History: This book was first published in 1967, and banned in the Soviet Union in 1968. The novel is partly autobiographical. The character Oleg Kostoglotov was admitted to the hospital from a gulag, similar to Solzhenitsyn, and later subjected to internal exile in the same region of the USSR. Oleg is depicted as being born in Leningrad, while Solzhenitsyn was born in Rostov.
Some Uzbek 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.
Plot: Cancer Ward examines the relationship of a group of people in the cancer ward of a provincial Soviet hospital in 1955, two years after Stalin's death. We see them under normal circumstances, and also reexamined at the eleventh hour of illness. Together they represent a remarkable cross-section of contemporary Russian characters and attitudes. 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.
Also explored is the effect life in the labour camps will have on a man's life, as Oleg Kostoglotov, the main character, is shocked to discover the materialist world of the city outside the cancer ward. Oleg is in exile in Ush-Terek, in Kazakhstan. Bureaucracy and the nature of power in Stalin's state is represented by Pavel Nikolayevich Rusanov, a "personnel officer". The corrupt power of Stalin's regime is shown through his dual desires to be a "worker" but also achieve a "special pension". At the end, Rusanov's wife drops rubbish from her car window, symbolising the carelessness with which the regime treated the country.
Kostoglotov begins two potential romances in the hospital, one with Zoya, a nurse and doctor in training, though the attraction is mostly physical, and a more serious one with Vera Gangart, one of his doctors, a middle-aged woman 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.
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. His cancer treatment has 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.
Review: In this public institution, people from all levels of society find themselves in the same predicament, struck down by a disease that terrorizes and enervates them. The doctors in the ward do their best to keep their patients’ hopes alive, and in some cases treatment seems to be remarkably effective.
We are introduced to the very sympathetic ward-mates chapter by chapter, learning each of their stories, what brought them to the ward as well as their dreams for the future when they are finally cured.
Solzhenitsyn integrates politics into this equation, with heavy doses of irony and sarcasm. Through the strained relationships between the men, doctors, nurses and families, we see the cultural and political forces that were in effect in the post-war Soviet Union. Solzhenitsyn puts the relationship between a nurse and her patient so beautifully when he writes "Strange living threads, like a woman's long hair, linked her to this patient and entangled her with him. She was the one who felt pain when the threads were tugged and broken."
Surprisingly, the inmates of the cancer ward manage to retain so much hope, despite all they live through. A simple meal, a good book, a beautiful woman, a spring flower on a tree all these symbols of life are highlighted and glorified.
Opening Line: "On top of everything, the cancer wing was Number 13."
Closing Line: "An evil man threw tobacco in the Macaque Rhesus’s eyes. Just like that…"
Quotes: “What can divide human beings on earth once they are all faced with death?”
“You can’t know everything in the world. Whatever happens, you’ll die a fool.”
“We are so attached to the earth, and yet we are incapable of holding on to it."
"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?"
"The meaning of existence was to preserve unspoiled, undisturbed and undistorted the image of eternity with which each person is born."