The Use of Force

by William Carlos Williams

“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams addresses the exertion of physical superiority over others, asking the fundamental question: is it ethical to hurt someone for his own good? More importantly, is there shame in enjoying it? The narrator, a doctor making housecalls in a setting that is likely the 19th-century (as hinted by the author’s minute details, such as the three-dollar charge for the service), is host to conflicting feelings about his own actions-forcibly gathering the throat culture from the stubborn child he is examining-and expresses shame at his perverse pleasure in doing so. The story is fundamentally ordered by the passive descriptions of the surrounding environment and the agitated conclusion that absorbs those supporting details to present the speaker’s view that, though there are reasons often justifiable, what compels the use of force against others isn’t simply altruism alone.

From the outset, the doctor appears to be compassionate and keen to human behavior, characteristic of a good doctor, though he is also undeniably blunt and slightly prejudiced. Williams’ choice to use interior monologue as a “stream-of-consciousness” tool reflects the narrator’s experience of dialogue and gives insight into the character and his appraisal of the situations he encounters. He immediately assesses the mother upon seeing her as “clean and apologetic,” and dedicates more time a much more thorough description for the daughter, to whom he already has taken a fancy. He portrays the parents as eager to cooperate, yet nervous and distrustful of the stranger who is only in their house by forced circumstance, and therefore he finds them obstructive. In any case, his contempt for the parents (whom he barely knows) changes from implicit to overt as they are cajoling the young girl after initial efforts, particularly when he grinds his teeth in disgust at being called a “nice man.” Their inane comments serve to do nothing but hinder the doctor’s efforts to get the child to understand what he needs to do, and the placement of their comments in the speaker’s own internal thoughts allow them to be felt in the same way the speaker felt them (usually as spontaneous and substanceless interjections: “Do you think she can stand it, doctor! Said the mother.”). The father (who recieves very little characterization) provides one example of the weakness and ineptitude of the parents in dealing with the situation when he is attempting to hold his daughter back and fails restrain her at each pivotal moment due to his fear of hurting her. This behavior and the behavior of the family as a whole is spectacularly ironic, considering that all of their fears are preventing them from stopping what they should truly be fearing: a fatal case of diptheria.

The weakness on the parents’ part and the stubbornness on the daughter’s part contribute to the doctor’s escalating frustration, to the point where he asserts his power: with a smooth spoon, he forces the girl’s mouth open. He admits that he could have taken a more rational approach and tried again in an hour, of course, but he confesses that he had become just as irrational as everyone else in the room: “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.” It is evident that he had been forceful and enjoyed it, but it is not likely that he would have done it in any other case. “The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to one’s self at such times. Others must be protected against her. It is social necessity. And all these things are true. But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives.” Indeed, it appears that he was compelled to action more strongly by his fury than his professional duty. As a professional, he has a barrier of rationality that prevents him from doing such irrational things; however, in this case, he had a strong justification for that action due to its “social necessity,” which then permitted him to act upon his primal instincts without conscientious interference.

– Thanks to Graarrg, for this article

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