Ward No. 6, by Anton Chekhov (1 of 2)

Our ideas are important to us. We reflexively defend them, if only because they’re ours. Clearly, they’ve got to be worth something, or we wouldn’t cling to them as if to a fistful of crisp green Benjamins. Unfortunately, the world is awash in faux-phosphorescent ideas. Inauthentic ideas. You know, ideas that some plucky upstart claims to believe but very likely (or even patently) does not. Like the solipsist or the hard determinist or the first-year freshman who denies the existence of the world or who believes in the immortality of the soul.

Like so many of Chekhov’s short stories, the opening passage in Ward No. 6 is like a bleak portrait.

In the hospital yard there stands a small lodge surrounded by a perfect forest of burdocks, nettles, and wild hemp. Its roof is rusty, the chimney is tumbling down, the steps at the front-door are rotting away and overgrown with grass…. The front of the lodge faces the hospital; at the back it looks out into the open country, from which it is separated by the grey hospital fence with nails on it.

The lodge is Ward No. 6, an asylum for the deranged, a “little Bastille.” It’s also the setting for Chekhov’s brilliant morality and philosophy play. Not a dry and stuffy one, but one that’s deeply moving and affecting. The prose bites with the sharp tooth of a Russian winter, and a filthy stench wafts off the pages. We suffer the setting as if we were there. As if we were, individually, the mysterious narrator, who is fond of personal pronouns and kindly value judgments: “I like his broad face…. I like the man himself.”

The story’s action is carried by two men: a smart, sensitive patient, Ivan Gromov, who is tormented by persecution anxiety and a smart, insensible doctor, Andrey Yefimitch, who is afflicted by inauthenticity.

Dr. Yefimitch has empty ideas that fill his head. His medical duties and obligations strike him as utterly useless. After all, “death and suffering is the normal and legitimate end of everyone.” Indeed, since “suffering is the source of religion and philosophy,” alleviating it is tantamount to destroying the source of happiness and perfection. Like so many victims of inauthenticity, the doctor’s intelligence is the armor of his rationalization, of his self-deception.

The flower of his philosophy is a form of Greek cynicism, namely, to comprehend life, to have contempt for material things, and to find tranquility in one’s self. Gromov, who has suffered his whole life, scoffs at such nonsense. Preach that crap in “Greece where it’s warm and fragrant with the scent of pomegranate…,” Gromov spits.

Diogenes did not need a study or a warm place; it’s hot there without. You can lie in your tub and eat oranges and olives. But bring him to Russia to live: he’d be begging to be let indoors in May, let alone December.

Slowly, under the force of Gromov’s ridicule and superior reason, Dr. Yefimitch begins to change. His friends and colleagues worry about his odd behavior. They encourage him to give up vodka and take bromide instead. He’s asked to resign his post. Dr. Yefimitch grows increasingly annoyed and frustrated by people, and prone to violent outbursts. He voluntarily checks into the hospital, but is transferred, against his will, to Ward No. 6, where brutal experience dislodges his fantasy
at last.

Chekhov’s great gift to us here is the creation of a setting and a lively exchange between two characters that reveal the incoherence of an idea. Ever the good doctor, Chekhov expertly disguises philosophy as a refreshing glass of fiction, wherein he tests an idea and reveals it to be weak at precisely the spot where its proponent believes it to be strongest. 

Ward No. 6 is great fiction, to be sure, but it’s also a knock-down argument against empty conceits and inauthentic ideas.

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