Cutting for Stone

by Abraham Verghese

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Is Matron a nurse in Cutting for Stone?

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Matron is not a nurse, but she takes on a nurse's role when she helps Dr. Stone perform the emergency delivery of Mary's twins. Matron is the nun in charge at the church attached to the mission hospital, and Mary, who is a nurse, is one of the nuns in Matron's care.

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Matron is not a qualified nurse. She is a nun, in charge of the other nuns of a church that runs the missionary hospital popularly known as "Missing." The name is a mispronunciation of "Mission," the official name of the hospital in Addis Ababa, Ethiopia. Matron helps Dr. Stone (who is a surgeon, not a gynecologist) when the real nurse, Mary (who is also a nun under Matron's supervision) is pregnant and has to give birth immediately.

Let us analyze this situation further. Matron is not a nurse but designates herself as one because the real nurse, Mary, is in danger and needs immediate surgery. Also, Dr. Stone, who is not a gynecologist, is the father of the twin babies about to be born, even as Mary dies in the process. After their birth, Dr. Stone leaves the hospital for good and is considered missing. Hemlatha and Dr. Ghosh, two physicians, adopt the twins. The boys are named Marion and Shiva. Finally, the hospital in which all these things are happening is itself erroneously called "Missing."

Cutting for Stone is full of such dichotomies between being and seeming. Characters in this story first appear one way, then turn out to be something else. It is a love story replete with deception, from Dr. Stone, the surgeon, to Shiva, who betrays Marion. It is also about being "missing": both the father and the mother of the twins are missing.

The book begins as a love story but soon takes on a political dimension, plunging the characters into a cauldron of confusion. Marion is in love with Genet and wants to marry her. Shiva seduces Genet, and they have sex. This creates a deep divide between the twin brothers, who have been thus far inseparable.

Furthermore, Genet becomes involved with revolutionaries fighting for the independence of Eritrea from Ethiopia and is thus hounded by the police. The authorities find Marion's name in connection with Genet, leaving Marion in danger. Fortunately, he escapes to New York and is employed as a surgeon in the Bronx. The novel ends with Marion reuniting with the two people he felt betrayed by the most: Dr. Stone and Shiva.

What begins as a simple story becomes increasingly complex, in terms of both plot and theme. Dr. Abraham Verghese (who is a physician himself) succeeds in telling a story that involves layers of human complexities and contradictions and, ultimately, an epic resolution. The protagonist, Marion, sets out on a journey begun by his mother, Mary, which concludes when he is reunited with his father, Dr. Stone, and twin, Shiva.

So, Matron is not a nurse, just as Dr. Stone is not a gynecologist. Mary is not celibate as her church requires. Shiva betrays his brother. Hippocrates's oath for physicians—"I will not cut for stone," meaning a doctor should not do something he does not specialize in—rises like cream to the top of the story. The two brothers become doctors. They find their calling. An undercurrent of love throughout this novel also rises to the surface to unite the twins with each other and with their father.

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