Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

17 Aug 2012

(Short Story) The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams

(Reaction) Slippery Slope by: Antonio Conejos

Rational, caring individuals often have good intentions for everyone. Williams's short story though details how the intentions of these well meaning souls often ends up awry.

The doctor of the story is a good man. He is a careful observer of human behavior, I could see that they were all very nervous, eyeing me up and down distrustfully. He is patient with the girl who is recalcitrant from the start, Aw, come on, I coaxed, just open your mouth wide and let me take a look. After patience comes trying to reason out the situation, Look here, I said to the child, we're going to look at your throat. You're old enough to understand what I'm saying.

So far the progression of the doctor has been through the classical modes of appeal. First emotional appeal (coaxing) then intellectual appeal (you're old enough to understand). The last appeal of the doctor is not to the patient but to himself. He has to convince himself that any discomfort he causes his patient is for her own good, Then the battle began. I had to do it. I had to have a throat culture for her own protection.

The child though is unappreciative, hostile, to the doctor's help. This defiance in turn dries up the patience and initial good humor of the doctor. Gone are his platitudes to himself that what he is doing is for the patient. Now his actions are based on irrational spite, After all, I had already fallen in love with the savage brat, the parents were contemptible to me.

The doctor, in the face of the contempt for his well meaning help, transforms into a spiteful soul as irrational as the child he is battling with. Towards the end the pretence of help is merely a thin veneer, replaced with the need for revenge, The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to one's self at such times... But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end.

In the end even the most rational, well meaning souls can succumb quickly and easily to baser instincts. While the doctor is conducting the examination for the child's sake, he is also inflicting pain on her for his sake. Whether this duality of motives, an altruistic pursuit combined with a childish need for revenge, sully the ultimate good nature of the doctor is open to question.


A straightforward story with subtle undertones of class distinction (note how the dialogue of the parents contrasts to the internal monologue of the doctor) and greater philosophical questions of how the sheen of rationality is often only skin deep.

An online copy of Williams's story can be found here. Share

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