25. The Use of Force
William Carlos Williams
This is day Twenty-five of my Month of Short Stories – a story a day for June.
I have always thought of William Carlos Williams as a poet. His poem “XXII” (which most people call “The Red Wheelbarrow“) has always been a wonderful touchstone to me – such an example of the power behind a few simple words. I never knew he wrote short fiction. And I really never knew that he was a physician. A biographer said that he, “worked harder at being a writer than he did at being a physician” – apparantly he was pretty good at both.
Does that illuminate today’s very short short story? Is it important that the author knows what he is writing about and in all likelihood is writing almost directly from experience?
That’s a tough question. I imagine that a very talented writer could imagine what it would be like to be a doctor when confronted with a stubborn child – of course, anyone could type out the same words. But the fact that an experienced physician wrote the piece gives it an air of authority that it wouldn’t have otherwise.
Is that important? Is it fair? Is Batman a Transvestite? Who knows?
At first, the story seems to be a musing on the use of power. Is it appropriate to force a human being to do what they don’t want to do? I don’t think that’s the real intent here, though. First of all, it is undoubtably a matter of life and death – diptheria was an often fatal disease then – both for the child and for society in general. Of course it was appropriate for the doctor to force her to give up.
The real point of the story is the doctor’s attitude. He seems to be a good man, a caring man, and is there to save the child’s life, after all. But her insubordination awakens a primitive passion in the doctor, he finds himself wanting to hurt the child.
It’s a fascinating scene, especially in the hands of someone that knows, and someone with the skills with words of William Carlos Williams.
Get me a smooth-handled spoon of some sort, I told the mother. We’re going through with this. The child’s mouth was already bleeding. Her tongue was cut and she was screaming in wild hysterical shrieks. Perhaps I should have desisted and come back in an hour or more. No doubt it would have been better. But I have seen at least two children lying dead in bed of neglect in such cases, and feeling that I must get a diagnosis now or never I went at it again. But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.
—-William Carlos Williams, The Use of Force