A Country Doctor (short story)
|"A Country Doctor"|
|Original title||"Ein Landarzt"|
The plot follows a country doctor's hapless struggle to attend a sick young boy on a cold winter's night. A series of surreal events occur in the process, including the appearance of a mysterious groom in a pig shed.
It begins with the doctor having to urgently attend a sick patient, but his sole horse died the night before, so his maid Rosa goes off to ask for another. She returns empty-handed — "Of course, who is now going to lend her his horse for such a journey?" —, but, just as the doctor is expressing his distraction and torment by kicking at the cracked sty door, a mysterious groom appears and supplies him with a team of magnificent horses. The groom, being the oaf that he is, boorishly kisses the maid when she tries to hand him a harness, leaving her cheek with two rows of red tooth marks. The doctor scolds him furiously but quickly realizes that he is in his debt and, on the groom's beckoning, jumps happily into the gig. The groom declines to travel with him, preferring to stay with the terrified Rosa, who dashes into the house and makes every effort to secure herself, although her fate is inevitable. The doctor can do nothing to stop the groom, who, with a simple "Giddy up!", sends the horses on their way. The doctor is almost instantly transported to his sick patient's courtyard. It is, he says, "as if the farm yard of my invalid opens up immediately in front of my courtyard gate", when, in reality (insofar as that term may be applied to this story), it is all of ten miles away.
After being ushered into the house by a family whose explications he does not comprehend, the doctor is quietly implored by the patient to let him die. Initially, he deems him completely healthy, but, after he notices the boy's sister holding a bloody towel, he discovers a deep wound on his right side. The kin and assembling kith are pleased to see him at work. The horses, meanwhile, having somehow freed themselves of their straps, have opened the window and are neighing frantically.
The doctor's thoughts are focused on the fate of his maid, for which he blames himself. In accordance with a simple melody from a choir outside the house, the family undresses him and forces him into bed alongside the patient. He assures his skeptical bed mate that the wound is not death-dealing and promptly takes up all his belongings and flees the scene. The horses are now wearied, however; and the doctor, disgraced, finds himself "crawl[ing] slowly through the wasteland of snow men". He feels betrayed by his patients and his community, and his story concludes with the line "A false ring of the night bell, once answered — it can never be made right."
Thin, without fever, not cold, not warm, with empty eyes, without a shirt, the young man under the stuffed quilt heaves himself up, hangs around my throat and whispers in my ear, "Doctor, let me die."
— Excerpt from Franz Kafka's "A Country Doctor"
Louis H. Leiter saw in the tale a cogent argument for existentialism:
"A Country Doctor" comments on man, who, buffeted by the scheme of things, is unable to transcend the part assigned him by the absurdity of that existence. Because he does not lack conscious knowledge of his condition, but refuses to act in the face of his portentous freedom, the doctor, an archetype of the anti-existential hero, deserves his fate. Lacking the human stuff necessary to create and structure situations, he permits himself to be manipulated by the groom, the family, and the horses; but he becomes, by submitting, a tool within the situations they create. Never, consciously, does he attempt through an overt act, until too late, to establish his own essence, to rise above any manipulative value he possesses for others. As doctor he is a thing, an object, a tool; as man he is nothing.
Psychologists at the University of California, Santa Barbara and the University of British Columbia published a report in 2009 using A Country Doctor as the variable in a study testing what impact reading absurdist tales has on their cognitive skills. The study showed that reading the story improved test subjects' ability to find patterns. Their findings summarised that when people have to work to find consistency and meaning in a fragmented story, it increases “the cognitive mechanisms responsible for implicitly learning statistical regularities.”
- Kafka 2003, p. 128.
- Leiter 1958, p. 340.
- Tom Jacobs, This Is Your Brain on Kafka, Pacific Standard, 16 September 2009.
- Guth, Hans P. "Symbol and Contextual Restraint: Kafka's 'Country Doctor'." PMLA, 1965: 427-431.
- Kafka, Franz. The Metamorphosis and Other Stories. Trans. Donna Freed. New York: Barnes & Noble Classics Collection, 2003. ISBN 1-59308-029-8
- Leiter, Louis H. "A Problem in Analysis: Franz Kafka's 'A Country Doctor'." The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism, 1958: 337-347.
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