Short Story Saturday: "Ward No. 6" by Anton Chekhov
“Ward No. 6” by Anton Chekhov
Published in 1892, first in the No. 11 issue of magazine Russkaya Mysl, “Ward No. 6” is one of the most famous short stories by Russian playwright and writer Anton Chekhov. Written in the 3rd person, the story spans 55 pages and is split into 19 mini-chapters. Many scholars consider it Chekhov’s masterpiece, and the story has been adapted to film multiple times.
The story takes place in an unnamed Russian town where reputation is everything and gossip travels at light-speed. Andrey Yefimitch is a doctor who frequently works at the local hospital. Attached to the hospital is a psychiatric unit, Ward Number 6, in which are housed five mentally-ill patients, and a seemingly obedient, fair-natured guard named Nikita.
Andrey’s favorite activity is engaging in highly intellectual conversations. He believes that intelligence, philosophy, pedagogy, etc. are the highest forms of being, and many times, he feeds his conversational urge with his friend, the postmaster Mihail. But soon, he meets one of the patients in the ward, a man named Ivan.
Ivan was a normal person who, from a young age, experienced many horrible things, such as the death of his parents and extreme poverty. But despite his upbringing, Ivan managed to gain a hold on his life, and he grew up to be quite the intelligent person. But one day, Ivan began to grow paranoid, seemingly believing that police were going to arrest him and put him in jail for an act that he had either not committed, had committed but forgotten it, or even for an act he had yet to commit. It drove him wild, and often Ivan would seclude himself in the cellar of his landlady’s home. Eventually, people caught on, and he was throw into the mental asylum.
Andrey and Ivan begin having many conversations at the ward. Andrey thinks Ivan is an incredibly bright man, certainly not what he expected of a patient in Ward No. 6. In their conversations, Andrey and Ivan cover topics such as love, society, immortality, and suffering, about the last of which Ivan has some choice words.
As the two begin to converse more and more, nurses and wardens in the hospital begin to take notice, and eventually the whole town is talking. A new doctor, Habotov, and his assistant, Sergey, are summoned to overtake the duties of Andrey. Andrey is asked to resign, and, discontent and listless at the futility of life (doubtless the effects of Ivan), he sinks into a depression, often opting to spend his nights lying on his couch thinking about life, rather than going out and enjoying it. His only source of splendor comes from the conversations he has with Ivan. And Mihail takes notice and invites him on a trip. Andrey agrees, spends a lot of money on the travels, but stays in bed, while Mihail parties by himself. It’s at this point that something has to be done.
Habotov and Mihail have somewhat of an intervention for Andrey, claiming that he is sick and in need of psychiatric treatment. Andrey, of course, combats this accusation–he even throws a bottle at the two men–and refuses to acknowledge that he has become mentally ill. Andrey claims, “My only illness is only that in twenty years I have only found one intelligent man in the whole town, and he is mad.” But later on, Habotov comes to visit again and ask Andrey to come in to consult a patient with a lung complication. Andrey agrees, and they set off to the hospital.
At the hospital, Andrey is led into an empty room and given patients’ garb. He recognizes that he has been swindled and is now a patient at the hospital, having been committed by the doctors, nurses, wardens, and the inhabitants of the town. He is now the sixth patient of Ward No. 6. Ivan is surprised but also delighted, and he says, “You sucked the blood of others, and now they will suck yours.” Andrey, badgered on by Ivan’s excitement, confronts Nikita, the warden, and attempts to break out. Nikita beats Andrey mercilessly, and the story ends with Andrey dying of an apoplectic stroke in the middle of the night.
The biggest themes in the story concern circumstance and suffering.
Throughout the beginning of the story, Andrey is a philosophical man, taking pride in his intellect and recognizing that there are simply certain things in life that cannot be changed. Some things include the poor conditions of the hospital and mental ward, as well as the collective perspective of society in regards to certain cases, i.e. mental patients. Ivan, with his background, combats Andrey’s outlook as Ivan was a man just like Andrey–intelligent, successful, loved to read, etc. But still, Ivan had fallen under the relentless conditions that Andrey would argue could not be affected. And by the end, it was those conditions that ultimately led to Andrey’s demise, as he was now on the receiving end of those circumstances.
Ivan also introduces to Andrey the concept of suffering in a new light. Hitherto, Andrey dismissed suffering, depression, unhappiness as temporary conditions of the mind, things that upon a strong force of will, a person could relieve themselves of. Andrey wants to help Ivan with his suffering, but Ivan expresses to him that because Andrey has never felt suffering like the suffering that Ivan has endured, he can in no way attempt to relieve another of their suffering. He explains that suffering is linked to compassion and love; it grants one the ability to appreciate life, empathize with others, and love unconditionally. When Andrey hears all of this, he is somewhat wary of the message, but at the end of the story, as Andrey has been taken in, his freedom revoked, and made a patient of the mental asylum, suddenly he understands. It is only when he experiences that kind of suffering himself that he is able to relate and empathize with Ivan. And, as we see, that revelation in itself becomes the ultimate undoing of Andrey.
There are many more underlying themes explored within this story, topics such as paranoia, psychosis, existentialism, fatalism, cynicism, calumny, and nihilism, all of which certainly contribute to its “masterpiece” status. But even without diving into its nuance, the story is nonetheless incredibly well-written and absolutely enthralling. Chekhov’s description is insane, wildly virtuosic and vivid; his dialogue and character exchanges are lucid and thought-provoking; and his imagination is uncontested. Elements that alone would send this story soaring, but superimposed onto the rapids of thematic currents, work to elevate the story into atmospheric heights of literary achievement. This one is a classic.