Literature Annotations


Bulgakov, Mikhail
A Country Doctor's Notebook


Genre Collection (Short Stories) (158 pp.)
KeywordsAcculturation, Art of Medicine, Childbirth, Children, Death and Dying, Drug Addiction, Empathy, Hospitalization, Human Worth, Infectious Disease, Loneliness, Medical Mistakes, Pain, Physician Experience, Professionalism, Society, Suffering, Trauma
Summary

This is a collection of partly fictional, partly autobiographical stories about a young Russian doctor sent to practice at a rural hospital immediately after graduating from medical school. Muryovo hospital serves the peasantry in a remote region lacking decent roads and amenities like electricity. The doctor works day and night, aided by a feldsher and two midwives. Sometimes he sees over 100 patients a day in his clinic while attending to another 40 in the hospital.

The stories reveal in a clear, engaging style the doctor's anxiety as daily he encounters new problems (his first amputation, his first breech presentation, his first dental extraction) and-- for the most part--overcomes them. They also reveal a constant tension between the peasants' ignorance and the doctor's instructions. Full of blizzards and isolation, the stories are also warm and companionable, with vignettes of friendship, gratitude, and nobility.

Commentary

Bulgakov was sent to a country hospital like Muryovo (without an internship) after graduating with a degree in medicine from Kiev University in 1916. He spent 18 months in this difficult, isolated practice, before returning to Kiev to specialize in venereal diseases. Subsequently, he moved to the Caucasus and gave up medical practice to pursue a career in writing. These stories were written in the mid-1920's and published separately between 1925 and 1927. According to Michael Glenny, the translator of this 1975 collection, Bulgakov intended to publish them together in a book to be called "The Notes of a Young Doctor," but he never did so. (He died in 1940.)

Glenny comments on the stories' evocation of "an almost mythic conflict between enlightenment and unreason." He also reflects on the difference in style between these straightforward tales and the fantasy and satire of his famous novels (The Master and Margarita and The Heart of a Dog), which were written during the same period. These medical tales do have a lot in common with William Carlos Williams's "doctor stories," both in terms of the doctoring theme as well as the ignorance-knowledge theme. Mostly, however, they present a gripping portrait of a young doctor mastering his profession.

PublisherCollins & Harvill
Edition1975
Place PublishedLondon
MiscellaneousFirst published: 1925-27. Translated by Michael Glenny.
Annotated by Coulehan, Jack
Date of Entry 06/24/94
Last Revised 11/09/99