Study Guide

Cancer Ward

by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Cancer Ward Summary

Summary (Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

Cancer Ward is also based on Solzhenitsyn’s personal experiences, this time on his bout with cancer. The protagonist, Oleg Kostoglotov, a thirty-four-year-old political exile, is afflicted with cancer in the prime of his life and approaches it with a mixture of hope and despair. The entire novel takes place in a cancer hospital separated from the world; this circumstance makes for an oppressive atmosphere of isolation, but it also enables the patients to turn inward and reexamine their past. Solzhenitsyn again creates a score of characters, each different in his or her reaction to the illness and in the ability to cope with it, yet all coming to the same conclusion that this experience is an ultimate test of their will to survive, not all of which depends on the doctors and medicines alone. Predictably, all patients show different fortitude and reaction to the blow that fate has dealt them.

In addition to the patients’ silent but excruciating process of reexamination, there is a relationship between doctors and patients to be considered. All doctors make gallant efforts to save their patients, fully aware that their resources are limited; in fact, the main doctor eventually succumbs to cancer herself. Solzhenitsyn uses this relationship to test the ability of medical science to save lives, and also to voice, through Kostoglotov and the doctors, his views about the meaning of life in general. The final outcome, illustrated by the...

(The entire section is 572 words.)

Cancer Ward Summary (Literary Essentials: World Fiction)

Cancer Ward is what its title suggests: an exploration of an institution devoted to the care of cancer patients. In this public institution, people from all levels of society find themselves in the same predicament, struck down by a disease that terrorizes and enervates them. The doctors in the ward do their best to keep their patients’ hopes alive, and in some cases treatment seems to be remarkably effective. Overall, however, there is a sense of gloom and dread as patients worry over their “secondaries”—the tumors in other parts of the body which reveal that their disease is spreading.

By beginning the novel with the arrival of Rusanov, a government official, Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn quickly suggests the highly structured nature of Soviet society. Rusanov is upset that he is not being treated in Moscow. He distrusts the doctors in this provincial city, and he finds his fellow patients considerably beneath him. He is a stuffy, orthodox Communist who knows very little about his own countrymen. He is quickly offended by Kostoglotov, a hardened veteran of the labor camps and of political exile. Kostoglotov finds Rusanov’s political maxims hard to take, for he knows that Rusanov has never confronted the realities of Soviet society.

Chapter by chapter each cancer patient’s personality and background are revealed. Solzhenitsyn is careful never to supply the reader with too much information. Slowly, the story of Kostoglotov’s...

(The entire section is 430 words.)

Cancer Ward Summary (Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

In February, 1955, Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov is admitted into the cancer ward of a Soviet hospital. His wife, upon examining conditions in the hospital, immediately tries to bribe one of the nurses to offer him superior care. Rusanov is a Communist Party official in charge of labor relations—a euphemism for being a government informer—and used to having privileges. He chooses this hospital rather than one in Moscow because his doctor, Lyudmila Afanasyevna Dontsova, insists that he receive treatment as quickly as possible for the large tumor on his neck. Dontsova, fifty years old and one of the older doctors, is the head of the radiology department at the hospital.

Rusanov quickly sizes up the other eight patients in the ominously named ward no. 13 and decides that they are his inferiors. He takes a particular dislike to Oleg Filimonovich Kostoglotov, a former labor camp inmate whom he nicknames Ogloyed, or “lout,” even though the man appears to be an avid reader. Dyomka, a teenage student with cancer in his leg, also reveals that he enjoys reading, now that he has the time to do so. Kostoglotov tells him that education does not necessarily make a person smarter, but Dyomka disagrees.

Kostoglotov asks Zoya, an attractive young nurse, whether he might borrow one of her medical books. His doctors never told him what is wrong with him, and he wants to know. He was near death when he arrived at the hospital less than two weeks earlier, and six months prior to that, a doctor told him that he had less than three weeks to live. Once he discovers the type of cancer he has, he asks Dontsova whether he might get a year of peace rather than undergoing the radiation treatments that will make him sick and not necessarily cure him. Dontsova becomes attached to him, in part because she is writing a professional thesis on cancers similar to his; the hospital has too many difficult cases to allow her to take a leave to finish the thesis. She recognizes the danger of radiation treatment and sympathizes with Kostoglotov.

Dyomka meets Asya, a beautiful girl, in a recreation area shared by male and female patients. She is an athlete, and she tells Dyomka that she is in the hospital for a checkup. In her opinion, she says, it...

(The entire section is 919 words.)