Writing Assignment 4
Anton Chekhov’s Ward Six parallels a dingy hospital ward for the insane alongside the turbulent social climate (in all its injustices) in which Chekhov was writing. Ward Six is fiction, but in a greater social realm, every word—every instance of holding a mad man against his will, every disbelief that a warm, dry couch is a better place than a damp cell, every crime that seeks to silence humanity—is true.
In order to evaluate the literary completeness of War Six, I referred to several of Stein’s major story components: characterization, the crucible, plot, scene, tension, show versus tell, and credibility. Sol Stein asks us to consider what we remember about our favorite characters. In Stein on Writing, he claims “The characters engage us first and are remembered most. The plots of individual books are chapters in their lives.” The method he refers to, regarding character creation, is utilized right up-front in the first few pages of Ward Six. We come to know and live with Chekhov’s characters through his brilliant imagery and exhaustive physical descriptions. In introducing the guard, Nikita, Chekhov writes, “He has a grim haggard face, a red nose and bushy eyebrows that make him look like a Russian sheep dog.” Such descriptions help shape how we picture the character, making him human and familiar to us. Chekhov’s comparison of Nikita to a sheep dog tells us everything he didn’t have to write down. For instance, he could have told us Nikita was excessively hairy or covered with eyebrow hair. But, since we’re told he resembles a sheep dog, we already have all the physical detail we need.
Stein also talks about characterizing through an action—“We individualize by seeing characters doing things and saying things, not by the author telling us about them.” In Ward Six, Chekhov does exactly this when he attempts to characterize Ivan Dmitrich Gromov: “He either lies curled up in bed or paces back and forth as if taking exercise, but seldom sits down.” Chekhov also clues us in to crucial character ticks that we come to expect throughout the story: “When anyone drops a button or a spoon, he leaps from his bed and picks it up.” The same kind of attention is given to particularizing Dr. Andrei Yefimych Ragin—“His stern face is covered with blue veins, the eyes small, the nose red. Being tall and broad-shouldered, with huge hands and feet, he looks as if one blow of his fist would knock the daylights out of a man.” Stein describes markers as “easily identified signals that to a majority of readers will reveal a character’s cultural and social background.” Uniquely, this doctor is rather shabby.
We gain lots of insight into Andrei Yefimych’s mental process from how Chekhov illustrates his behavior towards visiting patients: When he has to open a baby’s mouth to look at his throat and the child cries and defends himself with his little fists, the noise makes his head spin and tears come to his eyes. He hastily writes a prescription and motions the mother to take the child away.” Stein says that one of the five main types of characterization is through “physiological attributes and mannerisms.” I think we see a great deal of this technique used in illuminating the nature of the doctor. Interestingly, we come to know Ivan Dmitrich even more so through dialogue. We are given a sense of his intellect through his vast vocabulary and seething articulation. But, from his conversations with the doctor, we also see that he has given into confinement—he eventually becomes paranoid of the doctor’s motivations and seals himself off from further communication until the end of the story. From Ivan Dmitrich, we get lots of hostility toward his captors—“Leave me alone, why the hell do you persist?” His paranoia and need for solitude is demonstrated consistently: “In the first place, I am not your friend […], you are wasting your time: you won’t get a single word out of me.” One of the most publishable trademarks of this book is its overtly neurotic, intense dialogue. It’s the kind of dialogue that makes me feel uneasy, because I can feel the tension and utter disgust permeating through the ward. If Chekhov didn’t sit the reader down in a cot next to Moiseika, the realistic, emotional element would be lost.
Stein says that “Characters caught in a crucible won’t declare a truce and quit […], the keys to the crucible is that the motivation of the characters to continue opposing each other is greater than their motivation to run away.” In Ward Six, the crucible is the inescapable hospital ward. And, I also believe a secondary mental crucible exists—that is to say, the inherent (also, inescapable) madness all the male characters suffer from. They are all bound together by a unified insanity, which makes them all mad; and, makes them all the same by the end of the story. We are provided with a physical image of the crucible—“The roof is rusty, the chimney half caved in, the porch steps rotted and overgrown with grass, and only a few traces of stucco are left on the walls.” We know the status of the emotional crucible is grim and silences immediately by Nikita, but above the physical guard, is silenced by the unwavering hand of society.
Andrei Yefimych also suggests life at this time in Russia is the overarching crucible, in which the most futile battle exists. He says, “Life is a miserable trap. As soon as a thinking man reaches maturity and becomes capable of conscious thought, he cannot help feeling that he is in a trap from which there is no escape.” The doctor’s whole identity arises from his belief that “There is no difference between a warm comfortable study and this ward [and], Peace and contentment do not lie outside a man, but within him.” But, still, his overwhelming thought is that man battles life from the time he is born, against his will. Essentially, he, like the other patients, is forced into a crucible they can never leave.
How skillfully Chekhov devised the rules, regulations, and participants of his crucible is what maintains suspense. The reader becomes immersed, almost drowned, in Andrei Yefimych’s turmoil. But, the fast-paced, volatile discussions with Ivan Dmitrich are what arouse interest and concern. I think Chekhov, somehow, makes us aware that the doctor would never prescribe himself his own medicine; he can’t even examine a child without shuddering. When he proposes psychological garbage—“You will realize how insignificant the external things whichs agitate us really are”—we know he can’t possibly buy into it. He’s a shaky character from the beginning, and we know his comprehension of life is weak and will be made to erupt by his own field of work.
I don’t know how Stein would assess Chekhov’s implementation of scene; we feel included directly from the beginning (with all the foul explication) and then it significantly drops off. I kind of like it that way—I have already pictured the ward in my head, so each time we transition back to it, I don’t feel the need to be reminded of where I’m going. I thought the scenes from the stagecoach ride, to the train, and to the hotel were weak and unnecessary. But, I didn’t write the book; maybe the doctor’s pent-up disgust of surrounding humans wouldn’t have been as well-crafted, had we not envisioned Andrei Yefimych holding his furious head in his hands as he lay on the hotel sofa.
Regarding tension, Stein says, “Our job is […] to create tension and not dispel it immediately.” So, to say tension is present in Ward Six would be an understatement, especially because there is no resolution for the patients’ tension, let alone the doctor’s plot situation. Again, Chekhov’s most pronounced means of affecting the reader is through dialogue. As the story reaches the most drastic series of events, the dialogue is what allows the change to naturally unfold. The doctor shouts, “I don’t want your friendship—nor your medicine, you blockhead! The vulgarity—sickening!” Come on. The doctor called his counterpart a blockhead; of course that’s going to spark some suspense. Chekhov succeeds in developing selective language that moves us toward the climax.
Interwoven with his characterization is Chekhov’s ability to show rather than tell. For example: we see the doctor coming loose at the seams, we see Ivan Dmitrich’s madness and rage, and we even see Nikita “jumping to attention.” Instead of stating that he was amused, Chekhov shows us Ivan Dmitrich’s reaction to seeing Andrei Yefimych in the ward for the first time as a patient. “Just then Ivan Dmitrich woke up. He sat up, his cheeks propped on his fists. He spat. Glancing apathetically at the doctor, for a moment he appeard not to understand, then the expression on his sleepy face became mocking and spiteful.” Throughout Ward Six, we almost always see Ivan Dmitrich. However, in order to introduce us to these complex characters, Chekhov tells us quite a bit about them in the initial chapters. I don’t find it bothersome or dangerous (as Stein suggests), because Chekhov’s specificity is rampant. Even though we’re told about his origins, Ivan Dmitrich is never perceived as a dull, abstract character. Chekhov says, “Of women and love he spoke with ardent enthusiasm, but he had never in his life been in love.” Stein may not always condone flashbacks, but we know Ivan Dmitrich because of Chekhov’s introduction to him.
Stein tells us that “The advantage of first-person point-of-view is that it establishes the greatest immediate intimacy with the reader.” I think third-person omniscient narration is what keeps Ward Six moving so fluidly. I also don’t sense the disadvantage of distance Stein refers to. For instance, if the story was told by Andrei Yefimych, we’d be bombarded with too many of his internal thoughts, and the element of irony we see at the end would be ruined and pointless. I think this story is more about character convolutions than plot and there must be a sustainable distance, especially from the doctor.
If Ward Six was written from a first-person perspective, we would expect a protagonistic affect from the narrator. What’s intriguing about the story is that I don’t see any protagonists in the hospital setting. To me, everyone is a crazed defeatist who thinks they grasp humanity. Stein also points out that “The omniscient point-of-view allows the author to speak in his own voice to say things that would be inappropriate for any of his characters to say.” Consider the mental facets of Ivan Dmitrich and Andrei Yefimych—they’re both too nuts to tell a story about a hospital cell. With Chekhov’s third-person approach, the scope is broad enough to see the toxic effects the hospital has on all the characters, while it is narrow enough, at any given time, to not lose the reader.
Chekhov works to excite the senses immediately, typically relying on heinous sights and vile smells. Often, we get a dose of both at once: “Whole mountains of hospital rubbish are piled against the walls and stove. Mattresses, old tattered dressing gowns, underdrawers, blue-striped shirts, utterly useless worn-out boots and shoes—all this litter lying in jumbled, raddled, moldering heeps and giving off a stifling odor.” Chekhov makes no attempt to stop at a minimum of chronicling the grit. In fact, most accounts are excessive. But, that’s how he invites us into the world in which he was writing. How can we comprehend the suspicious state of Ivan Dmitrich if we don’t see what he sees and what he smells. Chekhov exposes us to endless smells: “The place stinks of sauerkraut, smoldering wicks, bedbugs, and ammonia.
I think this story’s selling-point will always remain Chekhov’s credibility. Regarding invented characters, Stein says, “What happens to them […] must be believable.” Ward Six is undeniably a social statement intended to speak of the times. He plants and explores the characters in a way that destines them all to a collective death and failure. For example, it’s believable that Andrei Yefimych ultimately is admitted to his own hospital because he didn’t even want to be a doctor. The narrator also has a habit of waving red flags. In the beginning, we read, “There is nothing on earth so fine that its origin is without foulness.” I think we realize, at some point, every character in Ward Six will begin to decay. Chekhov sets up the doctor’s instability: “He is utterly incapable of commanding, forbidding, insisting. It almost seems as if he had taken a vow never to raise his voice or to use the imperative mood.” The reader discerns this man simply can’t assert his place in the world—which is why we accept his transition from doctor to patient (especially because Chekhov makes him crumble slowly).
I think the irony of Ward Six has probably been repeated since its publication. I also am unaware of how much appeal it would have in a society that seems generally removed from late 1800’s Russia. But, I think it would be considered for publication because of the philosophy it oozes. Doctors can’t fully comprehend the mad, because they’re mad themselves. The notion that an external variable, like a cold cell, can’t deter a man from finding complete satisfaction and comprehension is nonsense. It’s nonsense that is preached by those fearing, with every fiber in them, that they could become an Ivan Dmitrich. Ward Six is about silencing all those who we’re capable of silencing and trying to convince them it’s for their own good.