Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Despite his failure to heal, the doctor tells his story in a remarkably poetic and convincing way. So convincing is it, in fact, that the reader is likely at first to be fully taken in by the doctor’s account. The doctor begins innocently enough by saying, “I was in a dilemma,” namely, that he lacked a horse to take him to the distant patient. A change in the doctor’s story first becomes noticeable when he breaks into the present tense at the point when he tells of the groom’s attack on Rosa. He continues to use the historical present until he says that the patient accepted his story about the origin of the wound and fell silent. This change in tense sets off the story’s long middle section, in which the doctor’s self-pitying complaints, hesitations, and doubts about his profession predominate.

The reader must keep in mind that the doctor relates the details of his final sickbed visit in a state of utter despair, as he is driven in a seemingly endless winter night by a pair of horses over which he has absolutely no control. The desperateness of his situation, however, does not become clear until the last paragraph of his story. At first the doctor’s detached narration draws the reader’s sympathies and blocks any skeptical response to what is being told. As the account unfolds, there are more and more indications that the doctor’s consciousness is clouded by his own fears and anxieties—his sudden concern for Rosa, his paranoia about the miraculous assistance of the horses, who seem at the disposal of higher forces, his need to justify to himself his failure to act. Thus, the most fantastic elements of the story—the horses’ speed during the initial journey, the terrible beauty of the boy’s wound, and the undressing of the doctor—reflect the unreality of the doctor’s distorted consciousness rather than a fantastic reality that might have confronted him. The artistic skill with which the doctor turns his failure to cope with the realities of his work into a brilliantly seductive narrative suggests that his real calling is as a storyteller and not as a healer.