A reading of Franz Kafka’s Story
A Country Doctor
Perhaps the story depicts a dream. Two features of a dream are that, first the normal causes and effects of waking life disappear, and second the dreamer is helpless as to what he dreams, what happens. Impossible and illogical events occur, and the dreamer cannot control what they will be.
Of course this dream atmosphere is common in Kafka’s work. Here we have the contradiction of horses suddenly appearing just when needed from the pigsty, as if the need for the horses had somehow made them come into the story. Then there’s the contradiction of the groom controlling the master, as the horses control the driver, and later rider. Then the patient and his family determine the doctor’s ‘treatment’, the doctor lies in the patient and becomes a second ‘patient’ himself.
The doctor, however, perhaps unlike many dreams, comes to see his helplessness. He rationalises his bad actions and poor diagnoses as deriving from helplessness in the circumstances he finds himself in, circumstances he complains unconvincingly about, particularly a lack of respect for his status of an ‘official’ doctor.
The structure of the story is perhaps a sort of allegory. He desires to go on a quest to save a sick patient a hundred miles away, and gets horses - primal forces of nature - at the price of sacrificing Rose (his youth, his idealism, his ‘spring’ – all of which he’d hardly noticed when they were there) to a younger man, the brutal groom, who takes over his house. He goes to meet ‘death’ and tries to deny it, then lies in its bed naked like a corpse himself, rationalise it as what happens to us all, and then tries to escape (his mortality perhaps) naked and old and directionless on the same horses, now lost in the snow of extinction.
Rose, an almost fairy-tale heroine, is turned into a ‘rose-red’ wound, what he has neglected - sexual love, perhaps. associated with Spring and the youth of the year. And she is wounded herself by the animal, biting, behaviour of the groom. The wound is now infested with ‘worms’ of corruption (like Blake’s rose, for the English speaking reader)
The doctor has spent as ‘the doctor’, a role, for which he has desperately sought respect, without response from his community. His status is but a fur coat which falls off. His medical practice appears as superficial as his personality, shaped by the opinions of others, again helpless. Though he claims that his problems stem from a loss of ‘ancient’ values.
The story seems more psychological and religious but the difference is sometimes thin. I can’t help remembering – though probably Kafka would not have read it - Christopher Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus. Strange slow horses of the night occur there too, when Faustus finds himself facing hell because he can’t repent.
‘O lente, lente, curite noctis equi.
The stars move still, time runs, the clock will strike,
The Devil will come, and Faustus must be damn’d.
Notes Made Reading Through
He begins ‘I was in great perplexity’ and continues that way throughout the story. A state of life. The events in the story are perplexing because they don’t follow expected ‘logic’.
The ‘urgent journey’ also suggests an allegory, of life, towards death, a quest.
He’s all ready but no horse, yet he’d know that before he got ready that the horse had died in the night. The horse, as he later complains on his own behalf, was ‘ worn out by the fatigues of this icy winter’.
The servant girl, not yet mentioned, the unwintery ‘Rose, is trying to help by trying to borrow a horse for him. She’s good to him. But ‘it was hopeless’. This whole story about hopelessness.
As soon as the problem arises it is solved, dreamlike, as if by accident and without logic. His frustration solves it, kicking the door. Horses in a pigsty, AND the groom, who hasn’t told him!?
‘You never know what you’re going to find in your own house’, says Rose, a comment about self-knowledge. The horses are brother and sister for the groom, and very powerful, a stress on animality and power.
As Rose goes, told by K, to help, she is attacked by the groom, bitten. More animality. First K takes up an authority stance, threatening punishment, then as always his action is dissipated and he thinks of excuses and needs. Then the groom starts to dominate the ‘master’, K as always in this helpless and passive.
The groom tells K to get in, then tells him he, the groom, is not going with him, and K’s worry about Rose’s fate is lost in the power of the horses to carry him off without his apparently being able to control them. Rose’s fate too is ‘inescapable’. The doctor also lacks the authority you’d expect of the householder.
The journey is timeless. The family inarticulate. Then the patient wants to die. Doctor’s role in curing is reversed. First he finds the boy perfectly okay.
He thinks ‘blasphemously’ that the gods are aiding him: sent the horses and ‘in a second’, and ‘bestow a groom’ but that triggers thoughts of Rose, but now he has the helplessness to fall back on that he’s a hundred miles away, having just separated himself from her by that amount! Because he couldn’t control them. Then thought of the horse prompts their slipping their reins and looking in almost humanly. They’re ‘eyeing the patient’.
He NOW thinks he should escape, yet at the same time allows the patient’s sister to take his coat! She acts, him passive. Seems to refuse the drink, and then very oddly feels ‘in the narrow confines of his thoughts’ That makes him feel ill. How could that be is reason for refusing the drink. Poison? Drug? The illness has to do with the place.
Wants to push the boy out of bed but can’t act, rationalising that ‘I’m no world reformer’ and does nothing. Now tells himself he’s done his duty, then complains about pay and conditions. Excuse of helping rose – far too late – to get him out of there.
Now the boy’s connected to Rose. ‘I had still to see that Rose was alright, and then the boy might have his way and I wanted to die too.’ But perhaps ‘boy’ now refers to the groom. He wants to die too, perhaps out of helplessness for Rose, but also because he finds himself in ‘endless winter’. More excuses and grumbling about his difficulties, as self-distraction. Easier to write prescriptions than deal with people. Yes!!!
Again he resolves to go. More complaints on how he is always put upon, complains of his ‘whole district’ who’d forced him to sacrifice Rose. He puts his arm out for his fur coat, but the family have evidence, the bloody towel, which immediately alters all his previous examination. Their conviction and pain is stronger than his observation.
As he approaches the boy the horses start to whinny, ‘I suppose…ordained by heaven to assist my examination of the patient’ - mixing him wish and fact.
Somehow he has missed that enormous rose-like wound, with worms in it. Like Blake’s rose. It’s a ‘blossom in your side’. Then right after that, ‘The family was pleased; they saw me busying myself. Pleased!
The boy then asks ‘will you save me?’ a different sort of question for ‘Let me die’. His ‘quite blinded by the life within his wound’ . What life? That of evil, nature?
More complaints about the expectations of patients. And then complaints about the loss of ‘ancient beliefs’ What are those? Contrasts doctor with parson, scientific with religious. He goes on about feeling misused ‘for sacred ends’.
He says ‘and so’ they came and stripped him. Perhaps NOW WITH some ancient belief, choir singing, the elders too. A kind of sympathetic magic?
But even naked he retains a posture of composure.
He’s put in with the patient, so now, as it were, doctor and patient are one, as if somehow this will make a cure. Paganistically the moon is covered. Ironically the sick man next to him lacks confidence in him. No-one should have! ‘Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t com on your own feet.’ Passive as ever, and now only cramping the patient in his bed.
He tries to defend himself from the point of view of his status and role as doctor. The patient, passive now as K, has to put up with this ‘apology’ and sees his role has having brought a wound into the world. This sounds mythological. Christian?. And it’s a ‘fine’ wound, ‘my sole endowment’. Perhaps a way of talking about the ‘aim’ of life being death.
The doctor against resorts to status and ‘philosophy’, putting things in proportion. Everyone’s the same. Everyman-like. Then the wound is described as one in the side with an axe.
‘Many a one proffers his side and can hardly hear the ax in the forest, far less that it is coming nearer to him’. Does this mean that by being human and vulnerable we all proffer our side, but most of us never think about death, or its meaning?
This seems to satisfy the now dying boy. At least it’s what the ‘official doctor’ says. The boy, also, may also be the body of K, who is now about the ‘leave’.
Third time he thinks of ‘escaping’. And this time does. The horses are ‘faithful’ and ‘obedient’ – all that are. He rides on one of the horse’s back, not in the gig, the horses ‘barely fastened’ to each other. But the horses can’t gee up. Instead ‘slowly, like old men, we crawled through the snowy wastes’ behind them the ‘faulty’ song of the children about rejoicing because the doctor’s in bed beside you. Is this religious? Pagan?
‘Never shall I reach home’. This sounds like an analogy to death, ‘flourishing practice’ done for, a ‘successor robbing me’, Rose the victim. None of his patients will help him. He feels betrayed. Then the last sentence
‘A false alarm on the night bell once answered – it cannot be made good, not ever’.
Is it that he’s made a mistake, or that doing anything in life is responding to a ‘false alarm’, that of hope, healing, doing good?