Literature Annotations


Abse, Dannie
The Strange Case of Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas


Genre Novel (195 pp.)
KeywordsCancer, Death and Dying, Dementia, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Domestic Violence, Euthanasia, Homicide, Impaired Physician, Love, Marital Discord, Medical Ethics, Narrative as Method, Obsession, Physician Experience, Sexuality, Suffering, Suicide
Summary

The framing story of this novel is simple: an elderly literary agent receives word that a person named Yvonne Bloomberg would like to meet with him. When he at last visits the woman, he discovers that she was an acquaintance from their youth--Yvonne Roberts--and she wishes to publish the journal that a mutual acquaintance, Dr. Simmonds, had bequeathed her. The agent agrees to read this journal, which provides most of the novel's text. A series of letters that appear in the last few pages indicate that, indeed, the journal is accepted for publication.

The journal recounts the first six months of 1950. Dr. Simmonds is an unmarried general practitioner nearing his 40th birthday. He has mixed feelings about his practice and his patients. For example, he likes Michael Butler, an irascible middle-aged man dying of cancer, but he dislikes many of his other patients, including Anton Bloomberg, a repulsive Jew with a "hooked nose," "too thick lips," and a "wheezing chest." (p. 25)

Bloomberg originally consults Simmonds about his young wife's frigidity; she simply will not perform her wifely duties. Simmonds himself is attracted to Bloomberg's beautiful young Yvonne, who mysteriously sends him a copy of a novel called Doctor Glas, published in 1905 by the Swedish author Hjalmar Soderberg [see annotation in this database]. Dr. Glas is the fictional journal of a doctor who treats Rev. Gregorius, a 57-year-old minister and his young wife. The wife complains that her husband's sexual advances are repulsive. From this point on, the story of Dr. Simmonds parallels in many ways that of Dr. Glas, a parallelism which Simmonds records in his journal and struggles to understand. Dr. Glas ultimately murders Rev. Gregorius.

Simmonds becomes obsessed with Yvonne Bloomberg and imagines that she is attracted to him. They interact in a variety of social settings, including a forum in which he suggests that he approves of euthanasia. She speaks to him of her husband's unwelcome advances. He considers killing her husband under the guise of treating his asthma, but shies away from taking that step. However, when Anton Bloomberg fails to respond to repeated injections of adrenalin during a severe asthmatic attack, Simmonds gives him morphine (which could kill him), then immediately relents and calls for an ambulance. Bloomberg recovers, but is permanently brain damaged.

Subsequently, Yvonne is free to spend the next 50 years living with her real lover (Hugh Fisher), and the two of them take care of her childlike husband. Simmonds, however, sinks into melancholy and several years later commits suicide.

Commentary

Near the beginning of the novel, when the aged Yvonne entreats the literary agent to read Dr. Simmonds's journals, she comments: "He was a wicked man." (p. 11) He is certainly unlikable. He is surrounded by a moat of emotional distance that protects him from getting involved with his patients (or even making close friends), yet he is able to project the socially acceptable image of a "good" doctor. The journal breaks through this image to reveal his anti-Semitism, his disdain for others, his preference for masturbation over intimacy. However, the journal also reveals him as an emotionally damaged man, who begins to link his hope for salvation with an obsessive belief that Yvonne Bloomberg loves him; and, moreover, that she wishes him to kill her husband.

The parallelism with Dr. Glas is complex and challenging. Glas (like Simmonds) is a fictional character, although, in the world of this novel, the "real" Simmonds begins to interpret his situation as similar to that of Dr. Glas and to question whether he should behave like Dr. Glas and commit "ethical murder." One drawback to this novel is that, in order to appreciate the story fully, the reader almost has to be familiar with the earlier Swedish novel.

What does the story mean? Dannie Abse reveals the unraveling of a doctor's mind, as he progressively loses contact with reality and eventually uses the tools of his trade to cause harm. Unlike his role model (Dr. Glas), this character is unable to carry through with his immoral choice--Bloomberg survives, albeit in an impaired state. It is possible that "detached concern" in medical practice has the potential of attracting characters like Dr. Simmonds and Dr. Glas (although today's more transparent, team-oriented medical practice might well discourage them).

PublisherCarroll & Graf
Edition2002
Place PublishedNew York
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 05/05/03
Last Revised 06/02/03