After two more weeks, Ivan still hasn’t figured out the reason for his suffering. When he asks the voice deep inside him what all of his horror and pain is for, the voice replies, “It’s just there. It’s not for anything.”
The spiritual or religious element of The Death of Ivan Ilyich is a difficult component of the novella to understand. Although Ivan eventually undergoes an experience that can be read as something of a spiritual awakening, he also has conversations like this one, in which some force within his soul tells him that suffering and pain isn’t “for” anything—a nihilistic idea that challenges the notion that anything in life has an inherent purpose. This could be interpreted as an argument against the existence of God, since an omniscient being would most likely assign purpose to something like suffering. Given this ambiguity, the novella reflects Tolstoy’s unique religious views, since the author himself had a complex relationship with Christian faith.
Reflecting upon his illness, Ivan realizes he has been grasping for hope ever since he learned that he was unwell. Swinging between despair and optimism, he has focused—like his doctors and loved ones—on technical matters having to do with sickness and his internal organs. Now, though, all he can do is dive into his memories, suddenly finding himself reliving certain moments from his past. As he does this, he realizes that everything was better when he was a young man, when there was still a certain kind of “light” in his life. Ever since his youth, that light has been getting steadily dimmer, hurtling toward blackness. And yet, he still refuses to accept that he lived his life improperly, since he always did exactly what he thought he was supposed to do.
It’s important to note Tolstoy’s use of the word “light” in this moment, since Ivan will later encounter a light that is fraught with meaning. For now, though, the dying man continues his struggle to wring meaning out of his life. What makes this process especially difficult is his unwillingness to accept that he did indeed waste his time focusing on superficial, vain matters. Instead of coming to terms with this, he tries to soothe himself by once again committing to the idea that his lifestyle was not only worthwhile, but respectable and good. This, in turn, only makes it harder for him to make sense of his current discontent.