Student Essay:
The Timely Lessons of "Cancer Ward"

By Lynn Kong

Solzhenitsyn here paints a picture of humanity in miniature.

The year 2020 has put each of us to the test. It has exposed people by presenting them with adversity, unveiling what has truly resided in their hearts all along. Solzhenitsyn, the ultimate debunker of Soviet myths, arises as a writer with the decisive moral force to lend honesty to the universal human struggle for meaning in the midst of suffering.

In his semi-autobiographical novel Cancer Ward, Solzhenitsyn explores the profound variabilities of the soul in confrontation with death, and more pressingly, in confrontation with life. Specifically, people are depicted wrestling with life under Stalin’s regime and its “mania for secrecy,” as the novel’s protagonist phrases it. However, the characters are not only stifled by ideologies promoting the censorship of truth; as the title indicates, the characters are infested with tumors, signalling the extinction of self. They are isolated from the cares and toils of ordinary life. Yet despite this enforced isolation, they live within a microcosm of society inside the hospital. Individuals from across the social, political, and racial spectrum all assemble within the narrow confines of Ward 13.

In this contained yet volatile environment, Solzhenitsyn launches an experiment. As a cancer survivor and student of the human soul, he undertakes a study of a group of characters more fleeting and true than reality itself. Fleeting, because each moment in the novel is steeped with a knowledge of time’s relentlessness; true, because each character is designed to strip naked the souls of readers so that they can see themselves as they truly are. In his character study, Solzhenitsyn asks: how do suffering people interact? Does their suffering automatically imply mutual empathy? How far can people go to avoid self-examination? Can people ever recover from trauma, or are they scarred irrevocably?

With these questions in mind, consider the following sample of the characters, along with the slumbering human tendencies they so tellingly reveal.

A beast gnawing at its prey can be happy too, but only human beings can feel affection for each other.

The first character introduced is Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov. All his life he has basked in moral sloth and complacency. Pavel is besotted with the notion that he is an indispensable government official (far from the truth), and, as a valued informer, it is unimaginable to him that he must enter a public hospital and actually mingle with real people. To top off his outrage, he is confronted with an unavoidable reality: the heavy tumor obtruding from his neck. He is made to look at death in the eye, yet cannot do so, because he has been sheltered from every form of discomfort throughout his life. While in the ward, he is known for both his easily-provoked temper and easily-induced panic. Solzhenitsyn aptly characterizes Rusanov’s utter denial of vulnerability when describing his response to another patient who questions him regarding the details of his cancer. “He felt as if the question had scraped his skin. He raised his eyes toward the impudent lout and tried not to lose his temper. All the same his shoulders twitched as he said with dignity, ‘I have cancer of nothing. I have no cancer whatsoever.’”

On the other hand, there is Dyomka, a boy on the brink of coming of age. He impulsively claims, when asked why he wishes to pursue literature instead of engineering, “‘Oh, to hell with radio sets! … Truth is what I love.’” Often crushed in his idealism by the pragmatists around him, Dyomka wrestles with a desire to live recklessly in the midst of his earnest existential inquiries. He is constantly plagued by a question presented by Tolstoy in one of his short stories: “What do men live by?” Dyomka wonders if the answer could really be love, and speculates on what that love could entail. These inquiries are inevitably intensified by a tumor on his leg and the fact that, too often, no one listens to his silent cries for understanding. Like any boy on the brink of his coming of age, he kisses a girl—a girl about to undergo a mastectomy.

Lastly, there is Alexei Filippovich Shulubin, who lives with a “sky of fear” inside his breast. He is like a large bird whose wings have been unevenly clipped to prevent it from taking off. Afflicted with rectal cancer (a disease specifically designed for alienation), swollen pink eyes, and an acutely unpleasant gaze, he never successfully assimilates into the group that resides in Ward 13. The word that sums up his life is compromise. In response to the proddings of the government, Shulubin relinquishes his professorship to become an assistant, and is relegated further to the position of librarian. And then, he commits an unforgivable crime: he follows through with the order to burn the books he loves most. Shulubin is left to deal with his scarred conscience, and he has recourse to only fear and guilt and bitterness. But, at the point of death, he declares, over and over again, “Not all of me shall die … not all of me shall die.” He is finally able to say, “Sometimes I feel quite distinctly that what is inside me is not all of me. There’s something else, sublime, quite indestructible, some tiny fragment of the universal spirit. Don’t you feel that?”

Solzhenitsyn never omits the inherent complexity of characters strangled by the proximity of death. Conflicting emotions such as stoicism and fear, compassion and disgust, and exhaustion and zeal all waver within a single character. And through these characters, along with their interior thoughts and external inquiries, a world is constructed in which the quest for objective truth is uplifted as the highest good. Cancer Ward, composed of utterly significant people, emanates with the certainty that the struggle for truth and coherency, even in the midst of a degenerate world full of degenerate people, should never be abandoned. By employing a character driven plot, Solzhenitsyn furthers the notion that the pursuit of truth is not abstract. It is grounded in the hearts of individuals who have within themselves “infinite abysses” (as phrased by Pascal), chasms that must be filled by truth, untainted by lies and replete with sincerity.


Lynn Kong is a sixteen-year-old student at Cary Christian School. She is considering studying either philosophy or literature at the undergraduate level. She enjoys traveling, translating Latin, and reading, from Dickens to Dostoevsky.

If you enjoyed this essay, you might also enjoy one of our author profiles, on figures from Euripides to Moses Maimonides to Mahatma Gandhi.

Published on 16th October, 2020.

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