The Scarlet Flower

Garshin, Vsevolod

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Annotated by:
Coulehan, Jack
  • Date of entry: Jul-19-2006
  • Last revised: Aug-23-2006


The story opens with the protagonist, identified only as the "Patient," being forcibly carried into the insane asylum. Once there, he no longer protests, but seems to accept his incarceration in the huge, overcrowded hospital. The doctor and other staff members seem particularly kind. Because the Patient rapidly loses weight, despite his good appetite, he receives a special diet.

The Patient notices a single scarlet flower among the many beautiful flowers in the hospital garden. He suddenly realizes that all the evil in the world is condensed into the scarlet flower. His mission is to destroy it. But when he attempts to pick the flower, hospital personnel prevent him from doing so, since picking flowers is prohibited. Eventually, he manages to destroy the flower, but notices a second scarlet blossom in the garden. He destroys that one as well, but a third scarlet flower appears. Finally, the Patient sneaks out at night to deal with the third flower, and then is found dead in the garden the next morning, clutching the remains of the scarlet blossom.


This story, which is based on the author's own experience in a mental hospital, is considered Garshin's masterpiece. Garshin suffered from a mental disorder throughout his adult life and eventually committed suicide in 1888, at the age of 33.

In Garshin's asylum the staff is supportive and the patients well-treated. This image of psychiatric treatment is consistent with Philippe Pinel's (1745-1826) humane principles, but unlike most literary depictions of 19th century mental wards, as in, for example, Chekhov's Ward 6 (see annotation in this database).

Despite his unruly behavior, the Patient receives special care, but to no avail. His mission is to rid the world of evil, as embodied in the scarlet flowers. While the withered Patient dies smiling, having uprooted the last scarlet flower in the garden, there is no guarantee that another won't appear. Overcoming evil schemes are Pyrrhic victories.

There are two interesting points about this story. First, the Patient may be viewed as a Christ figure who sacrifices his life to save others. Garshin's own life is strangely parallel, in that he committed suicide at 33, the age traditionally attributed to Jesus at the time of his crucifixion. Second, although the institutional setting and evil flowers may have cosmic significance, they do not appear to have social or political significance, unlike later Russian depictions of institutional care, as does, for example, Solzhenitsyn's The Cancer Ward (see annotation in this database).


First published in 1883. Translated from the Russian by Peter Henry. This story was dedicated to the memory of Ivan Turgenev.

Primary Source

The Penguin Book of Russian Short Stories


Penguin Books

Place Published

New York




David Richards

Page Count