story, Ward 6, is one of the most intense, powerful and claustrophobic he
ever wrote. He was eight months writing it and it runs to fifty pages.
When Lenin read it in his youth he said it had made him a revolutionary:
for ourselves it may seem to foretell Solzhenitsynís Cancer Ward.
struck first by the plain austerity of Chekhovís style. The narrator
investigates the dreadful condition of an out-of-date hospital (such as many
Chekhov must have seen when he was organizing resistance to the cholera). The
hospital stands in a barren wilderness outside the town: the only other building
in sight is the prison. We see the patients in the crowded wards, hear of the
corrupt sale of drugs and medicines. Then the outside narrator slips away and
the scene moves into the close-up of a particular room, Ward 6, in which five
lunatics are isolated. Dr. Ragin, in charge of the hospital, is visiting them.
All except one of the lunatics belong to the artisan class. There is a laborer
who simply stares at the floor all day; another is a post-office sorter who
gazes secretively from time to time at a medal under his shirt. He believes he
has been awarded the Stanislas Medal and that he will shortly get the Swedish
medal of the Golden Star. Another is a harmless Jew who went mad when his hat
factory was destroyed in a fireóthe only patient who is allowed out into the
town, where he begs for a ruble or two and is the butt of the shopkeepers. The
fifth, Gromov, is an educated paranoiac who gradually went mad after his father
was imprisoned for fraud. Gromov believes he is guilty of murder. They are
supervised by a warder, a brutal ex-soldier, who beats the lunatics when they
Ragin strikes us at first as being a concerned and humane man. He is
aware that the hospital is scandalously out-of-date and offers nothing
from the great advances in medicine of the last thirty years. He is drawn to
Gromov, who has a sharp intellect and is a good talker in a destructive way,
even if he will, in the end, fly into a paranoiac rage. To Ragin he is the only
man in the hospital with whom he can discuss serious subjects, or indeed in the
self-satisfied little town outside. He has stopped going out into local
"society." He consoles himself with serious philosophical reading, and
he and Gromov have arguments about Marcus Aurelius and stoicism and dispute the
necessity of suffering. Gromov is mad and Ragin is trying to calm him.
Conversation is the spell. At one point he makes the distinctly Chekhovian
remark that "books are the printed score, while talk is the singing."
Gromov will attack Raginís arguments savagely one day and the next he will be
languid. Ragin likes Gromovís voice, his young intelligent face, and he even
admires the manís anger when he admits his mania and cries out that there are
moments when he is overwhelmed by the thirst for life and begs for news of the
outside world. Ragin makes regular visits to the Ward. Gromov suddenly asks him
what will turn out to be a disturbing question:
you any idea of suffering? Allow me to ask you, were you ever thrashed in your
of course, one of Chekhovís own obsessive memories.) Ragin says he was not.
one has laid a finger on you all your life.. . . You grew up under your
fatherís wing and studied at his expense, and then you dropped at once into a
sinecure. For more than twenty years you have lived rent-free with heating.
lighting and service all provided.. . . You have handed over your work to the
assistant and the rest of the rabble while you sit in peace and warmth, save
money, read, amuse yourself with reflections, with all sorts of lofty nonsense,
and [looking at Raginís florid peasant facel with boozing."
in his self-isolated life in the hospital, Ragin has become a tippling
conformist, his mind closed to change. Hospital regulations are a cocoon or
simply a convenient private study.
drama now is reversed. An ambitious young doctor, Khobotov, is intriguing to
climb into Raginís job. The rumor is spread that Raginís visits to Ward 6
are suspect, a sign of "tiredness," "illness," or perhaps
worse. He is summoned before a small informal commission of local doctors and
officials (essentially a trial of his sanity), after which it is suggested that
he should go on holiday. He gladly does so with the only friend he has in
the town, an amiable, irresponsible postmaster who takes him on a trip to
they have put you in here too. You sucked the blood of others, and now they will
"You should be philosophical."
Ragin goes to the door to leave the ward, and complains, the warder knocks him
out. Mad or not, Ragin dies of a stroke. Chekhov took pride in evoking this
death in detail and is as effective in the last visions of the dying as he was
in the death scene in Gusov:
and millions of people believed in inmor-tality. ... But [Ragin] did not want
immortality, and he thought of it only for one instant. A herd of deer,
extraordinarily beautiful and graceful, of which he had been reading the day
before, ran by him; then a
woman stretched out her hand to him with a registered letter.
registered letter! How perfect that random, final item of his vision is.
letters Chekhov was surprisingly offhand or defensive about Ward 6. This
is partly due to his modesty or perhaps also to his awareness that to create
characters whose opinions are simplifications of a conflict in his own nature
was no more than analysis and derived from his reading. The contrast between the
man who believes in a gospel of endurance derived from Marcus Aurelius (whose Meditations
were very influential reading all over Europe at that time)
and the man who rebels against his chains is a matter of fruitless
debate. To judge from Chekhovís reply to a letter from Suvorinówho
seems to have suggested the story was "lemonade" and needed
more "alcoholóChekhov was almost submissive when he replied that
this was an illness of his generation. In short, for
Suvorin the story was a passive
when it ought to have had the dramatic force of parable. The great
masters of the past not merely were good writers, but, Chekhov said, make one
are going towards something... have some object, just like the ghost of
Hamletís father, who did not come and disturb the imagination for nothing..
. . And we?. . We paint life as it is, but beyond thatónothing at all.
also agreed that the story stinks of the hospital and the mortuary. And he
writes, perhaps slyly, to the incurably sentimental and pursuing Lydia Avilova:
finishing a story ("Ward No. 6"), a very dull one, owing
to a complete absence of woman and the element of love. I canít endure
truth remains that if Chekhov has projected a frightening and sterile universe,
the line-by-line events of the story are powerful and blasting. Perhaps he felt
that the irony of a situation in which a prison governor himself becomes a
voluntary prisoner was too neat. Ragin is a portrait of a governor who
has come to think the real criminals are outside the walls. The truth is that
the story is a study of the nightmare of absolute solitude.