31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 23: “Ward No. 6” by Anton Chekhov

May 23, 2010 by · 1 Comment 

From Stories

Anton Chekhov is best known through his plays and brief, impressionistic stories such as “The Huntsman” or “Lady with a Little Dog.” But Chekhov’s short fiction was more varied in tone and approach than most people credit it for; his early naturalism gave way to a more symbolic style in his middle period, a style that was characterized by dark irony and cutting social commentary that incisively dissected the Russian society of the day, often despairing at what it found.

Running to 50 pages, “Ward No. 6” is one of Chekhov’s longest stories; it is also one of his most philosophically dense. Ostensibly the story of two men – one the inmate of a mental institution, the other his doctor – the story is actually an extended meditation on human suffering, and what constitutes insanity in a society that has lost its values and anything resembling a moral compass.

The asylum inmate, Ivan Dmitrich Gromov, and the doctor, Andrei Yefimych Ragin, are doubles of one another. Both are intellectuals who were born into nobility; both end up losing everything and finding themselves incarcerated in the mental ward of the town hospital. But the trajectories by which they succumb to incarceration are very different. Gromov is a paranoiac, who imagines that everybody in town, from tradesmen who come to replace his landlady’s stove to policemen in the streets, is spying on him or watching for him to make a wrong move in order to scoop him up and imprison him. Gromov’s paranoia has reduced him to a kind of paralysis:

He did not sleep for whole nights, expecting to be arrested, but he snored loudly and sighed like a sleeping man, so that his landlady would think he was asleep; because if he did not sleep, it meant he was suffering from remorse – what evidence! Facts and logical sense insisted that all these fears were absurd and psychopathic, that, once one took a broader view, there was nothing especially terrible in arrest and prison – as long as his conscience was at ease; but the more sensible and logical his reasoning was, the more intense and painful his inner anxiety became. It resembled the story of the recluse who wanted to clear a little spot for himself in a virgin forest; the more zealously he worked with the axe, the deeper and thicker the forest grew. Seeing in the end that it was useless, Ivan Dmitrich abandoned reasoning altogether and gave himself up entirely to fear and despair.

For his part, Ragin is troubled by the lack of proper care available to the patients in his hospital, and succumbs to a sense of futility at the prospect of trying to adequately care for their needs:

Today you receive thirty patients, and tomorrow, lo and behold, thirty-five come pouring in, and the next day forty, and so it goes, day after day, year after year, and the town mortality rate does not go down, and the patients do not stop coming. To give serious aid to forty outpatients between morning and dinnertime was physically impossible, which meant, willy-nilly, that it was all a deceit. During the fiscal year twelve thousand outpatients were received, which meant, simply speaking, that twelve thousand people were deceived. To put the seriously ill in the hospital and care for them according to the rules of science was also impossible, because while there were rules, there was no science; and to abandon philosophy and follow the rules pedantically, as other doctors did, you first of all needed cleanliness and ventilation, not filth, and wholesome food, not soup made from stinking pickled cabbage, and good assistants, not thieves.

The world of the hospital that Chekhov portrays is irredeemably filthy, ruled over by the guard Nikita, who resides on top of the mounds of hospital garbage that are piled in the building’s front hall: “Mattresses, old torn dressing gowns, trousers, blue-striped shirts, worthless, worn-out shoes – all these rags are piled in heaps, crumpled, tangled, rotting and giving off a suffocating smell.” Indeed, Ragin believes that the hospital, in its grime and primitive conditions, is an “immoral institution” that should be closed down. However, Ragin lacks the political will to advocate for this and convinces himself that the mere fact of the hospital’s existence proves its necessity:

Besides, if people had opened the hospital and put up with it in their town, it meant they needed it; prejudice and all this everyday filth and muck are necessary, because in time they turn into something useful, as dung turns into black earth. There is nothing good in the world that does not have some filth in its origin.

To the extent that Chekhov’s hospital is meant as a microcosm for Russian society, the picture he paints is not a terribly flattering one. Russian society, Chekhov suggests, is mired in filth and muck, but will correct itself given time. Ragin’s assessment is counterpointed by Gromov’s notion of what time is capable of doing:

Those who take an official, business-like attitude towards other people’s suffering, like judges, policemen, doctors, from force of habit, as time goes by, become callous to such a degree that they would be unable to treat their clients otherwise than formally even if they wanted to; in this respect they are no different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in his backyard without noticing the blood. With this formal, heartless attitude towards the person, a judge needs only one thing to deprive an innocent man of all his property rights and sentence him to hard labor: time.

In Gromov’s conception, time is connected with both the Russian bureaucracy, which in his paranoid mind is irredeemably malevolent, and with suffering. The ultimate result of allowing time to pass is that a judge will discover enough evidence against an individual to deprive that person of liberty and incarcerate him in a forced labour camp.

The association is not accidental: throughout Chekhov’s story, the hospital is explicitly compared to a prison. Not only are the two institutions contiguous to one another in the town, but from the very opening of the story, we are presented with the image of the hospital fence, “topped with nails” that point upwards, giving the building “that special despondent and accursed look that only our hospitals and prisons have.” Gromov constantly refers to the hospital’s mental ward as his prison, an association that Ragin will echo when he finds himself incarcerated in Ward No. 6 at the story’s end.

Throughout the story, Chekhov engages in an extended meditation on the nature and function of human suffering, which Ragin feels, invoking Stoic philosopher Marcus Aurelius, can be “disregarded” and ignored. Gromov, from his particular vantage point as an inmate of a prison-like hospital ward, maintains no such illusions:

“God created me out of warm blood and nerves, yes, sir! And organic tissue, if it’s viable, must react to any irritation. And I do react! I respond to pain with cries and tears, to meanness with indignation, to vileness with disgust. In my opinion, this fact is called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is and the more weakly it responds to irritation, and the higher, the more susceptible it is and the more energetically it reacts to reality. How can you not know that? You’re a doctor and you don’t know such trifles! To scorn suffering, to be always content and surprised at nothing, you must reach that condition” – and Ivan Dmitrich pointed to the obese, fat-swollen peasant – “or else harden yourself with suffering to such a degree that you lose all sensitivity to it, that is, in other words, stop living.”

If suffering is living, which of the two men, Chekhov implicitly asks, is more alive? When the doctor is incarcerated in the mental ward at the story’s end, it is left to the reader to decide whether this represents his comeuppance or his redemption. For in a society where intelligent, thoughtful men like Gromov are incarcerated as insane, while “dozens, hundreds of madmen are walking about in freedom because in your ignorance you are unable to tell them from the sane,” where, the inmate asks, is the logic? Ragin has only one answer to give: “That I am a doctor and you are a mental patient has no morality or logic in it – it’s a matter of pure chance.”


One Response to “31 Days of Stories 2010, Day 23: “Ward No. 6” by Anton Chekhov”
  1. Zane says:

    I enjoyed your essay on Ward 6. I came across it when I was looking for that quote: “those who take an official, business-like attitude towards other people’s suffering”. Although I thought in the translation I read it was “those who MUST take an official, business-like attitude.” I’m guessing that Chekhov, being a doctor, was struggling with the Ragin in himself. What a great writer — his stories are as relevant today as when he wrote them.