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Everything goes along as normal until 1880, when something practically ruins Ivan's life: he gets turned down for a promotion.
Ivan is so outraged that he complains loudly to his superiors and manages to irritate them enough that they pass him up for every other future promotion.
This is the hardest year of Ivan Ilych's life. He starts to feel as if his life is miserable.
What particularly fries him is that no one else seems to think he's going through anything out of the ordinary.
To save money, Ivan Ilych and his wife leave their home (and Ivan's job) and stay with his brother in the country.
But without his work, Ivan feels bored. Unspeakably bored, in fact, to the point of depression.
So, one day, Ivan Ilych wakes up and resolves to go to St. Petersburg and find himself a post with a salary of at least 5,000 roubles (which should enough to cover the debts he's accumulated from living beyond his means).
As it turns out, he finds one, thanks to a chance encounter with a mysterious and powerful man in a first-class carriage and some friends newly promoted to high places.
He gets a job in the Petersburg Department of Justice that pays 5,000 roubles and skips him several rungs up the career ladder.
Now blissfully happy, Ivan returns to the country and tells the news to Praskovya Fedorovna, who is also happy. Shockingly they discover that they have similar hopes and desires for creating a new life in the big city, and are able to make a sort of truce.
Ivan Ilych leaves his family for Petersburg once again to find a house for them to live in and again succeeds. He gets a spacious, elegant, and tasteful place that seems "specially built for them" (3.16).
Determined to make the house just perfect, Ivan discovers within himself a frighteningly intense passion for home decorating. Wallpapers, furnishings, upholstery…he chooses them all and supervises the preparations, to make sure everything is just as fabulous as desired. In fact, Ivan Ilych is so carried away he even does some of the work himself.
One day, Ivan's housework leads to a small accident.
Ivan is irritated with his upholsterer, who hasn't the slightest idea how to do drapes, and gets up on a stepladder to show him how it's done.
As he climbs he takes a false step and falls.
Ivan manages to grab hold of the window frame and escapes with only a bang on his side (courtesy of a knob on the window frame that he hits). The bruised spot hurts for a little while, but the pain goes away soon enough.
Anyway, eventually the house is finished, and Ivan invites his family to St. Petersburg. Everyone loves the new digs and Ivan's decorating.
Ivan and Praskovya actually get along well enough, since both are too occupied by the consuming tasks of home decorating and making new friends to have any fights.
Ivan's life is once again easy, ordered, and pleasant.
He loves to throw little parties (with only the right people invited, of course), and to feel that nice sense of power at work. But his greatest love of all is playing bridge.
The Golovins attract a good set of friends, and quickly move on from less sophisticated acquaintances. Their daughter Lisa wins various admirers, including one rather good catch. And "[s]o they lived, and all went well, without change, and life flowed pleasantly" (3.28).