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.