Diphtheria in the days of writers such as Chekhov and Goncharov was a common disease that spread death and devastation across the wide expanse of the Russian Empire. It could kill its victims by its toxic effects on the heart but more often suffocated them with a grayish white membrane in their throat and nasal passages.
It thus extinguished the busy life of Doctor Dymov, a pleasant, polite, and kind man who would not have killed a fly, let alone complain about his extravagant vapid wife Olga. He had been a hard worker, on the staff of two hospitals, seeing patients in the morning as a ward surgeon, then going by tram to another hospital to autopsy the dead at the risk of cutting himself and dying from blood poisoning. His practice was small and he made less than 500 rubles in a year. In the story he dies from sucking out the mucus through a pipette from a boy with diphtheria, a foolish act in the eyes of his coworkers, “stupid . . . just from folly,” or from mere scientific dedication. In a more dramatic ending Chekov might have had him commit suicide on hearing of his wife’s infidelity.
Working hard, Dymov had no time for distractions, but Olga wished he took more of an interest in the arts. Yes, she said, he was clever, generous, but had one defect: he took no interest in art, in music, or painting. He would reply that he had spent his life in science and medicine, and had never had time for anything else.
But Olga and her sophisticated friends were all about the humanities—ballads and epics and music and especially painting. In one way or another they were remarkable people, celebrities, “famous for being well known.”1 Talented and affected, they looked with disdain and indifference at the heavy set Dymov, always dressed as though he was wearing someone else’s coat and having a beard like a shopkeeper.
Dymov was thirty-one and Olga twenty-eight when they married, and in the beginning they were happy. She played the piano while he worked, also spent much time at the dressmakers. But gradually she drifted into the society of more sophisticated people. She adored them, they adored her. She entertained them at home in her salon. “Every new acquaintance she made was a veritable fête for her. She adored celebrated people, was proud of them, dreamed of them every night. She craved for them and never could satisfy her craving.”
She particularly worshiped and was worshiped by a wonderfully handsome artist. They meet on a romantic night on a boat on the Volga. She looks into his eyes, he looks into hers, he says he loves her madly, her heart begins to throb, she tries in vain to think of her unromantic marriage, puts her arms around him and kisses him on the lips.
The affair goes well for a while, but then the celebrity grows tired of his admiring liaison and wants to get rid of her. Wounded she persists, goes to his house, but finds he has already another woman with him. Humiliated, she returns home, where she learns that Dymov is gravely ill from diphtheria. His colleagues are already mourning the passing of a great man who sacrificed himself for science. What a great man! What gifts! What hopes they had for him! And he worked like an ox, night and day, also slaving away in private practice to pay his bills.
When Olga enters the room and stares at the cold body of her lifeless husband she at last repents. She would explain it was all a mistake. Life could be beautiful again, and she would worship him and bow down in homage to him. But it is too late. Too late also for the good doctor who had taken medicine as his life-long jealous mistress and excluded the joys of humanities that add meaning and perspective to life. And in the next room they were preparing to wash the body and lay it out for the funeral.
- Saying of Dr. Morris Fishbein, editor of the Journal of the American Medical Association (JAMA) from 1924 to 1950.
Further reading suggested
Anton Chekhov and the Sakhalin Penal Colony, Michael Bloor
Chekhov: Ward No. 6, by Stanley Gutiontov
Mikhael Bulgakov’s “The Steel Windpipe” in A Country Doctor’s Notebook, by Michael Bloor
The Education of Doctor Chekhov, by Jack Coulehan
Heartache and Complicated Grief, by Laurie Elise Gordon
Placebo effect or care effect? Four examples from the literary world, by Pekka Louhiala and Raimo Puustinen
Suffering and empathy in the stories of Anton Chekhov, by Peter McCann
GEORGE DUNEA, MD, Editor-in-Chief