Literature Annotations


Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr
The Cancer Ward


Genre Novel (616 pp.)
KeywordsCancer, Death and Dying, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Hospitalization, Human Worth, Medical Ethics, Patient Experience, Physician Experience, Society
Summary

The story takes place in the men's cancer ward of a hospital in a city in Soviet Central Asia. The patients in Ward 13 all suffer from cancer, but differ in age, personality, nationality, and social class (as if such a thing could be possible in the Soviet "classless" society!). We are first introduced to Pavel Rusanov, a Communist Party functionary, who enters the hospital because of a rapidly-growing neck tumor.

We soon learn, however, that the book's central character is Oleg Kostoglotov, a young man who has recently been discharged from a penal camp and is now "eternally" exiled to this particular province. Only two weeks earlier, he was admitted to the ward in grave condition from an unspecified tumor, but he has responded rapidly to radiation therapy. Among the doctors are Zoya, a medical student; Vera Gangart, a young radiologist; and Lyudmila Dontsova, the chief of radiation therapy.

Rusanov and Kostoglotov respond to therapy and are eventually discharged; other patients remain in the ward, get worse, or are sent home to die. In the end Kostoglotov boards a train to the site of his "eternal" exile: "The long awaited happy life had come, it had come! But Oleg somehow did not recognize it."

Commentary

Solzhenitzyn himself was released from a labor camp in early 1953, just before Stalin's death, and was exiled to a village in Kazakhstan. While incarcerated, he had been operated on for a tumor, but was not told the diagnosis. He subsequently developed a recurrence, received radiotherapy in Tashkent, and recovered.

In The Cancer Ward Solzhenitzyn transforms these experiences into a multifaceted tale about Soviet society during the period of hope and liberalization after Stalin's death. Cancer, of course, is an obvious metaphor for the totalitarian state. The novel also provides an interesting look at mid-century Soviet medicine and medical ethics. Of course, the paternalism evident here (e.g. lack of truth-telling and informed consent) was also characteristic of American medicine in the 1950's and remains an important concern in professional ethics.

The novel also explores the personal qualities and motivation of physicians, and the issue of intimate relationships between doctors and patients. Probably the book's strongest points are its insight into human nature and the believability of its characters.

PublisherDial
Edition1968
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousTranslated by Rebecca Frank.
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 02/03/95
Last Revised 03/05/98