Ivan Ilych, says the narrator, had been a member of the Court of Justice, and died at forty-five.
It's now time for the story of his life, which "had been most simple and ordinary and therefore most terrible" (2.1).
Tolstoy goes through Ivan's first forty years or so really fast.
Ivan is the son of Ivan Epimovich Golovin, a government official who wound up with a useless job but nonetheless got nicely paid by the government.
His cold oldest son follows in his father's footsteps and his wild youngest son turns out a "failure."
Ivan is the well-balanced and likable one of the lot: smart, good-natured, social, and popular.
At school, Ivan does some unspecified "horrid" things that make him feel terribly guilty, but he gets over them once he grows older and realizes everyone else in "good society" is doing them too.
(We get no further details on these horrid things.)
After graduating from the School of Law, Ivan gets a post in one of the provinces.
In the workplace he's very serious and official, and quite successful.
Outside of work, he's friendly, funny and very sociable. He's a well-rounded kind of guy.
The narrator also tells us that there's just a tad more of bad behavior in these first years out of school – an affair, some misadventures, some brown-nosing with the boss – but not too much.
After five years, Ivan gets a new post in a different province as an examining magistrate.
This means more power, and Ivan likes that.
As before, Ivan does well at work, and makes fast friends with the right people. He also begins to cultivate his passion for the most exciting thing in his life: bridge (a card game).
Two years pass, and Ivan meets Praskovya Fedorovna Mikhel.
She's really into him (he's apparently quite a dancer). He's not so into her, but he marries her anyway.
She's good match and, besides, in his mind, marriage is what respectable people do.
Married life turns out to be pleasant and easy at first. Ivan can definitely get used to this.
That is, the narrator informs us, until Praskovya Fedorovna gets pregnant, becomes moody, and starts having fits of jealousy on a regular basis. And no, things don't get any better when the child is born.
In light of this new development, Ivan reverses his thoughts on marriage and decides it's a difficult affair. Better to spend more time with his work and stay out of the house. As long as he and his wife can just keep up the happy family in front of other people and avoid making any improper spectacles he's just peachy.
Three more years, and Ivan gets promoted to Assistant Public Prosecutor. More power.
More children too, though Ivan's relations with his wife continue to be bad. But with his new job it's even easier to tune her out.
After seven years in total have passed in that province, Ivan becomes full Public Prosecutor in another province and the family moves.
There are a few setbacks: his wife doesn't like the place, two of his children die, money is a bit tight. (Ivan likes spending beyond his means.)
Things at home are more miserable than ever, and Praskovya Fedorovna starts to blame Ivan for everything that's wrong about her life.
Nonetheless, Ivan is happier at work than ever, and he's got an active social life. Friends, dinner parties, and of course bridge. Life is pretty good.
Another seven years pass. All of his children pass away except Ivan's eldest daughter (who's now sixteen) and youngest son.