"The Use of Force" is a short story by William Carlos Williams, in his 1938 collection Life Along the Passaic River . It's about a doctor who has to force a young girl, Mathilda, to open her mouth so he can check her throat for signs of...
"The Use of Force" is a short story by William Carlos Williams, in his 1938 collection Life Along the Passaic River. It's about a doctor who has to force a young girl, Mathilda, to open her mouth so he can check her throat for signs of diphtheria. The story, which is told from the doctor's first-person perspective, explores the theme of coercion and whether force for the good of the coerced is morally justified. Williams himself was a physician who'd practiced in New York and Leipzig, Germany, so the story may well be told from his own point of view, perhaps even relating a true incident from years before.
Williams is probably best known as a poet, but he also wrote plenty of stories and novels—including, literally, The Great American Novel (1923).
Early in the story, the unnamed doctor asks the Olsons if they've inspected their daughter's throat. "I tried to, said the mother, but I couldn't see." (Those quotation marks are mine. Williams eschews them in his story.) We are never told how Mrs. Olson tried to force Mathilda to open her mouth, but she couldn't have tried very hard as the effort didn't work.
First the doctor tries coaxing Mathilda verbally, which also goes nowhere. Mathilda then tries to force the doctor away by clawing for his eyes, succeeding mostly in knocking his glasses off his nose. Mrs. Olson forces Mathilda to stop this attack by physically grabbing her arm.
A protracted physical battle for power then ensues. "Put her in front of you on your lap, I ordered, and hold both her wrists. . . . Then I grabbed the child's head with my left hand and tried to get the wooden tongue depressor between her teeth." This almost works, but then Mathilda is able to break the depressor by gnashing at it. By now she's bitten her own tongue.
The doctor now admits a shameful truth: He's enjoyed this battle of wills, despite the fact that Mathilda is thus far the victor. "It was a pleasure to attack her," the doctor confesses. "My face was burning with it."
The use of physical force concludes when the doctor "overpower[s] the child's neck and jaws" with a silver spoon. Mathilda does indeed have diphtheria, and she's none too happy to have lost her campaign to hide that fact. The doctor was able to force her secret out, partly by physically wrestling her into compliance but also by using the weight of his authority to override the concerns of her too-obliging parents.