The internal corrosion of the human mind has fascinated writers from many cultures, but there are few cultures that produced such a broad spectrum of works that analyze the psyche during the nineteenth century as did Russia. When one thinks of tortuous conditions in Russia, one often thinks of the pogroms of Joseph Stalin, as he brutally brought the idealism of the Communist takeover to heel, making the country an immense network of fear and betrayal, as no one person wanted to be the one to inform on his neighborhood, but even less desirable than that was the role of the accused, the “guilty” party. However, the nineteenth century, as well as much of the rest of the history of Russia, is also fertile ground for works that seem to boil up with psychosis. Nineteenth century Russia was a place of exquisite music, from the pens of Tchaikovsky and Mussorgsky, among others, and this music reflects the deep psychological undercurrents that pulsed under the heavy hand of the tsars. The brutality of several of the tsars had wrought significant damage on the soul of Russia, as monarchies did in so many countries. The works of Fyodor Dostoevsky (Crime and Punishment, The Idiot, The Brothers Karamazov, Notes from Underground), Leo Tolstoy (The Kreutzer Sonata, Anna Karenina), and the works of Anton Chekhov all come to mind; each of these has its own fascinating protagonist, as well as its own story line, that foreshadow the darkness that would appear in literature from much of the rest of the world during the twentieth century. Chekhov, in particular, was plagued with thoughts of disease, on a literal level by the tuberculosis that struck him early in adulthood and stuck with him until it killed him at 44. In his stories, many of his characters suffer from physical diseases that mirror the inner horror that goes on in their minds. The characters of Osip, in “The Grasshopper,” of Kovrin, in “The Black Monk,” and Rabin, in “Ward No. Six,” all have a figurative play between the actual, physical disease and the psychological.
Near the end of “The Grasshopper,” Osip contracts diphtheria, after having treated a young man with the disease, and it is this diphtheria that ends up killing him. However, his journey from greatness to irrationality began much earlier. His wife, Olga, cheats on him with Ryabovsky, in large part because Osip’s lack of flamboyance in his personality bores Olga, and even though Ryabovsky is more exciting at times to Olga, his cold nature drives her away. She soon realizes, though, that she cannot stop going back to Ryabovsky – even when Osip is on his deathbed, Olga does not realize how wonderful a husband she has. It is Osip’s slip into irrationality that, in part, blinds Olga to his true quality.
As happens with many couples in which there is the suspicion or incidence of infidelity, the member of the couple that is not cheating often descends into irrational behavior, as the disintegration of their central relationship threatens many of their fundamental assumptions about life. In the case of Osip, he first assumes that Olga is being faithful, so he sends her warm, affectionate letters. However, as her affair becomes more and more obvious, he becomes more and more distant from her, even losing the ability to look her in the eye. Rather than confronting her, though, he stuffs his feelings down inside him, and so the angst and frustration take the form of a physical ailment – in this case, the diphtheria. The illness serves as a metaphor for the fatal effect that Olga’s affair has had on him; once he has started to slide down this irrational slope of fear and suspicion, he is unable to recover his optimism – and his health.
“The Black Monk” details the descent of Andrei Kovrin from academic renown into madness and, ultimately, death. After being sent on a vacation by his physician, who concluded that Kovrin had strained his nerves, Kovrin ends up at the home of his old guardian, Yegor Pesotsky. He and Pesotsky’s daughter, Tania, fall in love, even as Kovrin becomes more and more entranced with a legend of a black-clad monk who had appeared in the desert 1,000 years ago, causing a series of mirages that made people all over the world think that they were seeing him. The part of this legend that applies most to Kovrin was the prophecy that, 1,000 years later, the monk would reappear. Just after telling Tania about this legend, Kovrin goes for a walk in the garden and sees a black “whirlwind” that ends up being the monk. After seeing this apparition for the first time, Kovrin looks so “radiant and inspired” that he awes Pesotsky and his daughter.
The period leading up to this apparition, though, should indicate to the careful reader that not all is well in Kovrin’s mind. He had begun drinking heavily and going without much sleep, so clearly some sort of disturbance was at work, that may have begun while he was overworking himself in pursuit of his academic studies. Despite these signs, though, Pesotsky asks Kovrin to marry Tania; the next day, Kovrin sees the monk again. The monk tells Kovrin that Kovrin is one of “God’s elect,” and that the characteristics of “exaltation, enthusiasm and ecstasy” that are about to overtake him may be dangerous to his health. Whether this “gift” is genius or insanity is a conflict that takes place throughout the rest of the story, as Kovrin’s personal life unravels (his marriage to Tania ends quickly, because Kovrin is talking to “the monk” and making Tania afraid), and his physical health soon follows, as he develops a hemorrhage in his throat that ends up killing him, as the monk shows up at his life’s end, berating him for not believing more in his own genius. It is fairly clear, though, that because of the way that these apparitions cause him to behave, that there is very little of Christ in this delusion.
The character Rabin in “Ward No. Six” again shows some of the conflict between religion and science that appears to underlie much of the turmoil that leads to mental instability, if not insanity, throughout Chekhov’s stories. Just as Kovrin had to leave academia behind because of overwork, only to take up a spiritually based delusion, Rabin faces a similar collision: initially feeling the call to the priesthood, is pushed into medicine by his father, but feeling that serving the insane is ultimately useless, he becomes apathetic. His fatalistic notion that “suffering leads man to perfection” helps him feel better about the fact that he is basically neglecting the wounded minds under his care. Over time, he becomes more and more intrigued by death; in a conversation with Mikhail, the postmaster, he asserts that life is a “vexatious trap” that is only eased by conversations with other men of intelligence. Unfortunately for his own sanity, though, Rabin becomes closer with the lunatic Gromov than to his sane friend, Mikhail. Rabin’s superiors become concerned as he and Gromov become closer, and ultimately Rabin is investigated at an ostensible “committee meeting.” After going on a vacation, Rabin is fired and replaced by Dr. Khobotov and eventually placed in Ward No. 6, as a patient. Questions about life and death ultimately lure Rabin away from the healthy and the rational, ultimately placing him in the asylum alongside his former charges.
The way that we respond as humans to the various tribulations of existence ultimately shapes our psychological condition. Many of the characters in Anton Chekhov’s fall into a questioning of the true meaning of life and death – a question that goes as far back in history as the Israelite King Solomon and as far forward as the most recent angst-ridden Woody Allen film. Struggling with these questions leads many of Chekhov’s protagonists down the road to insanity: a path which, all too often, they cannot reverse. In many instances, as with Osip and Kovrin, these characters also experience a physical malady to go along with their mental instability, as a kind of metaphor. In the case of Rabin, the literal mental ward is right there, looming in the good doctor’s background. As long as our existence fails to answer vital questions about the meaning of life, though, they will plague us until we either answer them anyway, or snap with the effort.
Chekhov, Anton. “The Black Monk.” Web. Retrieved 29 February 2012 from
Chekhov, Anton. “The Grasshopper.” Web. Retrieved 29 February 2012 from
Chekhov, Anton. “Ward No. Six.” Web. Retrieved 29 February 2012 from