319. (Anton Chekhov)

On “Ward No. 6”

This post belongs mostly to a good friend of mine, whose specializing in Victorian literature enriches his broad and deep reading and learning. He has, in the past, written generous and thoughtful responses to my blog posts. I thought that, on the occasion of our both reading Chekhov’s extraordinary “Ward No. 6,” I would take on the role of responder. In what follows, my response is in bold. “Response,” however, is not quite the right word. I do not argue with or against the main essay. Instead, I found that it spurred me to set out in lines of thought that I would not have otherwise had, and so my own thoughts on the story zig-zag with my friend’s, alternately intersecting and digressing. When I write “you” in what follows, I address my friend.

 I find the strangeness of Chekhov to be the strangeness of the world transparently presented—though of course it not that, the overwhelming impression of Chekhov as a cold blue sky, without direct light to set off contrasts in color and depth, but with a chilling wind to dispel haze or fog, is hard for me to overcome, and makes it difficult also for me to write on his art. You do the obvious thing to start: situate Chekhov in a tradition that, as you describe it, swells to include the Auerbachian current of European realism, from Dante to Zola, and even beyond to film. But what else will do for Chekhov?

“Ward No. 6” begins methodically with a photographic survey of the unnamed building of the title (the generic “ward” plus the non-signifying number ).  Like a guide or inspector, he opens with a long-shot, then invites us inside,  appealing to our bodily safety (we can enter if we’re “not afraid of being stung by the nettles.” His flat, denotative statements quickly become one with our own sight as we register the overgrown weeds, the rusty roof, the rotting steps, the hospital to one side and the “gray hospital fence with nails on it”; then a room full of “every sort of hospital rubbish,” then the keeper’s room, then the ward itself, with its iron gratings, splintery floor, smoke-blackened ceiling and complex, repugnant smell, and then (at last) the bezumtsy (ones without mind/reason, or in English translations, the “lunatics” or “madmen”), who are described in detail:  one, two, and then the third, the paranoiac named Gromov, whom we guess will be a  major point of interest in the story.

The passage exemplifies the familiar features of late nineteenth-century realism, yet does not lose its power to startle and shock.  What I’ve been noticing in particular is the series of metonymies (one fact leading to the next to the next), said to be the dominant trope of realism. There are, in other words, no metaphors; at the same time, it’s almost impossible not to convert the objects, consciously or not, into metaphors of the people confined inside, and from there into older literary texts that, as it were, stand “behind” the appearances.  Northrop Frye called this process displacement.  For example, the stinging nettles and the bramble forest that snares so many knights who try to liberate Sleeping Beauty; the retired soldier who guards the place and an ogre; the fence with nails and a prison or fortress; and finally the “patients” – lost souls locked forever in the bizarre motion or gesture that defines the condition of their damnation.  We’re clearly in one of the lowest circles of Dante’s circles of hell, of which this one must be among the lowest.  We could sum it all up in a final, brutal metonymy: the lunatics are the rubbish and decay, isolated, closed off, shoveled under.  If these associations feel inevitable, that’s because the metaphors belong to a social semiotic, as it were, pointing to realities the physical facts cannot express – things like cause and effect and unseen agency.

Chekhov once advised a young writer that if she wanted to create characters that touch the reader’s heart, she must “try to be cold – it gives their grief as it were a background against which it stands out in greater relief.  As it is, your heroes weep and you sigh.”  But in this passage, the narrative temperature drops a degree, anticipating the techniques of documentary realism in our own time, in words and in celluloid. In 1892, Chekhov, who was a doctor, had just finished a two-volume report on a penal colony on Sakhalin Island, several thousand miles east of Moscow.  Among other things, the clinical style and appalling content signal that this is a place that exists in real time and space – that, as we say now, One couldn’t make it up.  But in fact it’s the first section of a work of fiction, whose style will quickly shift.  

It’s not that the objective style allows no “subjective” opinions but rather that the author’s moral judgments, uttered in the same “cold” tone, have the force of facts articulated by an expert.  For example, the author’s “spreadsheet” on Nikita, the guard, which follows mention of his “vigorous fists”:

He belongs to the class of simple-hearted, practical, and dull-witted people, prompt in carrying out orders, who like discipline better than anything in the world, and so are convinced that it is their duty to beat people.  He showers blows on the face, on the chest, on the back, on whatever comes first, and is convinced that there would be no order in the place if he did not.

It turns out that all the characters in “Ward No. 6,” from childhood to the present, are open to the author’s view, as are their most intimate, complex, tormented moods, and even –  in the stunning final page – a character’s last seconds before death.  Chekhov did not invent narrative omniscience, of course; yet for some reason, passages like these seem to attain a higher, even god-like form of omniscience that gives to “Ward No. 6” its sense of vastness, its epic size.  It breaks through the usual boundaries of customary literary subject matter. The lunatics hover at the far limits of their society, their biology, and their humanity, existing in a limbo between the organic and inorganic, the living and dead, the human and animal, and –  most crucially – between the speaking and the mute.

I’m properly starting my response here, because of the disquieting directness of Chekhov’s narration in the description of Nikita: you say that the narration here “has the effect of exploding conventional boundaries of knowledge,” and what strikes me is that the narration here is very much that of the reporter, who is able to assay that the character is “convinced that there would be no order in the place if he did not.” Chekhov’s present tense in “he showers” is as much a register of habit and even monotony as is Flaubert’s imperfect, but Nikita does not notice it grinding away at him (the present tense habitual is most apparent in the account of Efimovich’s routine).

Much of what you write concerns Chekhov’s place in realist fiction—seeing Chekhov as exemplary of realism in both senses of “exemplary,” in some ways a good representative, and in other ways an extreme. Among the great themes of realist literature is habit and routine, the repetitiveness of life that grounds the drama of the plot; Chekhov brings the ground to the forefront of his stories, their actions often barely rising out of the monotony of their making.

In this story, the madness and the existence of the insane is, in addition to being squalid and neglected, painfully monotonous (“Probably nowhere else is life so monotonous as in this annex,” Chekhov writes.) One of the ironies of the story—and it feels like it is an Ezekiel’s wheel of ironies—is that Efimovich (Yefimych in the translation I’ve been reading, but I’ll stick with your version’s transliteration) escapes his boredom and routine dullness in the company of Gromov, whose railings against Efimovich’s benumbed complacency are a source of entertainment for the doctor, and who is condemned to imprisonment among the insane on the grounds of his believing Gromov’s company to be worth keeping. (Of course, those are only the grounds for Efimovich’s consignment to the Ward; I like that Chekhov distances himself a bit from the notion that “those who converse with the mad are themselves condemned to be judged mad,” in so far as Efimovich is clearly also the victim of petty political maneuvering by his rival and second, Khobotov; they reasons for his removal to the ward as a diagnosis of insanity that cooperates with political ambition.)

Gromov capitavates Efimovich at least in part because he argues against the latter’s complacency with the routine that is his life. Efimovich offers Gromov a smug faux-Stoicism, by which Gromov is supposed to reconcile himself to his fate and find inner peace. Gromov replies that life beyond Ward 6 is valuable as life within it cannot be, even if it too is monotonous and dull. Gromov argues on behalf of a life felt along the nerves—his own nerves suffering from excess sensitivity perhaps—and argues also for a life in the world. Efimovich is too stupid to recognize the value of the boredom he feels, too stupid to recognize that the monotony of his life sustains as well as stifles, whereas the monotony of Gromov’s life is a purely attritional force.

To me, this is the central lesson of the story: Chekhov’s realism embraces habit and monotonous routine, recognizing that even as they deaden, corrode, and numb, they also are the conditions for the happiness that is possible in life. I take his short work to be a warning against both those inwardly corrosive and numbing consequences and also, here, against the thought that all forms of monotony are alike, on account of being monotonous. This, I think, is central to realism, but also distinct in its emphasis: it is essential to Chekhov’s intelligence.

Because of this, the patients live in a double ring of isolation – an isolation of walls and of speech.  The patients speak either not at all or chatter into empty space.  Gromov, however, is an aberration from both sides:

From the way he suddenly stops and glances at his companions, it can be seen that he is longing to say something important; but, apparently reflecting that they would not listen, or would not understand him, he shakes his head impatiently and goes on .  .  . But soon the desire to speak gets the upper hand.  .  .  His talk is disordered and feverish, like delirium, disconnected and not always intelligible, but on the other hand, something extremely fine may be felt in it .  .  .  When he talks you recognize in him the lunatic and the man.  It is difficult to reproduce on paper his insane talk.

Gromov fluctuates between the lunatic and the man, in and out of speech, hovering at the possibility of becoming an actor in this fiction; the narrator similarly fluctuates in and out of comprehension, adjusting his hearing to pick up on “something extremely fine” while insisting on the man’s unintelligibility – until the gabble, translated into the observer’s paraphrase, begins to sound like sense:  “He speaks of the baseness of mankind, of violence trampling on justice, of the glorious life that will one day be on earth.”

I hear something in Chekhov’s narration that might be implicit in what you say—or might run against it entirely, and that is a boredom on Chekhov’s part: Gromov is himself a type and Chekhov, unlike Doestoevsky perhaps (whom, of course, Gromov admires), does not think the type of special profundity, even if what he says is true: yes, mankind is base, violence tramples on justice. It is an old tune that Gromov whistles (even he acknowledges “my expressions may be banal”). We are not given the full thrust-and-parry of exchanges between Gromov and Efimovich.

Relatedly, I wonder if that is because Chekhov thinks they would be more of the same, not especially interesting, or if that is because he cares about a constellation of facts that Gromov sets against  Efimovich and that Chekhov, I suspect, believes, should not be forgotten, however obvious it is: the misery physical suffering, the fear of death, the sense of the fact of life as something that has value that should not be squandered. Gromov is more alive to the life as bodily than the doctor is, and Chekhov admires this in him. He does not lose sight of this materialist, somatic reality of human existence.

“Try to be cold – it gives their grief as it were a background against which it stands out in greater relief”:   In this case, the grieving subject (who may or may not be the story’s “hero”) is a paranoid whose speech is almost nothing but passion, like a holy man speaking in tongues, but who struggles to express the judgment and emotions that the “cold” narrator only points to. It’s a stunning moment.   Chekhov leaves meaning de-centered, as it were, in the gap between the excess of the paranoiac and the reticence of the author – between the subjective experience of despair and the blank sequence of facts.  Where does the truth lie? Unmoved, the author responds to his own paraphrase with an oblique aphorism that lets both the lunatic and the human condition itself stand out in relief:

It makes a disorderly, incoherent potpourri of themes old but not yet out of date.

A half-dozen words that judge the entire span of human time up to the unchanging present (“old themes”), with an oblique nod to the current belief in improvement (“not yet out of date”).  The section concludes on a note that’s both droll and cosmic.

“I will not attempt to praise it,” Auerbach says of a passage he has reproduced from an obscure medieval text –  my favorite example of occupatio.

The text de-centers meaning in the first section, suspending it between rational narrator and irrational victim.  That’s not to say that truth is relative or inscrutable, but to say that Chekhov preludes his great work by propounding the problems explored by the story that follows.  There’s also a third witness, or agent of interpretation, the one I began with, which is  the mute factual description itself.  A paranoiac’s understanding of injustice depends on the presence of malignant agents – an excess, a ubiquitousness, of intention., aimed at the destruction of an individual.  But the physical appearance of Ward No. 6 documents precisely the absence of agency:  even to speak of “society” doing various things to its insane members, as I have, is a sort of trope.  Another trope is of course God:  the phrase “godforsaken look” ironically elides the fact that humans are the ones (passively)  forsaking other humans, and indeed, one function of the story is to explore human suffering by evacuating religious explanations –  belief in God, in immortality, in sin and redemption.   Instead of active evil is the no-cause of neglect and indifference, and the coeval no-effect of erasure and decay.  Nikita, who is an agent of the invisible organism that perpetuates the decay, performs the role of all such agents by sharpening collective social indifference into the fine point of violence – and who, like paranoid enemies, do punish brutally, intentionally, and covertly.  

In this story and elsewhere in Chekhov, it is so easy to be indifferent, to forget, to let stupidity grow up like a shell, and it’s not a tragedy—it’s just how it is. It’s what human life does being life. At the same time, it is not embraced or celebrated; the consequences are painful and real.

Again, I’m pulled back to the notion of habit, and to what you find in Nikita: the difficulty of locating blame, or knowing where blame pertains and where it does not. Bourdieu’s “habitus,” or at least the motivation for “habitus,” feels relevant here: neither structure nor agency, but the line where the two meet, where they are lived simultaneously. Nikita is neither a product of a system nor a product of his own will.

Nikita acts as casual torturer,  remorseless as a psychopath – as he would be outside of his social role.  Chekhov merely accounts him a member of a class (“simple-hearted, practical, and dull-witted people who like to carry out orders”) – anticipating, along with much else, the familiar diagnosis of ordinary Germans who carried out the Nazi genocide.  Chekhov, like Hannah Arendt, understood evil as “banal”; but the banality of evil is not the stuff of literature.  Fictional plots of the past resembled far more closely Gromov’s paranoid narratives of heroes and villains, and  the great motivators of moral action, such as indignation and hope, are normally premised on the pervasiveness of human will in the world. Could we then speak of “the stupidity of evil”?  Chekhov casts these paradoxes into acute relief by setting two characters into a dialectical relationship:  one who maintains his belief in a personal, intentional universe, and in the power of human will to change history; and one who believes only in non-explanations – what he calls “chance.”  

            In describing the history and ruin of Gromov’s family as a “rain of misfortunes,” the author interjects: 

It was  not without reason that the agelong experience of the simple folk that beggary and prison are ills none can be safe from .  .  .  People who have an official, professional relation to other men’s sufferings – for instance judges, police officers, doctors – in course of time, through habit, grow so callous that they cannot, even if they wish it, take any but a formal attitude to their clients; in this respect they are not different from the peasant who slaughters sheep and calves in the back-yard and does not notice the blood.   With this formal, soulless attitude to human personality,  the judge needs but one thing – time – in order to deprive an innocent man of all rights to property and to condemn him to penal servitude.

Injustice is therefore systemic, reflected in the “simple folk’s” belief that misfortunes are simply there, as a permanent possibility; it’s also brutal and deliberate, as Gromov believes, which is caused by a “formal attitude.”  Although “society,” in the author’s opinion, is also to blame (“every kind of violence is accepted by society as a rational and consistent necessity”), Chekhov’s focus in this story is on the administrative class, who by the nature of their function lose their fundamental human connection by mental erasure:  they do not see the blood.  It’s a sophisticated and, so far as it goes, plausible analysis, needing no subtle interpretation to make it clearer.   But Chekhov’s story is not about judicial victims in general but about the insane; and the problem of insanity winds around the social problem, as it were, in a double helix.  He dramatizes that weaving by placing two characters in dialectical relation to each other: the patient Gromov (whose surname derives from “grom,” thunder, and “gromit’,” to smash, wreck, or fulminate against) and the doctor who certified his insanity.

“It’s a sophisticated  and, so far as it goes, plausible analysis, needing no subtle interpretation to make it clearer”: I agree, and think that the clarity in part owes to the stress that Chekhov puts on “habit,” that through “the course of time” makes men grow callous. “Habit” is so basic, widespread, essential a notion (I wonder now what difficulties it presents for a translator here or in other languages), but one that I think Chekhov wants time and again to present as a beguiling force, akin to gravity in human life; perhaps habit is Chekhov’s secular gravity, taking the place of sin in his view of human cruelty and inhumanity.

As we saw, “Ward No. 6” opens with the author in implied physical movement, confronting the building and its inhabitants as simple objects.  But  his detachment ends when he examines Gromov’s face:  (“I like his face .  .  .  reflecting, as though in a mirror, a soul tormented by conflict and long-continued terror . . . the delicate lines traced on his face by profound, genuine suffering show intelligence and sense, and there is a warm and healthy light in his eyes.  I like the man himself .  .  .”) – and then of course when he is able to translate his talk (“difficult to reproduce on paper”), folding the discourse of the other into his own:  “themes old but not yet out of date.” 

Even more than in the initial description of Nikita this is, I think, the holy weird of the narrative’s weird opening: that sudden “I like his face.” And it’s persuasive. We believe Chekhov: we like his face too. “I like the man himself.” There is no irony there. Chekhov is saying he likes him, and he does, because of what he understands, despite his very real paranoia and insanity.

What does it mean that the person in possession of the truth suffers from actual persecution mania?  Is the rational person simply one who suppresses this “disorderly, incoherent potpourri” from his own consciousness?  These questions are possible because the rational narrator has passed over the limit that separates the social definition of the rational from the social definition of its other.  The author then disappears as a quasi-character in his own narrative, but we’ll see that he models an identical motion in the space of the fiction,  which really begins with the rumor that the doctor, Andrew Efimovich, has begun to visit the abandoned ward.  The doctor’s purpose is to pursue conversations with Gromov, whom he comes to consider the only intelligent man he has met in all his years in the “god-forsaken” village. This transgression, as it turns out to be, is dangerous because it defies the boundaries policed by judges, doctors, and the like which, in some shadowy way, give “society” the structure it has.  As the doctor tells Gromov while sitting on his bed:  “When society protects itself from the criminal, mentally deranged, or otherwise inconvenient people, it is invincible. .  .  . So long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them. If not you, I.”  It’s unlikely that by this point, readers will not have grasped Chekhov’s armature, the classically simple arc of his plot:  the doctor will move permanently into the space of the insane other, either by joining Gromov or trading places.

Your focus here is on the early sections of the story, but what you call “the classically simple art of his plot” is fascinating to me: for one, as I mentioned, I am not at all certain that I believe any of the characters believe in the diagnosis of Efimovich, or if they are not instead, or also, seeking grounds for his dismissal, to advance their own careers; secondly, there is the wonderful warping of that simple arc, where Efimovich accompanies Mikhail Averyanych on his travels—eventually lending the latter a good portion of money that would have made at least some difference to his story. Among my favorite moments of the story is when Averyanych learns that Efimovich has only 86 roubles, having borrowed (and failed to repay) 500 roubles in Warsaw: “Learning now that Andrew Yefimych was destitute, that he had nothing to live on, he suddenly wept for some reason and embraced his friend.” “For some reason” is both Chekhov’s not knowing how self-absorbed a many as Averyanych would weep at this, and would weep without self-blame, and also Averyanych’s not understanding his own weeping as self-blame, displaced and transformed into useless pity.  The story of their travels together is a story within the story, and within it, we see Efimovich’s dawning renunciation of life that is still not the same as the acceptance of a life in Ward 6. Here again, Chekhov is warning us against the conclusion that Efimovich draws earlier in the story, equating renunciation of the world with indifference to the world.

For the rest of the story, Gromov remains consistently the same as he was at the beginning:  an intelligent, humane man brutally disfigured by destructive fantasies he recognizes but cannot control.   It’s the doctor who changes, in a slow, relentless turning of the screw that pauses critically on the scene I just quoted from – the long dialogue in the ward – laid out by Chekhov with a logical cunning and many-layered complexity impossible to capture in any brief description.  An uncanny similarity joins the two, despite their opposed social positions: the double-ring of solitude I mentioned, the one built of masonry, the other of silence.   Isolation by silence comes as close as anything to a social definition of insanity, both as an involuntary self-affliction and as the punishment imposed by “society.”  But if society no longer recognizes them, as peasant butchers no longer see blood, and as judges no longer see the human consequences of their judgments, then isolation – of speaking and hearing, of seeing, of entrapment, of enclosure both literal and spiritual – inhabits both worlds, the inside and outside.   Andrey Efimovich’s dark night of the soul begins with his reaching out to the trapped paranoid, not out of compassion but out of an unacknowledged isolation – his lack of friends, his boredom, his withdrawal into books, his fetishizing of “culture” and “conversations” (which he dominates), his entrapment in a life he despises, among people he despises – that drives him to despair.    Of all the story’s characters, only the author breaks through the walls of other people’s selfhood, into an external and internal omniscience that, I suggested at the beginning, breaks open the usual conventions of authorial omniscience to create a sense of vastness that’s almost dizzying.  That omniscience is embedded in the colliding convictions and desires of characters, in their partial and even deluded understandings are never entirely wrong.   The story’s complex dramatizing of truth rises from those exaggerations, blindnesses, and intuitions, concretely embodied in their suffering.

“Ward No. 6” is a vast work despite its modest length, formidable in its intellectual concentration, in some ways unwieldy in its scope and ambition, “Dostoevskian,” if you will, in subject – as atheistic, finally, as King Lear, but even more pitiless in lacking a redemptive view of love.   Among the conventions it shatters through its release of dread and rage is an author’s customary care for his reader – our need for clarity, or composure, or some higher resolution, or grounds to rest on.  It’s a work to appall.  Having yielded, gradually but ineluctably, to its immense energies, you end up trying to escape it, to complain, like the prisoners trapped in their death-by-confinement.  If the greatest art cannot ultimately work this way, “Ward No. 6” fails to qualify.  If the greatest virtue of a work of art is its power to change its readers’ understanding of life, it belongs with the greatest.

Early in your essay, you mention Chekhov’s decision to write a report on the penal colony on Sakhalin Island—a decision that I’ve seen describe as deeply courageous, given Chekhov’s ill-health at the time. Chekhov wanted to tell the truth about the inhumane conditions and apparently (I recall reading, but without much certainty where) they did improve at least in some fashion after his writing. At the end of an earlier version of this essay, you touched on another fact of Chekhov’s biography: the abuse he suffered from his father. I don’t think it’s foisting a biographical interpretation on the story to see it as continuous with both the report on Sakhalin Island and his childhood suffering. In fact, I think this great short story is, with all of its “unwieldy” (I love how so many of Chekhov’s short stories, however careful their designs, feel scrappy at times and unwieldy as wholes) scope, at its core a plea for mitigating suffering that is bodily as well as mental, that is easily set out of sight, and that, out of sight, is exacerbated. There is monotony and there is monotonous enclosure; there is suffering from boredom and there is suffering from the boredom that is one with insanity (asked how to tell if someone was mad, D.W. Winnicott suggested reflecting on whether the conversation was dull; madness, he said, is not interesting for the person listening); there is the omnipresence of discipline and there is personalized, interpersonal, habitual discipline of attendants and warders who do not entertain the prospect of freedom. Gromov grasps all of that; Efimovich does also, in the end, when it’s too late. Stoicism and Cynicism are philosophers for those who can eat and live in sufficient warmth (Gromov’s point about the climate of Russia). I guess I find something warmly progressive and even utilitarian at the heart of the story: there are things in the world that, for moral reasons, to alleviate physical and mental suffering, need to be ameliorated—and doing that will not change the fact that life is not especially varied, satisfying, or meaningful. Monotony, cruelty, and stupidity will remain, occasionally dissipated, like a stubborn fog, in the course of a life. Chekhov would, that is, line up with the sort of reformers that are characteristic of the late-19th century, even if he wouldn’t accept as realistic a positive vision for worldly fulfillment that many of them might entertain.

Like you, I find Gromov to provide the center of gravity in the story; but I find it in words that Chekhov makes utterly plain for the reader:

“Have you ever suffered? Do you have any notion of suffering? Excuse me: were you ever birched as a child?”

Those words were doubtless plain for Chekhov himself. You write early in the piece that the repetitive torments of Ward 6 suggest  “we’re in the lowest circles of Dante’s Hell.” Whereas in an earlier post on Chekhov, I compared him to what seemed an unlikely near-contemporary, Proust, the comparison to Dante feels even less likely and yet more illuminating: Chekhov, the realist of the earthly world, excising all divinity, shaking off the sacred, and yet demanding we know the human hell of suffering, and also the alleviation from it that we can expect in our habitual rounds and routines of life. The life most people can expect is a far cry from beatitude or paradise, but it need not be hellish in the pain it brings daily.


1 Comment

  1. Just saw your comments, which you folded in with mine to create a dialogue I was proud and illumined to be a part of. I imagine you teach this way, more or less? Engaging, respecting, adding, shaping – in an accomplished way. Thanks!

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