Review of “Ward No. 6 and Other Stories” by Anton Chekhov
The author is famous for writing short stories that explore the life of Russians in the late 19th century, but this collection is timeless in the way it presents the human condition, not through carefully crafted plot but instead by way of the actions of his characters. The range of personalities and life situations is boundless. This book was translated into English by Constance Garnett less than thirty years after most of the stories were written, so the overall sense of the times is carried into this translation.
There are no happy endings and the reader is left with more questions than answers. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that there are lessons to be learned; instead, one is left with a sense of the hopelessness of life, and the mess we make of it through our decisions and acts.
These tales of misery and woe are replete with stark humor in the way the characters are presented. The narrator doesn’t think much of them, while respecting their humanity. The poor and wealthy are equally at a loss about their situations, and I was reminded of the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible: all is vanity and there is nothing new under the sun; happiness is unattainable and the best we can hope for is some satisfaction, and even that is fleeting.
What keeps this from being as depressing as “Crime and Punishment” is the rich detail supplied about the characters and their lives. If not for the unrelenting imagery and often humorously simple language, this would have been difficult to read. It helped that most of the stories are short and the reader has a break between the relentless parade of hapless individuals.
The language is often ponderous (clumsy descriptions of scenes), and yet I had to look up a lot of words. I have to assume (not speaking Russian) that this was in the original text, and was Chekhov’s intent. Part of this may have been that the stories were written over several decades and his writing style changed somewhat. However, all of these stories follow similar trajectories.
From my grim review you might think I don’t recommend this book, but nothing could be further from the truth. As hopeless as the situations and lives depicted in this collection of short stories are, they are entertaining to read–just not all at once.
If there is a message hidden in these pages, it is that the most fulfilling event of one’s life is when they can finally stop dealing with the burdens imposed on them, whether by their own decisions and thoughts or by other people. If I may be so bold as to read between the lines:
Death is the ultimate escape…