Crime or Punishment: Russian Narratives of Incarceration

"Ward No. 6"

"Ward No. 6"
Anton Pavlovich Chekhov
Provincial town in Russia

PLOT SUMMARY: Chekhov’s story takes place in Ward No. 6 of a hospital in a small provincial town in Russia. Dr. Andrey Yefimitch Ragin, the doctor in charge, begins to visit the five inmates in the ward after a long period of indifference after coming to terms with the “obvious uselessness” of his work. There, he meets inmate Ivan Gromov, whose paranoia initially prevents them from conversing. Gromov debates against the doctor’s rationalizations of his life and indifference toward suffering, leading to regular philosophical debates as the hospital staff grows worried about Ragin’s mental health.

     After Ragin is tricked into a attending a meeting where his psychological health in investigated, he agrees to travel with his friend Mikhail Averianych. To his dismay, he spends the trip growing increasingly annoyed with Mikhail and is forced to spend all his money to pay for their trip. Upon returning, he discovers he has been replaced by Dr. Khobotov. As his mental state deteriorates, he refuses both Mikhail and Dr. Khobotov’s attempts to help him. Finally, Ragin himself becomes an inmate of Ward No. 6. He fights back against the guard Nikita with Gromov’s encouragement, but both of them are beaten for their actions. The next day, Ragin dies of a stroke. His funeral is attended by only Mikhail and Ragin’s cook Daryushka. 

ANALYSIS: Through “Ward No. 6,” Chekhov demonstrates that imprisonment is an arbitrary process. However, he also points out that people in the position of imprisonment have a vastly different experience of life than people on the outside. In his discussions with Dr. Ragin, Gromov tells him that they are only in their respective positions due to chance. Gromov says that “so long as prisons and madhouses exist someone must be shut up in them” (25). Through Gromov’s voice, Chekhov asserts that the people put in prison are no different than the people who are not; who ends up where is simply a matter of chance. The ending brings the arbitrary nature of imprisonment to light in an even more direct way, when Ragin himself ends up an inmate of the ward he was once in charge of.

     Despite his depiction of imprisonment as a system governed by chance, Chekhov also is sure the emphasize the different experiences of those imprisoned. This difference of experience is shown through a prominent difference in philosophy between Ragin and Gromov. Ragin treats suffering with contempt, whereas Gromov experiences suffering fully. Gromov thinks Ragin is weak because, in his words, “you have seen nothing of life […] and are only theoretically acquainted with reality” (29). As the prisoner and the person who keeps them imprisoned, they have vastly different senses of what constitutes “reality.” Ragin can despise suffering because he has never experienced it, while Gromov must embrace it or be led to despise his life as a whole. Though either of them could take on these respective roles, their positions have profound effects on the way they understand the world.


“When he talks you recognize in him the lunatic and the man.” (14)

“There is neither morality nor logic in my being a doctor and your being a mental patient, there is nothing but idle chance.” (24-25)

“You are utterly ignorant of reality, and you have never known suffering, but have only like a leech fed beside the sufferings of others, while I have been in continual suffering from the day of my birth till to-day. For that reason, I tell you frankly, I consider myself superior to you and more competent in every respect.” (30) 

BIOGRAPHY: On January 17, 1860, Anton Pavlovich Chekhov was born in a town called Taganrog in southern Russia. His paternal grandfather had been a serf, but he collected enough money to buy his and his family’s freedom. Anton Chekov had a highly religious upbringing in the Eastern Orthodox Church; his father conducted the choir in which he enrolled his sons. He was one of six children, but after his father declared bankruptcy in 1876, Chekhov was the only member of his family still living in Taganrog. The rest of his family now lived in Moscow. He earned money tutoring to support the remainder of his education.

     In 1879, Chekhov left his hometown to join his family in Moscow and study medicine. He began writing humorous stories to earn enough money to bring his family out of poverty, and recognition of his work as a writer grew as he finished his medical studies. He wrote hundreds of short stories, including “Ward No. 6,” as well as plays such as The Seagull and Uncle Vanya. He traveled to the island penal colony of Sakhalin to conduct medical research for his doctoral thesis and was horrified by the conditions there. Though his thesis was rejected for its criticism of the government, Chekhov worked to improve conditions for the prisoners there upon his return to Russia. In 1896, Chekhov was diagnosed with tuberculosis. He continued to write for the theater up until his death in July 1904.


Senelick, Laurence. "A Life." Anton Chekhov. Macmillan, 1985. 1-15.

Whyman, Rose. "Life, Context, and Ideas." Anton Chekhov. Routledge, 2011. 5-25.


Corrigan, Yuri. "Chekhov and the Divided Self." The Russian Review 70.2 (2011): 272-287.
Corrigan’s article explores what they describe as “the dramatic conflict between engaged and detached characters.” The article explores this in many of Chekhov’s works, including between Ragin and Gromov in “Ward No. 6.”

Durkin, Andrew R. "Chekhov's Response to Dostoevskii: The Case of "Ward Six"." Slavic Review 40 (1981): 49-59.
Durkin's article analyses "Ward No. 6" in relation to Dostoevsky while warning the reader not to treat Chekhov's story as a solely philosophical or sociological document. Some similarities mentioned include Chekhov's use of a chronicler-narrator and Gromov's Dostoevskian philosophy.

Loehlin, James N. "Ward No. 6." The Cambridge Introduction to Chekhov. Cambridge University Press, 2010. 83-86.
This section in Loehlin’s book explores “Ward No. 6” as one of Chekhov’s later works, highlighting his commitment to exploring social issues without providing solutions. It presents Chekhov’s story as a direct rebuttal to Tolstoy’s idea of passive acceptance of suffering using the arguments of Ragin and Gromov.

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