Like Odin den’ Ivana Denisovicha (1962; novella; One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, 1963), V kruge pervom (1968; The First Circle, 1968), and other works by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, Cancer Ward has a close connection to the author’s life. Like Kostoglotov, he was diagnosed with cancer and had to find his own way to a hospital. Like Kostoglotov, he took a folk cure that may have kept him alive until he reached the hospital. Kostoglotov is most clearly the author’s mouthpiece, although the other patients also express his views. Rusanov and a few minor characters present contradictory views and show, through citing examples, the flaws of the Soviet system.
On the surface, Cancer Ward is an examination of the patients, and to a lesser degree the doctors, in a cancer treatment ward of a Soviet hospital. The novel is far more about the characters than about the setting; the experience of cancer forces them to come to terms with their beliefs. The novel could be analyzed as a political allegory, but it is not apparent that Solzhenitsyn meant it to be read as such. Politics figures in the novel primarily because it was so much a part of Soviet life at the time, not because it is an overtly political novel.
Rusanov, a party bureaucrat introduced in the opening sections, sets the scene. The disparaging view of the hospital and of the other patients, coming from an obviously officious and snobbish man, induces the reader to sympathize with the other patients and defend the hospital.
Rusanov later fades into the background. When he is mentioned, it is to show his metamorphosis. Particularly telling is the section in which the technologist and supply agent Maxim Petrovich Chaly joins the ward. Rusanov becomes friends with Chaly, an operator in...
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