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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 755

John Berger’s extended essay A Fortunate Man is only minimally biographical. John Sassall, the country doctor whose career serves as the focus of Berger’s book, is more a type of existential hero of the atomic age than the particularized subject of a life narrative. This small deception is in keeping with Berger’s initial observation in the essay—that the landscape acts as a curtain behind which the drama of life and lives is played. Concealment, then, or at least hidden fears, desires, and motives, forms the structure of the village life portrayed. It is the rural society in which Sassall practices medicine and not Sassall’s life itself that concerns Berger, and it is the exquisite depiction of the relationship between the individual (in this case a physician) and his social environment which engages the reader.

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A Fortunate Man begins with six vignettes showing Sassall treating and counseling various patients. A woodsman, for example, has his leg crushed by a falling tree. The doctor is summoned and must drive swiftly through the mist-shrouded countryside to relieve the victim’s agony and assure his comrades that all will be well. A depressed teenager is solaced by the prospect that Sassall will help her find a meaningful job. A dying woman and her family are visited by the doctor, who can offer only understanding. These and the other vignettes are related without sentiment or authorial comment. They seem united by no thematic cord, except for Sassall’s presence at scenes of unhappiness. Yet in a haunting way they establish the mood and set the scene for the rest of Berger’s essay. The reader notes that the doctor’s practice is conducted in a depressed rural community and that it involves few cures but much talk. The meaning of the vignettes becomes clear only after the entire book is digested.

A Fortunate Man is a brief book, a mere 158 pages. With about seventy black-and-white photographs, the work of Jean Mohr, the text is only some eighty pages long. The introductory vignettes take up perhaps one-fifth of those pages, so the essay proper constitutes about four-fifths of the actual text. The photographs are stark portraits of Sassall’s patients, of the doctor giving treatment, and of the grim country in which he lives and works. Like the vignettes, these portraits emphasize the dour environment in which Sassall and the villagers must function. Thus, A Fortunate Man gives the appearance of being a documentary or photographic essay, but again this is deceptive. For it is in the essay proper that the book’s essence and density lie.

As the essay proper begins, Berger dispenses with objectivity and freely interjects his opinions and interpretations into the examination of Sassall’s medical practice and methods, what he gives and what he gets by working in the kind of locale and among the kind of people he does. This examination may be divided into four segments. The first deals with the development of Sassall’s method of treating the whole personality rather than merely the disease. Berger contends that the villagers require “recognition” before their maladies can be correctly diagnosed and remedied. This recognition of them as discrete individuals enables Sassall in turn to achieve his ambition to become a universal man.

The second segment of the essay delineates the doctor’s public role. Berger discusses the inability of the culturally deprived to articulate their hopes and fears. He notes their ignorance of history and of their place in the world beyond the village. Sassall must be their voice, their “clerk of records,” as Berger writes. This public persona affords Sassall a privileged position among the villagers, and this position encourages his unique (among them) way of thinking.

The third part of the essay treats Sassall’s sense of inadequacy, the price he pays to be a country doctor. Berger contends that the psychic proximity Sassall’s method enforces renders him vulnerable to the depression and emptiness so many of his patients reflect both in their illnesses and in their everyday lives. The author remarks, however, that the very source of Sassall’s anxieties serves as their cure.

A Fortunate Man concludes with a critique of a society which denies its members the opportunities to develop to their fullest potentials. Berger reserves judgment about whether John Sassall is a successful doctor, remarking instead that a culturally deprived society has no standards by which to make either judgments or choices and, worse, no sense of the value of life itself.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 99

Balint, Michael. The Doctor, His Patient, and the Illness, 1964.

Cassell, Eric. The Healer’s Art: A New Approach to the Doctor-Patient Relationship, 1976.

Gott, Peter. No House Calls: Irreverent Notes on the Practice of Medicine, 1986.

Jaco, E. Gartly, ed. Patients, Physicians, and Illness: A Sourcebook in Behavioral Science and Health, 1972.

Kaufmann, Walter, ed. Existentialism from Dostoevsky to Sartre, 1956.

Lane, Kenneth. Diary of a Medical Nobody, 1987.

Sigerist, Henry. “The Physician and His Environment” and “The Special Position of the Sick,” in Henry Sigerist on the Sociology of Medicine, 1960. Edited by Milton Roemer.

Thomas, Lewis. The Youngest Science: Notes of a Medicine-Watcher, 1983.

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