Themes and Meanings

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

One of the richest and most suggestive of Franz Kafka’s texts, “A Country Doctor” depicts the tragic self-deception of an individual faced with his own loss of faith in his profession. The doctor readily blames other factors—the conditions of his employment, his patients, the decline of religious belief—for his failure to carry out his responsibilities, principally, to heal those in need. Once he fails to perform his duties as a healer, his life loses all sense of purpose and meaning.

The doctor’s existential crisis is partly of his own making and partly the result of his extreme social isolation. He has neglected Rosa for years, says that it is very difficult to reach a mutual understanding with his patients, and feels tormented by the allegedly false ringing of his night bell. Although there does seem to be a breakdown in a viable social community—the doctor is an official of a political district and thus part of a bureaucratic system at some remove from the people (illustrated in the text by the distance that he must travel this particular night)—the strong subjective bias of his report of his relationships to other people puts into question his whole understanding of who he is and what he does. The reader needs to approach the doctor’s own assessment of his situation with skepticism and ask what is the reality behind his self-pitying failure to heal, or even begin to treat, the boy’s horrible wound.