Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

In Gromov and Ragin, Chekhov depicts two individuals who are ill-suited to deal with the reality of contemporary life. Gromov may be the more sympathetic of the two. His confessed zest for life—“I want to live!” he exclaims at one point—contrasts favorably with Ragin’s intellectual retreat from experience. On the other hand, he, too, finds it easier to talk about life than actually to live it. Neither man possesses the strength or confidence to combat injustice in the world; in the end, they are both defeated by their internal weaknesses.

However, while both Gromov and Ragin are shown to be inadequate to the task of living meaningful and productive lives, they both seem more sensitive and alert than the rest of the people in their provincial town. Indeed, Gromov remarks that there are scores of madmen walking freely outside the asylum while people such as himself are imprisoned. Ragin concurs and asserts that such a fate is merely a matter of chance. His own relationship with his supposed friend the postmaster and his colleague Dr. Khobotov adds support to this view. The postmaster is an idle chatterer with no true understanding or compassion for anyone else’s woes but his own, and Dr. Khobotov is a dull lackey who secretly covets Ragin’s position and finally manages to replace him. Nor does the situation seem much better beyond the borders of this rural town. Ragin journeys with the postmaster to Moscow and Warsaw, but he finds nothing of stimulation in either locale. The atmosphere of unrelieved vulgarity and banality that Chekhov creates in this story led a fellow writer to declare that Ward No. 6 is Russia itself. Chekhov’s tale provides vivid evidence that Russian society was prey to the twin vices of ignorance and indolence. Mere words and philosophical theories are insufficient to combat this pernicious affliction.