Thursday, June 30, 2016

"So this is real life" - Chekhov's delicately grim "Ward No. 6"

Mark Twain, Anton Chekhov, both kind of dark.  I could use that as a transition from Twain to Chekhov.  Twain moves in an anti-humanist direction; Chekhov is always firmly humanist.  There we go.

I have noted that when Constance Garnett compiled her thirteen volumes of Chekhov stories, she at times followed a thematic scheme – a series of stories about children or what have you.  Garnett’s idea for The Horse-Stealers & Other Stories, Vol. 10, seems to have been to showcase Chekhov at his grimmest.

This book houses the long 1892 story  “Ward No. 6,” one of Chekhov’s greatest works, from a period that is entirely great.  Why this one is not as well-known as “The Lady with the Little Dog” – eh, why ask this question.

Ward No. 6 is a “lodge,” a ruined shack behind a provincial Russian hospital.  It houses, as the story begins, five mentally ill patients, the refuse of Russian society, with ailments far beyond the capacity of the medicine of their time, and a caretaker who treats them cruelly.

The hospital is run by Dr. Andrey Yefimitch Ragin, “a strange man in his way,” educated and thoughtful enough to be horrified by the conditions of his own corrupt and filthy hospital but with a character too weak to do anything of consequence.  He “had two cupboards of instruments put up,” and that is about it.  “[H]e had no strength of will nor belief in his right to organize an intelligent and honest life about him.”

Chekhov slowly, gently, lovingly, spends the story grinding the doctor down to a fine powder, finally putting him in Ward No. 6 with his former patients.  His view:

Andrey Yefimitch walked away to the window and looked out into the open country.  It was getting dark, and on the horizon to the right a cold crimson moon was mounting upwards.  Not far from the hospital fence, not much more than two hundred yards away, stood a tall white house shut in by a stone wall.  This was a prison.

“So this is real life,” thought Andrey Yefimitch, and he felt frightened.

The moon and the prison, and the nails on the fence, and the far-away flames at the bone-charring factory were all terrible.  (Ch. 18)

A prison!  I feel as if a parallel Chekhov story is taking place there, with the indifferent warden finding himself locked in a cell.  The bone-charring factory!  Perhaps Chekhov is laying it on a little thick.

The death of Andrey Yefimitch is written with great delicacy.

And what if it [immortality] really existed.  But he did not want immortality, and he thought of it only for an 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…  (Ch. 19, ellipses in original)

Then the story ends with a viewing of the corpse that owes a debt to Cormac McCarthy.  That letter has attracted much commentary.  It is not mentioned elsewhere in the text, and is a little insoluble mystery, although I have a guess about it, based more on gaps in the text.

The basic irony of “Ward No. 6,” the bad doctor who becomes a patient, could hardly be more blunt.  Everything else, though, artistically, ethically – what subtlety.

23 comments:

  1. Chekhov wrote "Ward No. 6" during that phase of his career when he was trying to emulate Tolstoy's "moral" stories, hence the not at all subtle poetic justice plot. But as you say, all the rest of it is wonderful. Every time I read this one, I'm struck by how it feels like it should be a supernatural story, with nature and the rest of the world personified to create an almost fairy tale mood. It also somehow feels like the entire story happens by moonlight. I suppose that having a cast of madmen helps to push ideas of reality around, blur the borders as it were.

    The registered letter appears earlier, in the post office when the doctor goes to apologize to the post master:

    "Let bygones be bygones. Lyubavkin," he suddenly shouted so loud that all the postmen and other persons present started, "hand a chair; and you wait," he shouted to a peasant woman who was stretching out a registered letter to him through the grating. "Don't you see that I am busy?..."

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  2. Oh, with the postman - how did I not see that. So it's really the significance of the detail that is the mystery. Is it a bit of randomness, or is there more to it.

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    1. An image of freedom, then an image of humanity and repression (the image of the post master after the image of the peasant woman, then death)...I guess. I think it's a reference back to Andrei's path into madness, his mind fracturing into disconnected fragments as he dies, that sort of thing. More poetry than symbolism, at least that's how I tend to read it.

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    2. Or it's a dig at civil servants generally, smugly ignoring the peasants but getting what they deserve in the end. This applies to both the doctor and the post master. Maybe.

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    3. The post master is a great Chekhovian monster. The poor doctor lives in a world of monsters.

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    4. The doctor alone knows he's a monster, though he excuses his own behavior. By extension, I guess we could assume all the other monsters excuse themselves, too. With the limited third-person narration, we don't know how many monsters are aware of their monsterhood. I guess it is a supernatural tale.

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    5. A highly Chekhovian observation.

      The doctor could have used some positive reinforcement. He could have been more of a Sesame Street monster in the right company.

      I did not go into - I am back on your original comment how great Chekhov's use of the moon is in this story.

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  3. Death as a registered letter delivered by an old peasant woman. How trite...

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    1. The peasant woman isn't old, and the letter isn't death. Otherwise, 100% accurate.

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    2. Yeah, sorry about that. Just a poor joke that didn't land. Yours on the other hand is very funny. So, all in all, not a total loss.

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  4. And then, as I read your fine posting, I think of Kafka. I wonder about Chekhov-Kafka connections.

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  5. Symbolism is the worst.

    My pet theory is that the image sticks because it is tied to an earlier, unmentioned letter, containing the news of the death of the doctor's father. Again, all of this is completely unmentioned and made up by me.

    You know, I have no idea about what Russians Kafka might have - or could have read. This story does have an unusually Kafka-like turn at the end.

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    1. Kafka loved Chekhov, according to his letters to Milena Jesenská.

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  6. Thanks for the Kafka-loved-the-loveable Chekhov feedback. Now, just to be difficult, I wonder something else: in the Chekhov oeuvre, do crime stories exist? I ask because of my guilty-pleasure interest in literary quality crime fiction.

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  7. Postscript:
    I should have found this before asking my question --
    http://www.nysun.com/arts/the-crime-scene-anton-chekhovs-crime-fiction/84671/
    -- however, perhaps more of an answer is still out there, so the question remains for the Chekhov experts out there.

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    1. Chekhov wrote plenty about crime, but not what you'd mean by crime fiction aside from his only novel, The Shooting Party, an early effort that most people only read nowadays as a curiosity. Agatha Christie thought well of it, though, and stole Chekhov's big plot twist for one of her most famous books. It's not bad, but it's not great. When I read it, I wouldn't have guessed it was by Chekhov if I hadn't already known. Sort of middling anonymous 19th-century Russian writing.

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  8. Agatha Christie! That's pretty funny.

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  9. As is obvious from his correspondence, Chekhov was, right till the very end, in awe of Tolstoy, but I don't know that it's so much that he eventually threw off Tolstoy's influence: rather, it seems to me, he found how to use Tolstoy's influence in a constructive manner.

    But if we are to look for links with other authors, "Ward 6" seems to me most closely related to Gogol. A dark and dreary, spiritually dead provincial town in which "the poor doctor lives in a world of monsters" - this is the world of "Dead Souls". It appears often in Russian novels, and, particularly, in Chekhov's works, I think - "My Life", "A Woman's Kingdom", etc. This is the world from which those three sisters want to escape to Moscow. It is Hell itself.

    Very interesting that Scott sees this as a sort of supernatural tale. I had not thought of it in this way before.

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  10. "How to use," not "threw off" - I think everyone would agree to that. See next post, which I guess now you have.

    "Ward No. 6" is not much like the Dead Souls I read, which is a lively place, far from dead, alive, alive, so alive that new people are generated at every turn. See my old posts etc. Just look at how much that one fellow admires his boots.

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  11. Yes, "how to use", not "threw off".

    Gogol's perspective and sensitivity were both different from Chekhov's. But they were both depicting the same place.

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  12. Man, I don't see it. Chekhov's best stories take place in a shadowy counterpart to the real world, meaning the one I live in. Gogol's best take place in Old Gogolia, a mythical country.

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