Analysis of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn’s Cancer Ward

This intriguing novel by Russia’s esteemed author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn (1918–2008) begins with a family’s fretful abandonment of the pompous, self-serving apparatchik judge Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov at a Soviet oncology ward, where he is cut off from his customary power and comforts. Even so, Cancer Ward revolves around and ends with the tale of another patient who arrives at the institution at the same time as the judge. Oleg Kostoglotov, a worker, war veteran, and permanent exile from rural Ush-Terek, has endured an ordeal just to be admitted to the ward. Kostoglotov flirts with a young doctor and begins an affair with her. The other patients include a young engineer, Vadim Zatsyrko, studying a problem to give his life meaning according to his custom, though his life will end soon; a former prison camp guard, Yefrem Podduyev; and Shulubin, a former academic who exemplifies the best of Leninist values but has now been purged and is dying. They provide counterparts, but the novel revolves around Kostoglotov’s relentless will to live and to love, and around his search to know “what men live by.”

The first part of the novel clarifies the helplessness of the patients; most have large tumors that make ordinary actions difficult, so their mobility is largely restricted. The patients spend the vast majority of their time in bed inside the ward, though Kostoglotov occasionally takes walks. The patients become excited about possible cures; at one time they think that radioactive gold will cure them, though no one can get any; at another point they believe tea made from a tree fungus may be a cure. Kostoglotov remains curious, and as he studies the treatment of cancer, he begins to understand more of what is going on around him. He knows most of the patients will die. The hospital releases terminal cases in the final stages.

When Rusanov arrives in the ward, he tries to bully others because he has the higher Communist Party status. However, the newspaper reports events that make him now vulnerable, and he becomes frightened when he realizes that the cadre of Stalinist loyalists like himself has gone out of power. The other patients mock him for taking a bureaucratic track to power, and his daughter brings him the news that retaliation has begun against those who delivered false evidence against the victims of Stalinism, something Rusanov has done himself. The conversation in the ward includes several loud arguments about the corruption inherent in privileging those like Rusanov. Rusanov is left behind, in a way: His daughter chooses to study literature rather than law, though she appears mostly to affirm “socialist realism.” Rusanov’s son has become a petty judge, but he horrifies Rusanov with his leniency and lack of cunning. The ongoing changes, Rusanov must realize, have changed his own life radically for the worse. Everybody, however, is disoriented by the changing climate. Several of the patients must consider that their lives outside are at a dead end.

Kostoglotov has a different problem: His virility is at stake. He had served as a soldier in World War II and then was exiled to the steppes of Asia. When he realizes a brief improvement in his condition, he begins to enjoy the relative freedom he finds. While other patients lie about gloomily dying, he finds great satisfaction absorbing nature or listening to the music at a nearby dance. The world’s beauty continues to invigorate him. Having been deprived for so long, he has two romances while in the ward. Then he flirts with two women, doctors who are treating him. He develops great admiration and respect for Vera Gangart, who is nearly his age; he also adores the younger doctor, Lyudmila Dontsova, for her beauty and her liveliness. A crucial part of the problem derives from the hormone treatment he has been taking, which will make him impotent. He avoids the treatment, with Dontsova’s complicity. Both women eventually believe that he has betrayed them, for not submitting to the recommended treatment properly and for pursuing the other woman. He seems to gain a measure of forgiveness from them, but the relationships are never the same.

As a counterpoint, there is also a romance between Dyomka, a young trade-school student, and his girlfriend Asya. The doctors want to amputate Dyomka’s leg, but Asya wants him to refuse because the amputation would rob him of physical and masculine prowess. Later, however, Asya comes in devastated because she has breast cancer and must have the afflicted breast removed. To these two, youth shapes the significance of the problem at hand, but the overall construction of the novel implies that vanity afflicts those at all ages, and that all overlook the depth and beauty of ordinary life.

A theory of art comes into play in the arguments between the patients and in the conversation with Rusanov’s daughter. Beauty itself adds to the value of life, the novel implies, and since literature seeks both to create beauty and to seek what men live by, the novel indirectly affirms the importance of literature in Russian life via its many allusions.

Most important, though, in one of the novel’s central scenes, Kostoglotov opens a discussion on “what do men live by,” after reading Leo Tolstoy’s story on that theme. The debate has resonance in Kostoglotov’s wondering what it would mean to be “saved at any price.” He believes that some sacrifices ought not to be made even to protect one’s life. The story he has read proposes that the answer must be love, but none of the patients has been prepared to accept such an answer. They offer mechanistic and materialist philosophical or political propositions. But as the characters’ conflicts in the novel develop, neither the power of the state nor science appears to offer anything substantively redemptive to them or to humanity.

The conflicts in the novel call political, philosophical, and metaphysical issues into question. Numerous plot threads offer potential political allegories. If the hospital is a metaphor for the nation, then it matters that the doctors in this tale also seem lost: Vera, too, apparently has cancer, so she goes home to see an old general practitioner. An inept doctor at the cancer ward, who is a party stooge, abets a “show trial” for a decent medical staffer, and Vera and Lev Leonidovich go to derail what they deem an obscene proceeding; they succeed, but the party stooge is still delighted to have come up with the idea of having show trials for doctors. Obviously, one of the main themes is that the “little people” are almost helpless against a blind totalitarian state, but they must resist.

Solzhenitsyn depicts the failures evenhandedly: He makes clear that human beings are complex, neither logical nor predictable, and that any state plan would struggle. For this reason, most of the subplots do not fit into neat allegories. Even Rusanov, though he eventually finds out that he does not like mere people at all, first loved the rhetoric and mythology of Lenin for its love of “the People.” This goes to another question: What is natural and what is artifi cial, with the implication that new, artificially imposed, man-made solutions must be flawed.

Probably the most important question is whether a worthwhile life can be too oriented to material and physical acquisition or whether a spiritual dimension must be attained. This problem bears upon Kostoglotov’s choice between the sexy younger doctor (whose name means “life”) and the platonic attraction to Vera, or Vega as she is called (which suggests a heavenly body, “Star”). It also bears upon the life of contemplation, burdened with a rotten body that Shulubin and Kostoglotov both perhaps anticipate after a “cure.” Shulubin’s last words claim that not all of him will die—yet another reference to a spiritual eternity. But even though Kostoglotov feels that he has grown through his struggle, on his first day after being released from the hospital, he spends his money foolishly on quick pleasures—a piece of grilled meat on a stick, a drink. When he realizes with shame that he has simply accommodated the physical dimension greedily, he goes to the zoo as if to purge himself. He encounters with rage another incident of cruelty to animals. Perhaps he recognizes that solutions in this world will bear within them the flaw of senseless human brutality. Still, Kostoglotov’s struggle to embrace life on each meaningful level gives the book its sympathy and its power. The novel ends suddenly, as he drifts off to sleep, but not without provoking contemplation of many of the world’s most important questions. Cancer Ward is the most emotionally moving of Sozhenitsyn’s novels, at least as profound as the other great ones and certainly one of the 20th century’s greatest works.

Dunlop, John B., ed. Solzhenitsyn in Exile. Palo Alto, Calif.: Hoover Institution, 1985.
Ericson, Edward E. Solzhenitsyn and the Modern World. Washington, D.C.: Regnery Gateway, 1993.
Krasnov, Valdislav. Solzhenitsyn and Dostoevsky: A Study in the Polyphonic Novel. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1980.
Rothberg, Abraham. Alexandr Solzhenitsyn: The Major Novels. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1971.
Thomas, D. M. Alexander Solzhenitsyn: A Century in His Life. New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1998.

Categories: Literature, Novel Analysis, Russian Literature

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