Thursday, May 31, 2018

"The Use of Force" (1938)

Read story by William Carlos Williams online.

William Carlos Williams is someone I know better as a poet. But he was also a doctor, a pediatrician, and wrote short stories. This very short story, the last in the collection edited by Robert Penn Warren, is about four printed pages, and it often feels terse and abrupt. It's told first-person by a doctor who has been called to examine a sick girl in her home. The story takes place during a diphtheria outbreak, which is the concern of all present, including the girl. But she refuses to cooperate. She's afraid she's seriously sick and irrationally believes if she's not diagnosed she can't be sick, or won't have to endure treatments, or something. The family is poor and they've preferred to believe the girl's story that nothing is wrong. But they know better now and have finally called the doctor. I'm not a parent, but the scene reminds me of what can happen in veterinarian offices. The patients are there for their own good but there's no way to explain that to them. At some point, the use of force may be required. It's always a tricky moment. That's why it's the title of this story. In this case the doctor needs to examine the girl's throat and she refuses to open her mouth. We all know there are ways to force a person's mouth open. It can be done but it requires effort. There's a moment in the contest—say, sticking with what I know, getting a cat actually out of the box in the vet's office—when you realize you are violently imposing your own will on another with brute advantage, and it's momentarily a little sickening. This story is about that moment exactly. Any faults of the parents, any innate goodness of the physician—even the fact that the girl turns out indeed to have diphtheria—do little to eliminate the unpleasantness of the violence we witness. A reader on the Goodreads site (Jenna) captures the essence of this story very well: "Upon first reading this, the doctor seems like he's trying to diagnose a stubborn child with Diphtheria. The second time reading this it seems comparable to a rape. Seriously." This story is as strangely powerful as any of Williams's poetry. Remarkable.

Short Story Masterpieces, ed. Robert Penn Warren and Albert Erskine

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