Ivan's defining characteristic and principal shortcoming is that he lives his life by the dictates of others. Rather than relying on his own reason and good sense to direct his moral life, Ivan blindly adopts the beliefs and values of aristocratic society. Like a fly to a bright light, Ivan is drawn to those with high social standing. He believes that if he only imitates their conduct and lifestyle, if he only runs in the prescribed tracks of high society, his own life will progress according to plan and he will find meaning and fulfillment. Ivan becomes obsessed with standards of propriety and decorum, the etiquette of the upper class. He begins to act as one in his position should act. He takes a wife because a young legal gentleman with secure means should take a wife. He buys a house in the city and furnishes it with highbrow trappings because a cultured aristocrat should have a material status symbol.
As Ivan accustoms himself to propriety, he grows increasingly intolerant to everything that threatens his own comfort and material well-being. He fences himself off from every discomforting influence. When Praskovya introduces something unseemly and unpleasant with her pregnancy, Ivan retreats from his wife and absorbs himself in his official work. When married life becomes difficult, Ivan adopts a formal, contractual attitude toward his family. 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 every sphere of his life. As Ivan scrambles to avoid the unpleasant, he reduces his personal relationships to shallow, self-preserving simulations. By adopting the values of aristocratic society, then, rather than using his reason to discover what is truly meaningful in life, Ivan isolates himself from the rest of the world. And in place of meaning and fulfillment, Ivan finds only pain and dissatisfaction.
Ivan, however, is more than just a misguided character. He is a representative figure in a broader moral scheme. The bourgeois sensibility that Ivan represents, the aristocratic type replete with its crass materialism and self- interest, is shown through Ivan's example to be inappropriate and utterly unfulfilling. Just as Ivan's demise makes him conscious of the error of his life, so too, it conveys the message to the reader that a life devoid of compassion and empathetic human connection will lead to a similar unfulfilling end.
Ivan's illness, then, can be seen as a curative influence. By forcing Ivan to confront the prospect of his death, it brings him face to face with his own isolation. That isolation terrifies Ivan, provoking serious existential reflection. And as Ivan begins to examine his life, as he questions his existence and the rationale behind his suffering, he slowly begins to see that his life was not as it should have been. Ivan's illness reveals to him the true nature of life. At the climactic moment of the novel, when Ivan passes into the presence of the light and realizes that compassion and love are the true life values by which to live, the incalculable joy that he experiences is proof of the quality of such a life.