Literature Annotations


Williams, William Carlos
The Use of Force


Genre Short Story (5 pp.)
KeywordsCaregivers, Catastrophe, Children, Doctor-Patient Relationship, Family Relationships, Illness and the Family, Physical Examination, Physician Experience, Power Relations, Professionalism, Psycho-social Medicine, Rebellion, Sexuality, Suffering, Trauma
Summary

A physician is summoned to make a housecall on a family with whom he has had no prior contact. He quickly sizes up the situation: the household is poor but clean; the patient is a female child whose parents are nervously concerned, dependent on, yet distrustful of the doctor. The child's beauty and penetrating stare make an immediate impression on him.

Concerned that diphtheria may be the cause of illness, he uses his customary professional manner to determine whether or not the child has a sore throat. But the child will have none of it and "clawed instinctively for my eyes." The attempt at an examination rapidly escalates into a physical "battle" as the physician, convinced that it is crucial to see the child's throat "and feeling that I must get a diagnosis now or never," becomes ever more enraged and forceful while the girl continues to resist with all her strength, and the parents are in an agony of fear for her health and embarrassment over her behavior.

This is no longer a professional encounter. The doctor admits at the beginning of the struggle to having "fallen in love with the savage brat" and recognizes that he is behaving irrationally. The closing sequence could as easily be depicting a rape as a forced throat examination.

Commentary

The story evokes with great immediacy a number of important issues about doctoring: the predicament of having quickly to assess a medical/social situation in an unfamiliar, even hostile environment; the doctor's impressive powers of observation; his concern to do the right thing medically; the anxiety of the sick child's parents; the power that the doctor wields; the dark side of human nature which may allow such power to surface in unsavory ways and which the professional, like any rational person, has under most circumstances learned to control.

First published in 1938 in book form, the story is also available in a collection of stories and poems by Williams, concerning physician experiences, in a book compiled and introduced by Robert Coles, "The Doctor Stories" (New Directions, 1984).

For those reading Williams in a literature and medicine context, Hugh Crawford's book, Modernism, Medicine, & William Carlos Williams (annotated in this database), may be of interest. Also of interest is Brian A. Bremen's chapter (3), "Modern Medicine," in his book, William Carlos Williams and the Diagnostics of Culture (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993). Bremen argues that "The Use of Force" illustrates Williams's insistence on incorporating "occult" knowledge into his (empathic) "diagnostics" and contrasts it with the (self-deceptive) scientific objectivism of the neurologist-writer, S. (Silas) Weir Mitchell.

SourceThe William Carlos Williams Reader
PublisherNew Directions
Edition1966 (paperback)
EditorsM.L. Rosenthal
Place PublishedNew York
Alternate SourceOn Doctoring
Alternate PublisherSimon & Schuster
Alternate Edition1995, 2001
Alternate EditorsRichard Reynolds & John Stone
Place PublishedNew York
MiscellaneousFirst published: 1938
Annotated by Aull, Felice
Date of Entry 05/05/94
Last Revised 03/05/02