"What the Doctor Said" by Raymond Carver•What is the significance of the title? answers for the following questions
•Tone/Who is the Speaker? What is his attitude?
•Organization of the poem
The title of Raymond Carver's poem, "What the Doctor Said," is deceptively simple. Taken at face value, it merely describes the content of the work, which is the doctor's delivery of bad news to his patient, and the brief exchange which results. A deeper analysis, however, provides added significance in that, through "what [he] says," the doctor communicates so much more than what his words, taken only literally, convey. In delivering his message about the patient's medical condition, the doctor also reveals a personal ineptness in connecting to his patient on a human level, and a tendency to try to conceal the resulting discomfort with medical jargon and fancy words, as he shows in his references to counting "thirty-two of them on one lung," and later, "forest groves" and "waterfall mist blowing against your face and arms." A good theme statement for this poem, as expressed in its title, might be, "Communication, and the establishment of genuine human connection, is very difficult to achieve, especially under trying circumstances."
Relatedly, it is also interesting to note the literary device of euphemism in the title. When one must give or receive bad tidings, it is usually easier to talk about it without actually describing the situation directly; thus, the fact of cancer, with all its terrifying potential manifestations, is more palatably addressed simply as "what the doctor said." This theme of dancing around issues that are too difficult to face head on is another that carries through the poem as a whole, and supports the theme statement above.
The speaker in the poem is the patient, and the author's tone is simultaneously matter-of-fact and bewildered. The mood is not morbid but generally somber, although there is a touch of levity and a use of the literary device of irony, in the speaker's attempts to alleviate the doctor's obvious discomfort in delivering the diagnosis; in fact it is the patient who should be the one in need of comfort, having just received a potential death sentence. The poem presents as a conversation, with elements organized in chronological order. In summary, the doctor delivers the results of the patient's tests, progressing in the first four lines from the mild declaration "it doesn't look good," to the more hopeless-sounding "I quit counting them." He then attempts to provide solace through the literary and sound devices of flowery, poetic descriptions of religion and nature, and ends with an inadequate "I'm real sorry," and "something else [the speaker] didn't catch." The patient, on his part, interjects only briefly during the doctor's speech in a surprisingly other-centered manner. Acutely aware of the doctor's discomfort in having to deliver such devastating news, the patient ironically seeks to affirm him, saying, "I'm glad, I wouldn't want to know," declaring that he will "start today" to seek comfort in nature and religion as the doctor suggests, and responding almost jocularly, "Amen," when the doctor expresses his wish that he had better news to convey.
There are varying interpretations of what exactly the poet means when he says at the poem's end, "this man who'd just given me something no one else on earth had even given me." It is sometimes argued that the gift is death, seen in a positive light, which would explain the patient's reaction of rising to shake the doctor's hand, and possibly even thanking him. On the other hand, I think that it might also be argued that the patient's reaction is more likely one of utter shock and bewilderment. The speaker says that he does not want "to have to fully digest [the news], indicating that he has not absorbed the full impact of the reality that faces him; in fact, he wishes to avoid it. In denial of something too horrible to be reckoned with at the moment, he resorts to "habit," which manifests, in his case, in a desire to be amiable, and alleviate the pain of another.
Raymond Carver was a heavy smoker for many years. As a result, he died of lung cancer in 1988 at the age of only fifty, after undergoing surgery and radiation treatments for the disease. In the poem he is obviously talking about himself and his own interview with the doctor. It is admirable in Carver and also characteristic of him that he could not only take such bad news with courage and a sense of humor, but that he was so dedicated to his writing that he even made a poem out of "what the doctor said." It was tragic and ironic that he was just beginning to find himself as a creative writer, just beginning to achieve widespread recognition, and just beginning to find contentment with a woman he loved at a time when he learned that he had only a short while left to live. The irony and grim humor of his situation can be felt throughout the poem.