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^The Wisdom of Pain: A Responsive Reading John Stone Chekhov's recent biographer, Henri Troyat, calls "Ward Number Six" "perhaps his darkest work of fiction."1 Dr. Wolff has noted and analyzed the major points of this story. In my responsive reading, I shall place "Ward Number Six" in the context of Chekhov's life; I hope to show how the events of his life, literary and medical, contributed in important ways to the genesis of the story. By 1892, the year in which "Ward Number Six" was published, it was clear that Anton Chekhov had, in fad, come a long way. He deserved to be called, as Troyat has called him, "the foremost writer of his generation ."2 In 1888, he had been awarded the Pushkin Prize. His books were being reprinted widely and translated into French, German, and Italian. It was an achievement that would not have been predided by the early history of his life. Grandson of a former serf, educated in a oneroom schoolhouse, Anton had paid his way through medical school in Moscow by writing hundreds of short, often humorous, stories and sketches. This journeyman asped of his literary craft doubtless helped him achieve his output: some eight hundred short stories and several extraordinary plays. And, all the more impressive, he accomplished this prolific output during a career that could be extremely busy from the medical point of view. Moreover, Chekhov, for the last twenty years of his life, was a sick man, even though he attempted to deny it for a long time, both to himself and those around him. In June 1884, at the age of twenty-four, Chekhov passed his final medical exams. Six months later, he coughed up blood for the first time. This hemoptysis (he would have relished the medical word) continued from time to time throughout the rest of his life. John Keats, who experienced the same dread appearance of blood at approximately the same age, knew that hemoptysis meant tuberculosis. Keats announced (to Charles Armitage Brown), "That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die"—Chekhov might have used the same words, though the course of his disease was to be much more protracted. Literature and Medidne 9 (1990) 142-49 © 1990 by The Johns Hopkins University Press John Stone 143 In late 1889, Chekhov conceived of making a trip to the Island of Sakhalin, a penal colony in Siberia just north of Japan. In a letter to Alexei Suvorin (his publisher and chief literary supporter), he gave what probably is the dearest statement of his intentions in going to Sakhalin. He dted a personal and humanitarian interest in the island—and a writer's interest, as well: "There are sure to be two or three days out of the whole trip that I'll remember all my life with rapture or bitterness." But the most cogent reason for the trip seems to have been that he wanted "to write at least one or two hundred pages to pay off some of my debt to medidne."3 Chekhov began his trip to Sakhalin on April 21, 1890. He knew before he went that "Sakhalin is a place of unbearable suffering, the sort of suffering only man, whether free or subjugated, is capable of."4 He knew that the journey would be a hard one. Traveling by train, boat, and by "a springless carriage" (mostly the latter), he covered over six thousand miles. The privations of travel were extreme; the weather was forbiddingly cold. (Chekhov later quoted Voltaire that "Russia has nine months of winter and three months of bad weather."5) Finally, he arrived at Sakhalin on July 11, 1890. During his threemonth sojourn there, he did what amounts to a sodological survey, filling out ten thousand questionnaire cards in his own hand. Sakhalin had five prison colonies: once a prisoner served out his time, he was obliged to remain on the island as a settler. Prostitution was common among the wives and daughters of the convids (and the 10 percent of the convids who were female); so was venereal disease. The conditions were primitive: some convicts were chained to their wheelbarrows for work; medical care...


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