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An antidote to isolation

Will Solomon takes some advice from Chekhov about getting through isolation.

Art by Michael Lotsaris

Art by Michael Lotsaris.

“I absolutely had the feeling that I was shut up in Ward 6 myself!”
– Vladimir Lenin

Suffering what had been dubbed by a friend of mine as the ‘Corona Blues,’ – that dreaded boredom of having nothing but time with which to fill with nothing – I turned to my bookshelf, one of those cubic Ikea ones, and told myself I would read through one whole cube in the coming weeks. I landed on the cube that contained all of the Russian fiction I had studied in Year 12 and decided to begin with the short stories of Chekhov, my favourite author. In the pages of his 1892 short story, ‘Ward No. 6,’ Chekhov lays out what I considered to be an intriguing antidote to the ‘Corona Blues.’

The Russians have never been strangers to isolation, and Chekhov’s story sees characters experience it in droves. Set in an unnamed rural town and inspired by the author’s journey two years prior to the desolate prison isle of Sakhalin, off the coast of far Siberia, ‘Ward No. 6’ is a companion to his non-fiction memoir named after that island, and it feels strikingly real. The story follows two men and the circumstances that have them placed in a mental asylum. There are many interesting things that could be said of the story – like that it provides a radically progressive understanding of justice and punishment – but what enamoured me most was the relationship shared between its protagonists, Ivan and Andrey.  I was especially drawn to their attempts, in one of the world’s most isolated situations, to alleviate their own suffering.

“Probably in no other place is life so monotonous as in this ward.”

Early in the piece, Chekhov provides his readers with the notion that he will test over the remaining fifteen chapters; it appears as a description of the intelligent Ivan’s train of thought in the weeks prior to the paranoid incident that lands him in the asylum:

“Facts and common sense persuaded him that all these terrors were nonsense and morbidity, that if one looked at the matter more broadly there was nothing really terrible in arrest and imprisonment – so long as the conscience is at ease.”

As the story unfolds, Chekhov continues a conversation that has been in the Russian consciousness since Dostoevsky wrote on his exile, and a host of essays could be written on the contributions given by Tolstoy, Lenin, Pasternak and Solzhenitsyn, to name a few. When we are trapped against our will, can our conscience be put to ease? This question is one that has become apparent to all of us in recent times, and Chekhov’s answer is a softly spoken “yes.”

Unlike Ivan, who begins the story in the asylum and whose arrest is told in temporally isolated chapters, Andrey’s incarceration is experienced by the reader in the relative present tense. Chekhov’s early narration is coy, and it feels as if these events were described to him as he passed through just another town on his way to Sakhalin – “…and what a trepidation the lunatics are always thrown into by the arrival of the drunken, smiling barber, we will not describe…” This has the effect of engendering Andrey, a doctor, who is described by Chekhov as clinically as his profession, with a sobering, critical presence. It is no coincidence that Andrey, our protagonist and Anton, our author, are both medical practitioners by trade, and we are invited to diagnose this patient of Ward No. 6.

Through Andrey we judged Ivan, in fact it’s “by Andrey Yefimich’s orders” that he ended up in Ward No. 6 in the first place. We engage in the pair’s conversations as Andrey, a free man, visits the ward and befriends Ivan. The doctor, ever a cynic, is unconvinced by Ivan’s approach to the meaning found in suffering, which he rattles off in a rebuttal to Andrey’s half-hearted endorsement of the Stoics:

“to despise suffering would mean despising life itself, since the whole existence of man is made up of the sensations of hunger, cold, injury, and a Hamlet-like dread of death. The whole of life lies in these sensations; one may be oppressed by it, one may hate it, but one cannot despise it… Have you ever suffered? Have you any idea of suffering?”

Andrey’s scepticism comes from his own self-pity, believing his life and his work as a doctor meaningless, seeing as all paths lead to our deaths. Ivan is left believing that Andrey is unconvinced because the doctor has never truly suffered, and as such he is incapable of empathy and the attitude that guides Ivan’s kindness toward the other inmates. It isn’t difficult to see Chekhov grappling with these thoughts as he writes, and in a cruel twist of fate, the author would be struck down at 44 by tuberculosis.

As Andrey, and the reader, become convinced of Ivan’s sanity, it becomes clear that Chekhov has flipped the existential script on us – that it is the trapped, sorry Ivan who has learnt from his isolation that his suffering renders him alive, and that the free doctor remains restless, unable to appreciate his freedoms. When Andrey, who the townsfolk worry is losing his mind from spending too much time in the ward, is sent on holiday, he convinces himself he is happy, “How pleasant to lie motionless on the sofa and to know that one is alone in the room! Real happiness is impossible without solitude,” before his mind slips back to his earlier conversations with Ivan, “This is what I get from the real life Ivan Dmitrich talked about… It’s of no consequence, though…. I shall go home, and everything will go on as before….”

Yet, as Andrey returns from his holiday to finds himself broke and unemployed, he realises the townsfolk, who believed all along that he had gone mad, have tricked him. Unable to care for himself, he begins a downward spiral that lands him in Ward No. 6, beside his friend.

Trapped inside the ward, Ivan’s belief that Andrey could only find value once he understood suffering is proven true.

“Andrey Yefimich assured himself that there was nothing special about the moon or the prison, that even sane persons wear orders, and that everything in time will decay and turn to earth, but he was suddenly overcome with desire; he clutched at the grating with both hands and shook it with all his might. The strong grating did not yield.”

Unable to bear the realisation that this new suffering had allowed him to value the life he had lived, only now unable to live it from inside the asylum, Andrey has an “apoplectic stroke” that night, and dies. Chekhov’s conclusion is fantastically Russian: once we know what it is to be isolated from the world, we can learn to live with empathy and kindness towards each other, in spite of our inevitable demises.

Through Andrey, we can learn to value the experience of entrapment, yet in Ivan, Chekhov insists that we needn’t end up like Andrey, and that it is possible to remain optimistic in the face of our own incarceration. Chekhov offers his readers the luxury of understanding Ivan without having to be Ivan. Our isolation, unlike his, will some months from now be at an end.

We can learn to be at peace with our isolation because it reminds us that we have desires, that in our longing to be free of our solitude can be found a tapestry of the things we care about. As Andrey passes away, dreaming of the outside, Chekhov writes that he sees “A herd of deer, extraordinarily beautiful and graceful,” – a romantic image the author would not use lightly – to teach us that the isolation-driven dreams we have of the future hold the keys to living a life in accordance with the pursuit of what we find truly valuable.

The Translation of ‘Ward No. 6’ used in this piece has been freely provided by Project Gutenburg, under the Project Gutenburg License available at