He was educated and had a comfortable status in society. A judge in the high court in St.Petersbug, with a wife and family, he lives an ordinary life. Through out his life he never cared to reflect on the meaning of life. The humdrum nature of his career was more or less determined by the mechanical compliance to external compulsions of the values of a defunct society. In the smug satisfaction of the motorized perfection of life there lay a terrible pitfall. As Tolstoy puts it, his life was "most terrible and most ordinary and therefore most terrible."
Tolstoy shows the readiness of Illyich to succeed in life, by spontaneous compromises of all principles of life, as the hallmark of contemporary ethos. This makes his hero ludicrous. He had the semblance of the typical reserved nature of a judge but in actual practice was very flexible, if it will augment his career: " There were services rendered to his chief and even to wife of his chief". The feverish pursuit for advancement without principles is a disintegrating force and only a spiritual realization can provide meaning as we prepare for the inevitable exit from this life.
The shock comes in the form of the diagnosis of terminal condition of cancer.