Anton Chekhov’s “Ward No. 6” is a long short story, almost a novella, but most of all it is a story about how the beneficiaries of privilege blind themselves to the suffering of others, even when it is staring them in the face. This, of course, is a theme that is under vigorous discussion today, and it is something that Chekhov must have been particularly sensitive to: his grandfather was a serf–that is to say, a slave–who bought himself into freedom and launched the family into the petit-bourgeois world of the retail trade. Chekhov’s father later indulged in an unwise renovation of the family home, resulting in bankruptcy and the threat of debtor’s prison (subprime mortgage crisis, anyone?). Chekhov most likely suffered none of the delusions that the story’s protagonist, Andrey Yefimitch uses to console himself for his uselessness and his indifference to suffering. Andrey Yefimitch is a doctor in charge of a neglected rural hospital, whose shabbiness he bemoans without bothering to change anything;.
The story uses multiple threads to make subtly satirical observations on Russian culture: Andrey Yefimitch complains that there is no one of intelligence to converse with in the rural town where he has landed–then discovers a perceptive intelligence in one of his own patients in the mental ward, one Ivan Dmitrich, who suffers from paranoia. Andrey Yefimitch’s own best, and perhaps only, friend is the postmaster, with whom he establishes a sort of mutual-admiration society–and who helps bring about his downfall in an effort to help “heal” him. Andrey Yefimitch more or less ignores his patients, and he rationalizes his diffidence with the observation that all officeholders steal and do nothing, and that at least he steals only his salary. But it is his assistant doctor, who covets Andrey Yefimitch’s post, that in the end bumps him from it.
Andrey Yefimitch’s increasing abstraction from the town’s society, and his growing indifference to his actual work as a doctor, become so extreme as to draw notice, especially when he comes to devote most of his time to conversation with the paranoid Ivan Dmitrich (ofter against the latter’s will). He consoles the patient with observations that pain and suffering are only mental constructs and so of no importance, and that all, rich and poor, will die, along with the earth itself, so why worry yourself. Ivan Dmitrich counters that should Andrey Yefimitch catch his finger in the door he would learn more about pain in that moment than he has in his entire privileged existence.
Well, Andrey Yefimitch doesn’t catch his finger in the door. Instead, he is eventually committed to his own mental hospital–to the very Ward No. 6 where his conversational plaything Ivan Dmitrich is confined for life–and when he tries to assert himself, he is physically beaten by the warder, his former employee. He has lost his privilege as surely as any limousine liberal of today would if they woke up poor and black one morning.
In a very quiet closing, Andrey Yefimitch at last learns that suffering, for all that it is in fact a mental construct, is real, and that pain is real, and that the end of the world a few million years hence means nothing to those who suffer in the here and now. Unlike the enduring lunatics with whom he now shares his life, he cannot abide, and dies of a stroke.
The story is told gently and with just enough background detail to enhance the dreariness of the hospital and its inmates’ lives. it is definitely a tale of its time, but it just as definitely speaks to us today, despite the freer, cleaner world we inhabit. The blindness of privilege does not change.