Ward No. 6 is widely regarded as one of Chekhov's greatest stories and one that shaped the way the modern short story is written. Apparently, it profoundly influenced the young Lenin, who, on reading the story, himself felt like being transported to the dingy interiors of Ward No. 6, as one of its inmates. Another prominent writer proclaimed "Ward No. 6 is Russia".There can be no greater praise that can be showered on a single story.
However, I must warn the lay reader, Ward No. 6 is bitter, depressing and dull, as Chekhov himself acknowledges in his private communications. It is a long story with no love interests, female characters, no tensions, and even the climax does not hit you in its O' Henry-esque suddenness, but creeps into you slowly, searing through your heart, like a long forgotten pain slowly emerging from the depths of obscurity. In my scant readings on Russian literature (lets say 19th century Russian literature), I have found this sense of gloom very universal. In Gogol, in Dostoyevsky, and now in Chekhov, a picture of Russia emerges that is very similar in its gray bleakness. With its cold damp wintry streets, man's soul tortured by suffering and seeking solace in alcohol, and a society whose values have become all but extinct, 19th century Russia, is a land, where man blended in with the colors of melancholy nature in the most undesirable fashion.As Chekhov himself observes, nature provides little respite in Russia from the sufferings. In one of the last few scenes, when Andrey Yefimitch looks out of the window of Ward No. 6 to see nothing but a "cold, crimson moon" and the adjoining prison cell. Along with society, the simple solitary pleasures of nature too, seemed taken away from the man in this cursed land.
But Ward No. 6 is much more than a harsh indictment of Czarist Russia. It is a story that is deeply symbolic, its characters are like voices in a man's head, whose whispers grow into violent argument in the solitude of the night. The whole story, its setting, its characters are finally a build up to the philosophical debate between Yefimitch and Gromov, and a tragic account of how society views this engagement. Chekhov questions the nobility of renouncement, the Hindu way of Nirvana (and probably engages with Tolstoy, too, on this point). In Yefitmitch's rejection of the futility of real life, Chekhov sees the naiveté and indifference of a nobleman, and the dumbness of a vegetative life, signified by Gromov's neighbor. (Remarkable, how each of his characters, even the most insignificant convey an essential point. A master short story writer indeed!) Yefimitch's entry to Ward No. 6 is also his entry to the reality of Russia's common man, his introduction to the pain and suffering of real life. And how beautifully Chekhov describes the scene:
"So this is real life," thought Andrey Yefimitch, and he felt frightened. The moon and the prison, and the nails on the fence, and the far-away flames at the bone-charring factory were all terrible. Behind him there was the sound of a sigh. Andrey Yefimitch looked round and saw a man with glittering stars and orders on his breast, who was smiling and slyly winking. And this, too, seemed terrible. Andrey Yefimitch 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.
It is from the stinking insanity of Ward No. 6 that the sanest voices emerge, for theirs is a philosophy carved out of suffering. Gromov desires life, he desires life's simplest pleasures, his freedom and does not buy into a philosophy that, in denouncing the material life, not only expresses its naiveté but is also a convenient politics to deny the masses their rights.
Chekhov questions the concept of insanity, and the power structure that benefits from the existence of this institution. In pushing Gromov and Yefinitch's intellectual engagement to the periphery of society, in dismissing man's thirst for philosophy as an insane exercise, Chekhov's small Russian town represents, in a microcosm, the world's great power structures, where artificial rituals, moralities strengthen beliefs that make it easy to push the inconvenient off the cliff, in this case, to Ward No. 6.
I think it was Herman Hesse, who once said Nietzsche's madness is not his madness, it is the madness of the modern man.