Form and Content

(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.

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.


(The entire section is 755 words.)


(Literary Essentials: Nonfiction Masterpieces)

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.