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."