Critical Evaluation

Although William Carlos Williams spent much of his life as a pediatrician, and perhaps had actually experienced more than one difficult encounter with a sick child, “The Use of Force” is not simply a story about one doctor’s admirable efforts to save a child from her own stubborn self, nor is it a story about one doctor’s attacking a child with sadistic cruelty. If the event were described in a novel about the experiences of a small-town doctor, it might be merely an example of one such encounter among many others. However, the story suggests a more universal and general meaning because it is a short story, leading the reader to presume it will have some central significance; because the encounter is told in such violent, seemingly symbolic terms; and because it includes the doctor’s philosophic conclusion about what drives him to force the child’s mouth open.

The use of force is a legal concept, a principle that allows authorities to exercise physical force against another person if such force is deemed justifiable to protect the individual or to protect society from the individual. The principle is not without controversy. For example, sometimes police are accused of an unjustified use of force to subdue a suspected criminal or to quell protesters. Whereas law enforcement argues that such use of force is necessary to protect others or itself, critics often argue that law enforcement is sadistic and cruel, that it uses force to attack an individual or a group of which they disapprove.

The doctor in this story, a professional healer who epitomizes rational control and embodies a basic human desire to help others, knows the meaning of his actions when he says he has gone beyond reason in his struggle with the child. Although he has society on his side—as he says, the child must be protected from herself, and others must be protected from her spreading the disease—he knows that what drives him at the moment he tries to get the tongue depressor in her mouth is unthinking fury, what he calls a longing for muscular release. These thoughts lead to his shame.

The story does not...

(The entire section is 869 words.)