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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 487

Chekhov’s narrative is structured in such a way as to lead the reader gradually into the world of the rural mental asylum. The charged descriptions at the outset of the story communicate his indignation over the way society has traditionally dealt with the emotionally disturbed. His portraits of the patients in the ward, from the intellectual Gromov to a man who once sorted mail at the post office, convey his compassion for the plight of those who suffer from mental illness. Then, with the incarceration of Ragin in the ward at the end of the story, the reader perceives directly the true horror of the setting. Chekhov endows Ragin’s view from the asylum window with symbolic dimensions: The prison walls he sees echo his own involuntary confinement, and the bone mill also in sight stands as an emblem of impending death and destruction.

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This symbolic mode of description surfaces again after Ragin suffers his fatal stroke. Ragin thinks for a moment about immortality, then dismisses it. Suddenly, he sees a vision of an extraordinarily beautiful herd of deer that race past him and disappear. Although Chekhov does not explain the significance of this vision, it is possible that the deer represent those aspects of life that Ragin himself ignored or overlooked. In his arid intellectual meditations he became divorced from the real world, from nature, and from living beauty. Only at the end of his life, when it is too late to change, does he undergo a mystical epiphany. This moment of beauty swiftly passes, however, just like Ragin’s life itself.

Not only do Chekhov’s descriptions of the natural environment carry symbolic associations; his descriptions of people, too, add depth to the reader’s understanding of character and personality. The fact that Ragin is physically imposing yet walks softly and cautiously mirrors the contradictions in his psychology,...

(The entire section contains 487 words.)

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