Tolstoy is very clear in this novel that materialism and social climbing are to be abhorred, but all the same he explains why materialism is attractive. Throughout the entirety of Tolstoy's novel, the characters are drawn to materialism because it affords them pleasure and status: they want to be seen...
as significant in society and to live in a way which, while artificial, gives them instant gratification.
Ivan is the exemplar of the middle-class person over-concerned with ownership and being seen to own things. He likes to impress others with what he has bought: for example, he buys a house in St Petersburg and furnishes it beautifully—but, in the end, his house looks just like every other house.
In reality it was just what is usually seen in the houses of people of moderate means who want to appear rich, and therefore succeed only in resembling others like themselves . . . His house was so like the others that it would never have been noticed, but to him it all seemed to be quite exceptional. (3.17)
In order to be approved of by his middle-class friends, Ivan has to make himself just like them and thus erode his own individuality.
Ivan is concerned mainly with enjoying himself and does not care to think about things like needy children or wives, death or disease. His pleasures are confined to three main categories:
The pleasures connected with his work were pleasures of ambition; his social pleasures were those of vanity; but Ivan Ilych's greatest pleasure was playing bridge. He acknowledged that whatever disagreeable incident happened in his life, the pleasure that beamed like a ray of light above everything else was to sit down to bridge with good players. (3.25)
Ivan's enjoyment of his work lies in the fact that it makes him feel important, needed, and special, when in fact he is very ordinary. He enjoys his social life even though it resembles "all other drawing rooms," because it makes him the centre of attention. And bridge is the greatest joy in Ivan's life, indicative of his shallowness.
Ivan is materialistic because materialism enables him to focus entirely on himself. His universe revolves around himself and his own enjoyment. This, according to Tolstoy, is understandable but to be criticised.