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 protagonist’s (and Solzhenitsyn’s) seeming conquest of the disease, indicates a hope that even such calamitous misfortune can be successfully averted, if only temporarily; the main thing is to keep fighting.
There is a much wider interpretation of Cancer Ward. In limiting the action to the hospital inhabited by patients from all walks of life, Solzhenitsyn creates a microcosm in many ways resembling the larger world outside. By forcing patients to wrestle with existential topics such as the meaning of life and death, guilt, punishment, and the relationship between human beings, he symbolically transfers the focus to the whole state, the macrocosm of the Soviet Union. The implication is that the entire state is stricken with a deadly disease and that the only way to overcome it is by reexamining the basic premises of its existence and by fighting through determination and hope toward healing. The brotherhood of pain and the common menace of death thus become the only way of realizing the severity of affliction, personified best by the painful reevaluating process of the main character, Kostoglotov. His insistence on knowing everything about his illness, for example, is a reflection on his suppressed right as a citizen to know the truth.
The supporting cast of characters fits this scheme. A former high official, Pavel Nikolaevich Rusinov, represents the unfeeling ruling class unable to understand how disease can afflict them also. The two chief doctors, Ludmila Afanasyevna Dontsova and Vera Kornilovna Gangart, do everything in their power to help, that is, to right the wrong. The young boy Dyomka, dying from leg cancer contracted by playing football, symbolizes the heavy price that the future of the nation has to pay. Several other patients demonstrate, one way or another, the generality of affliction and the common effort necessary for restoration to health.
To reduce the interpretation of Cancer Ward to political symbolism, however, robs it of its much wider application. The novel also applies to all humankind and, in doing so, attains a universal meaning.
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...
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- Critical Essays