V.S. Pritchett on Ward 6

The 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.

We are 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 The narrator investigates the dreadful condition of an out-of-date hospital (such as many Chekhov must have seen when he was organizing resistance to the cholera).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 become restive.

Dr. 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 He is aware that the hospital is scandalously out-of-date and offers nothing from the great advances in medicine of the last thirty years.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:

"Have you any idea of suffering? Allow me to ask you, were you ever thrashed in your childhood?"

(This is, of course, one of Chekhovís own obsessive memories.) Ragin says he was not. Gromov pounces:

 

"No 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."

 Yes, 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.

The 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 Petersburg , Moscow and Warsaw . The postmaster is an average lazy, unreliable "good fellow," a genial liar, who is eager for a spree and thinks the trip will do Ragin good. This is the necessary "moment of rest" in the story, the point at which it will turn. Halfway through the holiday Ragin is bored by "the real world of pleasure." His will goes. While the post-master goes out looking for women, gambling, losing his money and borrowing heavily from Raginómoney he will never repayóRagin lies all day in the hotel, his face turned to the wall. "Real happiness," he says; "is impossible without solitude." When he returns to the hospital he finds that Khobotov has taken his job. Ragin utters an alarming phrase: "I have got into an enchanted circle." Indeed he has; Khobotov slyly puts Ragin into Ward 6 and Gromov is triumphant.

"So they have put you in here too. You sucked the blood of others, and now they will suck yoursí

And, sarcastically,

"You should be philosophical."

When 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:

[Gromov] 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

peasant woman stretched out her hand to him with a registered letter.

That registered letter! How perfect that random, final item of his vision is.

In his 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

allegory 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 feel that

 they 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.

 He 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:

I am 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 such stories.

The 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.