Literature Annotations


Soderberg, Hjalmar
Doctor Glas


Genre Novel (150 pp.)
KeywordsAbandonment, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Domestic Violence, Family Relationships, Freedom, Heart Disease, Homicide, Human Worth, Law and Medicine, Love, Marital Discord, Medical Ethics, Obsession, Physician Experience, Sexuality
Summary

This is the fictional journal of four months in the life of Doctor Tyko Glas, a turn-of-the century Swedish physician, who writes, "How can it have come about that, out of all possible trades, I should have chosen the one which suits me least?" Though Doctor Glas is over 30 years old, he has "never been near a woman." In fact, he finds the physical aspects of sexual intercourse rather repulsive. Even more repulsive is his patient Rev. Gregorius, a nasty 57-year-old minister who happens to have a lovely young wife.

One day Mrs. Gregorius, also his patient, presents Doctor Glas with a strange request. Her husband's sexual advances have become onerous to her. Could the doctor tell him that she suffers from a pelvic disease and, therefore, must avoid sexual relations for several months? Doctor Glas agrees to do so, but the Rev. Gregorius is not easily put off. He believes that God has given married couples the duty to procreate, so sex is not simply a question of pleasure or preference. It is a question of duty. Thus, he rapes his wife, believing that their sacred marital duty is more important than her health.

Meanwhile, Mrs. Gregorius admits (to the doctor) that she has fallen in love with someone else, a handsome young businessman. As the summer progresses, it is clear that Doctor Glas has fallen in love with his patient, a love that is as tortured as it is silent and unrequited. Eventually Glas becomes convinced that he must save his patient from her repulsive husband's advances by murdering him.

Thus, the doctor carefully plans to poison the minister, using cyanide pills that he had once prepared for his own suicide. His plan is successful. The minister dies of an apparent "heart attack." Unfortunately, at around that time the handsome lover announces his engagement to another woman. The bereft Mrs. Gregorius, who sees nothing in the doctor, is left alone. Doctor Glas is also alone. "Life has passed me by," he ruminates.

Commentary

Doctor Glas's journal entries reveal him to be a sensitive, reserved, and somewhat damaged character. Early in the book he speaks of his duty as a physician to preserve life. A number of his women patients have requested abortions, but Glas has always refused to get involved because of his professional duty. Nonetheless, he sometimes acknowledges the pain and suffering these women endure, especially when he treats an 11 year old retarded boy whose mother had begged him for an abortion. All in all, Glas is a dutiful doctor, but seems never really to connect with his patients--or with anyone else.

He vaguely desires marriage and a family, but he doesn't have the energy to court the young woman in town who loves him. His obsession with the pastor's wife begins with a sense of outrage that the ugly old man has such a beautiful plum. Glas also experiences moral outrage when Rev. Gregorius hypocritically turns lust into his Christian duty, even at the (presumed) expense of his wife's health.

Eventually the doctor, who usually withdraws from human interaction, takes a proactive moral stand. He decides to commit "ethical" murder because the pastor is a brute who does not deserve to live. Like Roskolnikov in Crime and Punishment, Doctor Glas steps outside of ordinary morality, although in this case he justifies the murder out of love for the victim's wife. In a sense Glas sees the murder as part of doctoring--by ridding the world of Gregorius, he has alleviated his patient's (Mrs. Gregorius) suffering.

PublisherLittle, Brown
Edition1963
Place PublishedBoston
MiscellaneousFirst published in 1905. Translated from the Swedish by Paul Britten Austin.
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 04/07/99
Last Revised 10/21/03