The Doctor Stories by William Carlos Williams is a collection of semi-autobiographical tales. The book details the ordinary lives of the inhabitants of New Jersey during the depression of the 1930’s and 40’s as seen through the eyes of a doctor. The writing style is free and descriptive. It easily moves between the events of outside world and the narrator’s internal thoughts, dialogues and conflicts. This style creates different and somewhat opposed versions of the protagonist as calm altruistic doctor, observer poet and a man subject to the same emotional turmoil as us.
Girl with the Pimply Face
This anecdote is about a foreign baby from a poor area who is in “pretty bad condition” however the main focus of this story is the baby’s older sister. William’s poetic side has an immediate affiliation with this 15 year old girl. Although she is physically described in an unflattering light – “she had one of those small squeezed up faces, snub nose, overhanging eyebrows, low brow and a terrible complexion, pimply and coarse” – the narrator is “crazy about” her strength and vigour in the face of her difficult surroundings. She is still free to become whatever she wills. In fact his obsession almost clouds his judgement as a doctor. He could even seem to neglect his true patient, failing to do much more than glance at “it”, the sick child. Then again perhaps this is all that is feasible without the mother about and lacking any information about the problem, information which his “wonderful” girl seems uninterested in helping with.
When he next visits the house we meet the “bulky” mother who is greatly distressed about her baby’s health. Although William diagnosis the baby as being “no good [and] never would be” the desperate woman ignores or doesn’t understand that “she has a bad heart that will never be better” and begs William to fix her baby. When the narrator thinks to himself – “Hell! God damnit. These sons of bitches. Why do these things have to be?” - we are left wondering whether he is angry at the bothersome mother or the sad state of affairs caused by poverty and misfortune.
Williams colleagues in the hospital speak ill of the family even slandering his beloved girl as a “pimply faced bitch”. He is told “you make ‘em pay you” and although William seems in agreement he visits yet again. Maybe this is out of his poetic love for this girl’s vigour or maybe it is out of his generous nature. This is something that is left open for us to ponder.
Use of Force
Here our storyteller again encounters an “unusually attractive” girl. This time she is his patient, suffering from diphtheria. He wants to examine her throat, seeking to make a clear diagnosis. However the child is resistant and stubborn, knocking his glass to the floor when he tries to get close.
When reasoning has been exhausted William begins with the use of force. We follow a graphic description of the doctor as he tries to pull open her jaw to get a clear view of her throat. “He could have torn her apart in [his] fury”, driven mad by her resistance. With memories of “two other children lying dead in bed of neglect” he is sent ‘beyond his reason’. When her secret is reveal, “both tonsils covered by membrane”, she is heartbreakingly defeated, left crying in the face of the truth she did not wish to accept. Although he has fallen in love with “the savage brat”, once again for her determination, we are left we left unsettled and with many questions, amidst the blood and splinters of this horrific battle.
In this final story Williams is working in the children’s ward of a hospital. The place is full of ‘brats’ brought in sick, sometimes because of “deliberate neglect”, and then abandoned there. The narrator sees the diligent nurses “break their hearts over those kids”, treating them like “they were worth a million bucks” but he himself wonders if medicine is wrong to try to help at all. He sees how the poverty these poor ‘wretches’ were born into will define the paths of their lives. They are “born garbage hustlers” and “cheap prostitutes”, fated from the start.
However once again our protagonist becomes enthralled by a little baby of eleven moths old called Jean Beicke. The child looked only 5 moths old, deformed and suffering on arrival, with broncho-pneumonia. They “all expected her to die from exhaustion before she’d gone far” but she was “a hungry baby”. This trait is one that has fascinated our hero throughout these short accounts. He loves to see that strength of character that strives for survival.
However “Jean didn’t get well”. In a defeated tone William tells us “we did everything we knew how”. He tries to defend himself from this attachment with phrases like “anyhow she died” but in truth “he hated to see that kid go”. When the autopsy shows that purulent mastoidistis was the cause of death Williams calls the ear man. In this last encounter we are once again left with many questions. The ear man thinks the child could have been saved but Williams asks him why – just to have another vote for the “Communist ticket”. This smart remark possibly hints to me that our narrator doesn’t agree with his own words. The ear man’s retort “Would it have made us any dumber?” compounds this feeling. The suggestion of inadequacy here calls into question the idea of the difference between Williams’ life and the lives that the children of the depression might lead. This soaks the black and white of a good and bad life in shades of grey. Williams himself is imperfect, a fact which he makes abundantly and purposefully clear to us throughout. The ear man asks him and us – could we not learn and improve, and is this not enough to make the struggle of life valid?
William Carlos Williams portrays a dirty and impoverished world where everyone is struggling to survive. The persona of the narrator is flawed and human. He experience anger that swells in his mind, attraction that sways his actions, and empathy and attachment that he supresses to save pain. He analyses people, and puts down his uncensored train of thought, such that we, in turn, can analyse him. He provides us with insight and questions but gives us no answers. These we have to find ourselves.