In "The Use of Force," what is the conflict of the story?

In “The Use of Force,” the main conflict of the story is between the doctor and Mathilda Olson. The doctor wants to examine Mathilda to see if she has diphtheria, but Mathilda refuses to let him examine her.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The central conflict in “The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams is between the doctor and his stubborn patient Mathilda Olson. The two become involved in a battle of wills which culminates in the doctor forcing open the young girl's throat to examine her for signs of...

See
This Answer Now

Start your subscription to unlock this answer and thousands more. Enjoy eNotes ad-free and cancel anytime.

Start your Subscription

The central conflict in “The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams is between the doctor and his stubborn patient Mathilda Olson. The two become involved in a battle of wills which culminates in the doctor forcing open the young girl's throat to examine her for signs of diphtheria.

Though an unpleasant outcome to what should've been a straightforward procedure, there's a sense of inevitability about it. Earlier on in the story, Mathilda has physically attacked the doctor, lashing out at him and knocking off his glasses.

Even so, the doctor appears to relish the challenge of getting Mathilda to submit to his will. On a professional level, it's essential that the doctor wins out in this particular contest. It would be embarrassing, to say the least, for a respectable medical practitioner to be defeated by a willful child. And on a personal level too, it's essential that the doctor should prevail in this battle of wills. His pride is also at stake in this encounter.

At the same time, the doctor realizes that it's for the good of the child that he gets to examine her. Some children from the girl's school have already died from diphtheria, and there's every chance that the girl herself may follow suit. So it's imperative that, in this particular conflict, it's the doctor who prevails.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The conflict in this short story is between a doctor and his patient, a young girl. The doctor needs to get a look at the girl's throat in order to work out what is wrong with her. Her parents have called him in to help their daughter, and in order to do this, he needs to look at her throat to confirm whether she has contracted the diphtheria that has been doing the rounds.

The girl, wishing to keep her diphtheria a secret, flatly refuses to allow the doctor to get a look at her throat. She attacks him, pushing his glasses off his face, and splinters the wooden stick that he eventually gets into her mouth.

With the help of a flat metal spoon, the doctor eventually gets a look at her throat and confirms his diagnosis of diphtheria.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Use of Force" by Williams Carlos Williams, many conflicts are evident as the doctor arrives to examine the child. From the onset, the parents don't trust the doctor. The doctor believes the child may have diphtheria since it has been spreading at the girl's school, and he needs to look at the child's throat and get a culture. A conflict occurs when the doctor feels revulsion towards the parents. The parents tell the girl the doctor won't "hurt" her and that he is a "nice" man. The doctor feels the parents are only making his job harder, and the situation worsens as the girl continues to struggle against the examination.

The doctor also has conflict with the girl, his patient, as she physically struggles against the examination, refusing to open her mouth, and this becomes a battle between doctor and patient, both physical and emotional. The doctor finally becomes "furious" at her struggles and forces her mouth open.

The last conflict occurs because Mathilda, the girl, fights to keep her secret. When the doctor finally forces the spoon to the back of her mouth, her secret is revealed. She has lied to her parents about the sore throat, and membrane covers her tonsils, a symptom of diphtheria. The girl appears defeated in the end, but in the last line of the story, she still is on the attack as she attempts to "fly" at the doctor. This short story is centered on the ongoing conflict between doctor and patient and the girl's futile struggle to keep her illness secret.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "The Use of Force" we are presented with a narrator who is a doctor who is trying to take a throat culture from a young girl because he suspects she has diphtheria. However, for some unknown reason, the girl resists his attempts in every way possible, refusing to let him take a culture from her throat. It is clear that as she continues resisting, the doctor faces two conflicts: first, his need to take the culture as part of his job, and second, his own fury and desire to overpower her:

The child's mouth was already bleeding. Her tongue was cut and she was screaming in wild hysterical shrieks. Perhaps I should have desisted and come back in an hour or more. No doubt it would have been better. But I have seen at least two children lying dead in bed of neglect in such cases, and feeling that I must get a diagnosis now or never I went at it again. But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. 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.

Thus we can see that in a sense, the doctor faces an external conflict in trying to do his job and take a throat culture. But at the same time he faces an internal conflict as he threatens to be overwhelmed by his own fury and desire to dominate her.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team