Late that night, Ivan has terrible dreams, and his pain consumes him. Gerasim has been with him for the majority of the time, letting him elevate his legs, but now Ivan tells him to leave. As soon as he exits, the dying man bursts into tears. He cries because of his helplessness, because nobody understands what he’s going through, because of God’s wrath, and, finally, because of God’s “non-existence.” This last thought prompts him to ask, “Why hast Thou done all of this? Why hast Thou brought me to this point? Why oh why dost Thou torture me like this?...”
In the New Testament’s Book of Matthew, Jesus calls out from the cross, saying, “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Although it’s rather clear that Ivan Ilyich isn’t a Christ figure, it’s worth noting the parallel between Jesus’s famous words and Ivan’s sudden outburst. In both cases, these are the words of a dying man, regardless of what happens to Jesus after he dies on the cross. Interestingly enough, though, Jesus’s question is addressed directly to God, and though Ivan’s words also seem to be intended for God, the answers he later receives to the various questions he asks come not from God, but from his own soul. In this way, Ivan’s search for meaning has both a religious and a philosophically existential quality, resembling Jesus’s last moments while also probing the concept of selfhood in a more secular way.
Ivan knows he won’t receive an answer to his questions. When his pain comes in a rush, he gives himself over to it, though he asks, “What is it for?” He then goes quiet and seems to hear a voice not outside of himself, but from within his own soul. The voice asks what he wants, and he answers by saying that he wants his pain to go away and wants to keep living. This doesn’t seem to make sense to the voice, which asks how he could possibly stay alive. In response, Ivan says that he wants life to go back to what it used be, when he was happy, but he suddenly feels as if he was never happy in life, at least not since he was a boy, before he came of age and devoted himself to the lifestyle he maintained until his illness.
Ivan’s dialogue with this unidentified voice symbolizes his search for meaning. Having reached the end of his life, he wants to better understand what everything has been for, including his pain and suffering. He also notes that he wants to go back to his happy lifestyle, but this just causes him to realize that he was never happy in the first place. In this way, his conversation with himself casts a retrospective cloud over his entire existence, urging him to reconsider the very things he has always held dear.
Looking back on his life, Ivan decides that he was happy when he was in law school and had friends. He also has some happy memories about being a young man, but very little after this period resembles true contentment. He then realizes that life has always been receding and that now there is only one thing left for him: death. Once again, then, he asks what life is “for,” wondering if he has perhaps lived incorrectly. As soon as he has this thought, though, he takes it back, reminding himself that he always did what he was supposed to do and lived “properly.”
Ivan’s sense that he was happy as a young man once again aligns with his idealization of youthful purity and innocence. It also suggests that he was right to question his behavior when he first set out on his career path—tragically, though, he set aside such concerns in order to get ahead in life. As a result, he now finds himself questioning the validity of such behavior. Just when he is about to fully admit the error of his ways, though, he reassures himself that he has always done what society expected of him. He then uses this idea to discredit any misgivings he has about the way he’s lived his life, a sign that he’s still invested in the superficial values that ultimately destroyed the purity and innocence he possessed as a young man.