by a kind of balance, or moderation, prescribed by his social superiors. Indeed, propriety and decorum emerge as virtual leitmotifs of Ivan's life. He chooses his friends based upon their social standing. He decides to marry because it is considered the right thing to do. His conduct and worldview are wholly determined by the opinions and expectations of the elite class. Given our knowledge of the life and values of the Russian bourgeoisie as related in Chapter I, the metaphor Tolstoy employs to describe Ivan's relationship to his social superiors—that of a fly being drawn to a bright light—is especially fitting. Just as a fly's direction of flight is determined by the location and placement of the light, so too is Ivan's movement through the social world dictated by the concerns of his social superiors. Yet the metaphor works on an even deeper level. In Tolstoy's day, the light that attracted flies was a burning flame. When the flies reached it, they were instantly killed. This implies that Ivan, by conforming his conduct to the opinions of the upper class, is moving closer and closer to the flame that will burn him alive. Bourgeois society is the metaphorical bright light.
Throughout Chapter II, Tolstoy makes use of several foreign-language expressions that seem to operate on two levels. Referring to Ivan as le phenix de la famille could mean that he is the member of the family most likely to succeed, or it could foreshadow an eventual rebirth on Ivan's part, a rising up from the ashes after the burning death caused by society, much like the mythical phoenix that was reborn from the ashes of its own destruction. Similarly, the motto inscribed on his medallion respice finem, meaning "look to the end," could be both a helpful suggestion for a future lawyer to focus on the outcome, or a warning for a man traveling down the wrong life path to prepare himself for death.
Ivan's unwillingness to concern himself with the unpleasant, a theme that emerged with his peers in Chapter I, now establishes itself as a defining characteristic of Ivan's personality. Ivan becomes adept at establishing barriers and closing himself off from the unseemly and indecorous aspects of life. He retreats from his wife during her pregnancy when her behavior introduces something "unseemly" and "depressing" into his life. He absorbs himself in official work, isolating himself from the demands of a family. Ivan adopts a formal attitude to married life. In a manner reminiscent of his professional behavior, he begins to see marriage in contractual terms, requiring only the conveniences of dinner, housewife, and bed. He maintains a safe distance from his wife and family by inviting guests whenever he is obliged to be at home. Like Peter Ivanovich and Schwartz, Ivan begins to play cards, no doubt a needed diversion. 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, is reflected in all aspects of his life. One wonders whether Ivan will succeed in making of his own life a mere form. We must recall the funeral notice in Chapter I, a mere form on paper that announces Ivan's death. With his professional life strictly professional, and his personal life far from personal, one begins to wonder which of Ivan's lives, if either, is truly real. Thus, by the end of Chapter II, it becomes clear that by beginning to close himself off, Ivan is closing himself off from everything, including life itself.