|Genre||Semi autobiographical novel, political fiction|
|Publisher||Dial Press (US) & Bodley Head (UK)|
|1967, 1968 in the U.S.|
|Media type||Print (Hardback & Paperback)|
|LC Class||PG3488.O4 R313|
|This article relies too much on references to primary sources. (March 2011)|
The novel tells the story of a small group of cancer patients in Tashkent, Uzbekistan 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. A range of characters, including those who benefited from Stalinism and those who suffered under it, are depicted.
Like much of Solzenitsyn's work, the timescale of the novel is brief – a few weeks in the spring of 1955. This places the action after the death of Stalin and the fall of secret police chief Lavrenti Beria, but before Nikita Khrushchev's 1956 "secret speech" denouncing aspects of Stalinism, one of the heights of the post-Stalin "thaw" in the USSR. A purge of the Supreme Court and the fall of the senior Stalinist Georgy Malenkov take place during the time of the novel's action.
The large male/female imbalance in the Soviet population at the time of the novel's action – resulting from losses in World War II and the Purges – gives plausibility to the romantic interest of two female doctors in the main character Oleg Kostoglotov, a sick ex-prisoner and perpetual exile.
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.
The novel is partly autobiographical. Kostoglotov is admitted to the hospital from internal perpetual exile, similarly to Solzhenitsyn – in Kazakhstan, where he was imprisoned and exiled. However Kostoglotov is depicted as being born in Leningrad, whereas, Solzhenitsyn was born in Kislovodsk.
Bureaucracy and the nature of power in Stalin's state is represented by Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, a "personnel officer", a bully and informer. The corrupt power of Stalin's regime is shown through his dual desires to be a "worker" but also achieve a "special pension". He is discomfited by signs of a political "thaw", and fears that a rehabilitated man he denounced eighteen years ago (to obtain the whole apartment they were sharing) will seek revenge. He praises his arrogant daughter, but severely criticizes his son for showing stirrings of humanity. When he is discharged he believes he is cured, but the staff privately give him less than a year to live; his cancer cannot be rooted out any more than the corruption of the apparatchik class to which he belongs. At the end, Rusanov's wife drops rubbish from her car window, symbolising the carelessness with which the regime treated the country.
Other characters 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!". And the patient Ahmadjan, a guard at a labor camp, defends himself as having had no choice in the matter of service, as Kostoglotov taunts him with being in "Beria's army".
Some local 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 student doctor, though the attraction is mostly physical, and a more serious one with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors, 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."
Toward the end of the novel, Kostoglotov 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 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 scenes immediately prior to this, set in the materialist world of the city outside the cancer ward, show that his imprisonment and exile have caused him to forget how to live a normal life as a free man, even though a sympathetic official hints that all exiles will soon be rehabilitated.
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 tumour, so how can a country survive with growths like labour camps and exiles?" Some knowledge of the history of the Soviet Union is therefore helpful in understanding the author's allusions; the Bodley Head/Penguin edition contains useful brief notes.
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.
- Vera Kornilyevna Gangart – the doctor who treats Kostoglotov with particular kindness. Vera lost her sweetheart in the war, and is dedicated to saving Kostoglotov
- Ludmila Afanasyevna Dontsova – the head of the radiotherapy and fluoroscopy section of the cancer ward who herself falls ill but refuses to be told anything about her treatment
- Zoya – the nurse/student doctor in training who is one of Kostoglotov's love interests
- Lev Leonidovich – The head of the surgeon section, who used to work in a prison camp
- Yevgenia Ustinovna – the gifted surgeon, Lev Leonidovich's colleague, who wears too much lipstick and is an avid smoker.
- Nellya – the unreliable orderly who at the end of the book is promoted to food orderly
- Elizaveta Anatolyevna – the reliable orderly who Kostoglotov discovers used to live near him in Leningrad
- Nizamutdin Bahramovich – the head of the clinic, non-competent specialist, absent throughout most of the book
- Olympiada Vladislavovna – the experienced and competent nurse who is nevertheless taken away to attend an unimportant conference during much of the action
- Oleg Filimonovich Kostoglotov – The main protagonist, whose last name means "bone gulping", suffering from stomach cancer and exiled 'in perpetuity' in a village called Ush Terek on the steppe
- Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov – The 'personnel' official suffering from lymphoma. Married to Kapitolina Matveyevna, and father to Yuri, Maika, Aviette and Lavrenti Pavlovich (named after Lavrentiy Beria)
- Dyomka – the young student with 'a passion for social problems' who has had an unlucky life, culminating in the amputation of his leg in the cancer ward
- Vadim – the geologist who plans to leave his mark on the world of science after his certain death from melanoblastoma
- Aleksei Filippovich Shulubin – the librarian who regrets his life of not speaking out against the regime, and suffers from rectal cancer
- Asya – the gymnast Dyomka grows fond of while she requires a mastectomy in the clinic
- Sibgatov – the mild mannered Tartar who is a permanent resident on the landing of the cancer ward due to crippling spinal cancer
- Ahmadjan – The Uzbek patient who makes a full recovery, at the end of the novel it appears he is a prison camp guard
- Yefrem Podduyev – A strong overseer who begins to read Leo Tolstoy in his final days of life at the cancer ward
- Friedrich Federau – Exiled German who remains a loyal member of the party
- Maxim Petrovich Chaly – A smuggler who befriends Pavel Nikolayevich
- Dormidont Tikhonovich Oreshchenkov – Ludmilla Afanasyevna's teacher, a respectable GP with his own private practice
- The Kadmins – Kostoglotov's exile neighbours and friends, who also spent seven years in the prison camps
- Alla (Aviette) Rusanova – Pavel Nikolayevich's daughter, a poet
- Yuri Rusanov – Pavel Nikolayevich's son, a prosecutor
- Kapitolina Matveyevna – Pavel Nikolayevich's wife
- Dr Maslennikov – A doctor who writes to Kostoglotov about the benefits of chaga, birch fungus, in curing cancer
- "Education doesn't make you smarter." – Kostoglotov
- "We always think of death as black, but it's only the preliminaries that are black. Death itself is white" – Pavel Nikolayevich
- "What's worse than cancer? Leprosy." – Kostoglotov
- "'An evil man threw tobacco in the macaque-rhesus eyes.' Oleg was struck dumb. Up to then he had been strolling along smiling with knowing condescension, but now he felt like yelling and roaring across the whole zoo, as though the tobacco had been thrown into his own eyes. 'Why?' Thrown into its eyes, just like that! 'Why? It's senseless! Why?'" – Kostoglotov
References to Cancer Ward make use of the 1991 paperback edition published by Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, unless otherwise specified.
- Cancer Ward, pp. 436–7.
- Cancer Ward, p. 512.
- Cancer Ward, p. 508.
- Cancer Ward, p. 532.
- Solzhenitsyn, Aleksandr (1969). Cancer Ward. Bodley Head.
- Meyers, J. (1983). "Cancer Ward and the Literature of Disease". Twentieth Century Literature 29 (1): 54–68. doi:10.2307/441143. JSTOR 441143.