Saturday, March 11, 2017

Ward 6 by Anton Chekhov

This post contains spoilers.

I read the Larissa Volokhonsky and Richard Pevear translation of this story.

Like many of his stories, Anton Chekov’s Ward No. 6 explores various aspects of the human condition. It also takes a dive into stoic philosophy.

The ward of the title is a small facility that is part of a hospital complex where the severely mentally ill are housed. Several patients are described in this tale. Central to the story is Ivan Dmitrich Gromov who is confines to the ward. .He is philosophical thinker. Though he clearly is suffering from paranoid delusion, he often shows also great deal of sanity and insight.

The patients live under terrible conditions. They are physically abused. The ward is squalor filled. Dr. Andrei Yefimych Ragin is the Director of the hospital. Though he sees the terrible way in which that the patients are treated, he passively allows it to continue.

There is a lot going on in this story. At its heart are the philosophical discussions between Andrei Yefimych and Ivan Dmitrich. The Doctor is a stoic. He references Marcus Aurelius and other stoic philosophers at several points in the story.

Ultimately Chekov seems to be labeling stoicism as hypocrisy.  At one point Dr. Andrei Yefimych tries to lecture Ivan Dmitrich on the advantages of a stoic attitude,

"You can find peace within yourself under any circumstances. Free and profound thought, which strives towards the comprehension of life, and a complete scorn for the foolish vanity of the world— man has never known anything higher than these two blessings. And you can possess them even if you live behind triple bars”

Ivan Dmitrich is having none of this however. At one point he criticizes the philosophy that the doctor espouses,

“I know that God created me out of warm blood and nerves, yes, sir! And organic tissue, if it’s viable, must react to any irritation. And I do react! I respond to pain with cries and tears, to meanness with indignation, to vileness with disgust. In my opinion, this is in fact called life. The lower the organism, the less sensitive it is and the more weakly it responds to irritation, and the higher, the more susceptible it is and the more energetically it reacts to reality. How can you not know that? You’re a doctor and you don’t know such trifles!”

The narrative contains several lively debates and interactions between the two men. The fact that the doctor is preaching philosophical and emotional indifference from a position of comfort and security is underscored.

When Andrei Yefimych’s luck turns bad, he losses his position, financial security and his home. In a twist of fate, as his mental health deteriorates he is committed to Ward 6. However, he is unable to apply his stoic principles to cope with his terrible situation.

It seems clear, that based upon Andrei Yefimych fate, that Chekov is being highly critical of stoicism. Ivan Dmitrich, critic of stoicism, seems to be the voice of the author here. The hypocrisy and arrogance of Andrei Yefimych’s situation is highlighted in both the dialogues and the storyline.

My take on this is that Chekov has a point, but I do not go as far as him. For people who are in positions of security and ease to lecture those who are not so advantaged on the virtues of indifference, is the height of hypocrisy and arrogance. With that said, people have applied stoic philosophy successfully in dealing with terrible hardship  as well as a means to great success.  As a useful way to cope with suffering it can be enormously beneficial. Auschwitz survivor Viktor Frankl is but one of many examples of people who cite stoic ideals as the means through which they persevered through horrendous circumstances. However, this thought system should not be applied in a judgmental way. It also is not a universal solution to all the world’s suffering.

Ward 6 is another example of thoughtful but dark Chekov tale. Like many if not most of the author’s works, it is full of insights into human nature and life. This tale in particular, is a intellectual tidbit for those interested in philosophy.


Guy Savage said...

I saw a Russian film version of this which was quite interesting.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Guy - I just Googled the film. It looks like there are at least two versions of it. They both look good.

The Reader's Tales said...

Excellent review, Brian! You know how much I love Russian authors... I couldn't be happier with your book recommendation. Have a great weekend :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks The Reader's Tales - I am planning to read more Russian literature this year.

Have a great Sunday.

So many books, so little time said...

I saw spoilers but I had to read your review anyway Brian, yet another book/author I haven't heard of and the fact there is movies, I think I need to check them out too but maybe at a later date.


Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lainy - Chekhov wrote a lot of very short works. Thus he is easy to explore in small bits.

Suko said...

Another terrific review! This sounds engaging as it's insightful and philosophical.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Suko- Indeed. In this one Chekov really dug into philosophy.

James said...

This sounds like a truly engaging story with presentation of a serious discussion of ideas. I would side with you in opposing Chekhov's point of view as it is posed in the story.
As someone that was inspired by Victor Frankl's example, as well as the ancient stoics, I see stoicism as way to pursue the joy of life while learning how to deal successfully with those aspects you cannot control.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi James - I wonder if Chekhov knew some obnoxious stoics.

The Reader's Tales said...

Great, after we can compare our notes...hahaha... In fact, it's mission impossible to find Anyuta. It's really not fair... that said, I bought another book by A.C. that caught my attention.(French version:La Dame au petit chien). Have a great week :)

Brian Joseph said...

Hi The Reader's Tales - sometimes Chekhov stories have varying titles because if different translations. However I could not find other titles for Anyuta. Whichever stories that you read I would be curious as to what you thought.

So many books, so little time said...

Ooooh short works may work out better for me, not a huge lover of short stories but I think for things like this bitesize would be perfect.


Gently Mad said...

Hi Brian.

I vaguely remember this story and it is an example of why Chekov is such a brilliant writer. First the Director is on the outside looking in without emotion or empathy towards any of the patients and then he meets his own doom and receives the same mercy.

Kind of an example of measure for measure. (The amount of mercy we show others is the amount of mercy we will receive.)


Thanks for a great review!

Maria Behar said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Maria Behar said...

(For some reason, I've had an unusual amount of "typo trouble" this comment. I wonder if there's a full moon

Great review as always, Brian!

From what you've presented here, it definitely seems that this is the philosophy espoused by Mr. Spock, as well as his fellow Vulcans. Spock would sometimes lecture his human crew friends on the superiority of logic, compared to emotion.

I have never read Frankl's famous book "Man's Search for Meaning". I find it very hard to read anything related to the Holocaust, as I am a very sensitive person, as you know. Stoicism as a personal philosophy does sound like an ideal way to come to grips with reality, but I don't think it would be suited for all types of temperaments, It certainly isn't suited to mine, as I FEEL negative events in life very intensely!

How ironic that, in this story, the staunch defender of this philosophy was unable to derive any comfort or consolation from it when his comfortable situation ended. It's easy to philosophize from a position of wealth and material comfort, but, when one is suddenly thrust into the harsh reality of poverty, for instance, philosophy, I'm afraid, often flies out the window.

The world is very unfair. Life frequently seems to favor those who are cruel, insensitive, greedy, and power-hungry. How is a Stoic philosopher to make sense of this?

I sometimes even wonder whether Christianity can be of any help here. Christians believe that the world is the way it is because it's under the control of Satan. The HUGE irony here is that Christians themselves sometimes contribute to the evil in the world. The Inquisition is a prime example of this. But then, not even Christians are perfect. There's a fatal flaw in human nature, although, paradoxically, there's much good, as well.

Somehow, I'm still able to hold on in the face of all this, although I must admit that sometimes, my faith wavers.

Checkhov, like Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky, touches upon the great tragic aspects of life, and, in so doing, creates compelling fiction that deeply touches the human heart and soul. I definitely MUST read this great Russian writer!

Thanks for your thought-provoking review!! :) :) :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Sharon.

Andrei Yefimych Ragin does show no empathy. The turnaround in his fortunes is both disconcerting and striking. I did however, find it a little forced.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Maria.

Spock was indeed a stoic. Though I like stoicism and think it can be very useful in hard times, I can imagine how it could fail one in time of need. With that, it obviously has nlot failed everyone. Frankl is a good example where it has worked.

In my opinion, certain tenets of Christianity help people deal with suffering and tragedy. It is a very different approach as compared to Stoicism however.

Chekhov is well worth reading. I think that you would like him.

Have a great week!

Caroline said...

This has been on my radar for a while.
I really love stoic philosophy but I agree, at times it can seem unfeeling to preach this to someone in the middle of a crisis or a very difficult life situation.
I hope I can find the story in one of my books.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Caroline- This story is a must for those who like Chekhov and those interested in stoicism. If you read this I would be curious as to what you thought about it.

baili said...

I like reading philosophical stories! This one is wonderfully reviewed by you.

It is obvious that more than often it is harder to do what you say .
I too believe that putting doctor in same condition sounds little fourced but this is life and everything that enter in our imagination is possible somewhere, somehow

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Baili.

I think that Stoicism works best when it is not sanctimonious.

JaneGS said...

Sounds like a challenging but thoughtful work--I haven't read much of the Russians, and only recently saw The Cherry Orchard for the first time. I do like works like this that debate a point of view. Your description of the story made me think that Chekhov was approaching the narrative as a playwright more than a novelist--not good or bad, just a thought.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Jane - When I think about it, many of Chekhov's short stories were very therical. He was a great playwright so I guess one can call this carryover.

HKatz said...

Oh, I'd love to read this. I enjoy your commentary, and this sounds like a great story.

I also like your nuanced approach to stoicism. From your description of the story the problem might be one of "lecturing" to someone who's in a terrible situation. It's the lecturing that's irritating, especially when it comes with a lack of empathy or with a kind of glibness that reveals that someone hasn't suffered much from a particular problem. I'm thinking of cases in my life where I struggled to make peace with a situation by considering the ways I've grown or what I've learned from it or how it might be part of something bigger - but if someone came up to me when I was in trouble and glibly said, "Just look at the bright side!" "Find peace in yourself!" (in a "turn that frown upside down" sort of way), I'd be annoyed.

By the way, I started reading Trollope's The Warden and so far I'm enjoying it. Thanks for promoting Trollope (and his Barsetshire Chronicles) on your blog :)

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks Hila.

It seems that maybe Chekhov ran into the wrong stoics :)

I am glad that you are enjoying The Warden. I would love to know what you thought when you are finished.

thecuecard said...

I guess I haven't thought much about stoicism as a full philosophy that people use. Interesting. Why is the doctor not able to apply his principles once he gets committed? I guess he just falls apart?

Lory said...

I would like to read Chekhov but I've been somewhat intimidated by the volume of his writing, not knowing where to start. Perhaps I should pick just one story - this one could be interesting to begin with.

Having just reread The Dispossessed I'm interested the themes of inner freedom and outer hardship. I also really want to reread Man's Search for Meaning, which I have not read since high school. Along with that this could be a fictional complement.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Susan - People do use Stoicism in all sorts of situations. In the end, it just does not work for some folks. I think that is true of The Doctor in this story.

Brian Joseph said...

Hi Lory - Chekhov wrote so many great works. Having read all his major plays I can recommend them all. Most of his popular short story collections include many of his best.

I found The Dispossessed to be such a compelling book. I would like to read Man's Search for Meaning.

Anonymous said...

Chekhov was very keen on Stoicism and often mentions Marcus Aurelius and Epictetus in other short stories. My interpretation of this Dr. Andrey is that Chekhov wanted to emphasize that the knowledge we may have and that he had of Stoicism is not enough to be a Stoic. He's saying "hey, I'm not a superman like Marcus Aurelius or Epictetus, I'm just a parody of them!" And for this humble approach I love him.

Brian Joseph said...

Thanks for stopping by Michele. Your interpretation rings true. Chekhov seemed so negative about Stoicism here. Yet he often advocated it. I guess Yefimych represented the parody of stoicism here. Or perhaps Chekhov was just criticizing what he did believe in. That is something that intellectuals and writers sometimes do with good effect.