After the sensational success of One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, Solzhenitsyn tried to get Cancer Ward published. When this attempt failed, his standing as an author acceptable to the Soviet authorities ended. Cancer Ward and The First Circle appeared in the West in 1968 to critical acclaim.
Cancer Ward, like The First Circle, is autobiographical in inspiration, presents a cross-section of society within a place of confinement, and uses the polyphonic structure to emphasize character rather than plot. One character, Oleg Kostoglotov, rises in significance above any other. He shares some qualities with Solzhenitsyn, though not as many as The First Circle’s Gleb Nerzhin. Like the author, Oleg had fought in World War II, served time in the Gulag because of incautious comments about Stalin, experienced internal exile, developed cancer, and received treatment at the clinic in Tashkent. Unlike the author, Oleg comes from Leningrad, lacks formal education, and is unmarried.
Cancer forces the clinic’s patients to ponder death, which is always the chief prompter of the human drama, and thus the novel focuses on the ultimate question of the meaning of life. Podduyev, a loud-mouthed liar, broaches the novel’s thematic core when he reads in Tolstoy’s story “What Men Live By” that the correct answer is “love.” His quizzing of ward-mates elicits superficial answers: rations, air, water, one’s pay, one’s professional skills. Often the cancers correlate with their victims’ defining traits: Podduyev dies of cancer of the tongue; throat cancer robs a philosopher of his speech. Since cancer, like the rain, falls on the just and the unjust alike, some cases underscore the mystery of suffering: An unpleasant Soviet bureaucrat leaves the clinic cured, but the good Doctor Dontsova develops cancer from the radiation dosages she selflessly administers.
The presence of many women in the hospital setting contributes to the distinctive flavor of Cancer Ward among Solzhenitsyn’s works. Fittingly, then, the present selections focus on the role male-female relationships play in the search for meaning in life. Dyomka dreads amputation of his cancerous leg. This thoughtful teenager has been instructed by Oleg and impressed by saintly old Aunt Styofa, though his Soviet schooling tells him not to accept her view that one’s life depends on God. In contrast, Asya, a pretty girl preoccupied by sex, tells him that “life is for happiness.” Dyomka undergoes his amputation and accepts his loss. Asya, however, having learned that a mastectomy awaits her, cannot accommodate this fateful news.
The most memorable male-female relationships among adults feature Oleg and two attractive women, both of whom see his virtuous qualities beneath the gruff exterior. The alluring and sexually experienced young nurse Zoya warns Oleg that the hormone therapy ordered by Dr. Dontsova will leave him impotent, to which news he roars, “I don’t want to be saved at any price!” The “naturally kind” Dr. Vera Gangart (whom Oleg nicknames “Vega”), having turned inward after her fiancé’s death in the war, responds to Oleg’s candor, and these two contemporaries become friends.
The novel’s bittersweet end is marked by chapters entitled, “The First Day of Creation . . . and the Last Day,” mirroring Oleg’s immediate exhilaration at leaving the clinic and his eventual resignation to the reality that his cancer is in retreat but not eradicated. These chapters comprise one of Solzhenitsyn’s most lyrical passages, and their literary mix is enriched by his unusual incorporation of symbolism in the meanings Oleg attaches to the day’s experiences. Oleg is astounded that both Zoya and Vega have offered him a night’s lodging, but a sharp reminder of his sexual deficiency leads him to decide in favor of renunciation, and he heads for home. This decision is just one more stage of a morally mature man’s spiritual liberation hard-won through suffering and voluntary self-limitation.
Cancer Ward is Solzhenitsyn’s least politically charged novel, though political overtones are not absent. Oleg, for example, sees the zoo’s tiger as symbolic of Stalin. Nevertheless, precisely this novel caused Solzhenitsyn to identify the writer’s task as attending to “the secrets of the human heart and conscience, the confrontation between life and death, the triumph over spiritual sorrow.”
– by Edward E. Ericson, Jr. and Daniel J. Mahoney, The Solzhenitsyn Reader