The Cancer Ward

Title:                      The Cancer Ward

Author:                  Alexander Solzhenitsyn

Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr Isaevich (1969). The Cancer Ward. New York: Modern Library

LOC:       83042701

PG3488.O4 R313 1983

Date Posted:      May 29, 2013

The novel tells the story of a small group of cancer patients in Uzbekistan in 1955, in the post-Stalinist Soviet Union. It explores the moral responsibility — symbolized by the patients’ malignant tumors — of those implicated in the suffering of their fellow citizens during Stalin’s Great Purge, when millions were killed, sent to labor camps, or exiled.

One of the patients fears that a rehabilitated man he denounced eighteen years ago to obtain the whole apartment that they were living in together will seek revenge, while others come to realize that their passive involvement, their failure to resist, renders them as guilty as any other. “You haven’t had to do much lying, do you understand?” Shulubin tells the main character, Oleg Kostoglotov, who was in a labor camp. “At least you haven’t had to stoop so low — you should appreciate that! You people were arrested, but we were herded into meetings to ‘expose’ you. They executed people like you, but they made us stand up and applaud the verdicts … And not just applaud, they made us demand the firing squad, demand it!”

Toward the end of the novel, Kostoglotov — who, like Solzhenitsyn, was forced into exile under Article 58, which dealt with counter-revolutionaries — realizes that the damage done to him, and to Russia, was too great, and that there will be no healing, no normal life now that Stalin has gone. On the day of his release from the cancer ward, toward the end of the novel, he visits a zoo, seeing in the animals people he knew: “[E]ven supposing Oleg took their side and had the power, he would still not want to break into the cages and liberate them … [D]eprived of their home surroundings, they had lost the idea of rational freedom. It would only make things harder for them, suddenly to set them free.”

The hospital which inspired Solzhenitsyn as it stands in 2005 in Tashkent, The Republic of Uzbekistan

The novel is set in a hospital in Soviet Uzbekistan in 1955. As the title suggests, the plot focuses on a group of cancer patients as they undergo therapy. The novel deals with political theories, mortality, and hope — themes that are often explored either through descriptive passages or the conversations the characters have within the ward, which is a microcosm of the post-Stalin Russian Communist government.

Also explored is the effect life in the labor camps will have on a man’s life, as Oleg Kostoglotov, the main character, is shocked to discover the materialist world of the city outside the cancer ward. Oleg is in “Perpetual Exile” in Ush-Terek, in Kazakhstan.

Bureaucracy and the nature of power in Stalin’s state is represented by Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, a “personnel officer”. The corrupt power of Stalin’s regime is shown through his dual desires to be a “worker” but also achieve a “special pension”. At the end, Rusanov’s wife drops rubbish from her car window, symbolizing the carelessness with which the regime treated the country.

The novel is partly autobiographical. The character Oleg Kostoglotov was admitted to the hospital from a gulag, similar to Solzhenitsyn, and later subjected to internal exile in the same region of the USSR. Oleg is depicted as being born in Leningrad, while Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk.

Some Uzbek landmarks are mentioned in the novel, such as the trolleyline and Chorsu Bazaar. The zoo Oleg visits is now a soccer field near Mirabad Amusement Park.

Kostoglotov begins two romances in the hospital, one with Zoya, a nurse and doctor in training, though the attraction is mostly physical, and a more serious one with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors, a middle-aged woman who has never married, and whom he imagines he might ask to become his wife. Both women invite him to stay overnight in their apartment, ostensibly only as a friend, after he is discharged, because he has nowhere to sleep — his status as an exile makes finding a place to lodge difficult.

His feelings for Vera are strong, and seem to be reciprocated, though neither of them has spoken of it directly:

“    He could not think of her either with greed or with the fury of passion. His one joy would be to go and lie at her feet like a dog, like a miserable beaten cur, to lie on the floor and breathe on her feet like a cur. That would be a happiness greater than anything he could imagine.”

After wandering around the town, he decides against going to see either woman. He does find the courage to go to Vera’s once, but he has left it so late in the day that she is no longer there, and he decides not to try again. He is well aware that the hormone therapy used as part of his cancer treatment may have left him impotent, just as imprisonment and exile have taken all the life out of him. He feels he has nothing left to offer a woman, and that his past means he would always feel out of place in what he sees as normal life. Instead, he decides to accept less from life than he had hoped for, and to face it alone. He heads to the railway station to fight his way onto a train to Ush-Terek. He writes a goodbye letter to Vera from the station:

“    You may disagree, but I have a prediction to make: even before you drift into the indifference of old age, you will come to bless this day, the day you did not commit yourself to share my life … Now that I am going away … I can tell you quite frankly: even when we were having the most intellectual conversations and I honestly thought and believed everything I said, I still wanted all the time, all the time, to pick you up and kiss you on the lips.

So try to work that out.

And now, without your permission, I kiss them.”

The novel makes many allegorical references to the state of Soviet Russia, in particular the quote from Kostoglotov: “A man dies from a tumor, so how can a country survive with growths like labor camps and exiles?”

Solzhenitsyn himself writes in an appendix to Cancer Ward that the “evil man” who threw tobacco in the macaque’s eyes at the zoo is meant to directly represent Stalin, and the monkey the innocent prisoner. The other zoo animals also have significance, the tiger reminiscent of Stalin and the squirrel running itself to death the proletariat.