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Last Updated on May 20, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 866

Billy, later William, is the protagonist, although in an interesting twist of the plot he turns out not to be the major figure in Mercury's schemes; he is, in fact, secondary. Normally well behaved, Billy opens the novel with an act of defiance when an aspect of his spiritual life...

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  • Themes
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Billy, later William, is the protagonist, although in an interesting twist of the plot he turns out not to be the major figure in Mercury's schemes; he is, in fact, secondary. Normally well behaved, Billy opens the novel with an act of defiance when an aspect of his spiritual life is threatened—when Sister Symphorosa tries to ruin Christmas for her class by telling them that Santa Claus is a myth and that believing in him is a sin. Billy needs his spiritual life; his everyday life is unpleasant, lonely, and even frightful. When Mercury offers him the power of the caduceus, he accepts it in the hope of avenging those who abuse him.

From first to last, he does not seem to fully understand one of the most important aspects of his power: That he cannot control it. He first creates a curse to hurt one person, only to have it fall on his brother Ned, whom he would not choose to hurt; Ned falls into a coma. Later, when angry at Henry, he places a curse on some leaves, declaring that the person who touched them would lose all his hair; he changes his mind and tries to burn the leaves, but a curse once made cannot be undone, and then his grandmother falls victim to the curse instead of Henry. When he helps Sondra with her alcoholism, he drives her to suicide; typical of the novel's handling of ideas, alcoholism is not an absolute evil because in Sondra's case the affliction was actually helping her to survive an otherwise unbearable existence. Throughout the novel, William thinks himself smarter than he is, and he never fully foresees the consequences of his actions. In this, he represents the entire ethos of the novel and perhaps its principal idea: Every action has consciences, and when people choose to do evil, the consequences can extend far beyond their intentions—the evil they do rules them, not the other way around.

Mercury makes infrequent appearances, but his influence is felt throughout the narrative; eventually Disch reveals that the events of the novel were planned out by Mercury in advance. Even so, a point crucial to the success of the novel and the logical culmination of its themes is that not even Mercury fully understands the consequences of his own evil; his triumph of murderous insanity, Judge, chooses a direction away from Mercury. Although Mercury can manifest himself in many forms, his accounting of himself as one of the Ancient Greek gods seems literal within the context of the novel. The caduceus is Mercury's symbol; for the Ancient Greeks, it represented knowledge; in the modern world, it symbolizes the medical profession. Mercury was, as Disch points out, the god of thieves and criminals, who would pray to him for success in their crimes. He was also a mischievous god, playing pranks on both gods and humans. He is thus a good representative of the confused mixing of good and evil that is fundamental to Disch's view of human experience: He represents knowledge as well as criminality, and his pranks can be either good or evil. His motivations in the novel are not as clear as they might be, but then again he is a spiritual mystery whose actions may shape numerous events unseen; the novel's conclusion suggests that he is trying to create a perfect human instrument for his power, so that he may rule humanity as the dominant god.

The novel is well populated with lesser characters who disappear and reappear as needed. Lyman, an object of racism and of Billy's revenge, as well as a thieving bully, becomes a goodhearted minister; his encounter with Billy seems to have had a contrary effect: Instead of pursuing a life of greed and cruelty, the events have influenced him to take a profound stock of his spiritual life, and as a grownup, he tries to do good. He also presents an idea common to Disch's fiction: Goodness is no protection against evil. Lyman's evil deeds resulted in his having evil inflicted upon him; his later efforts to do good still result in terrible evil being visited upon him. Disch takes this idea a bit further than before by suggesting through Lyman and other secondary characters that the key issue is spiritual; whatever evil is done upon him, Lyman's spirit is probably saved by his contrition and goodness.

Disch creates a hierarchy of characterization in the novel. Mercury is echoed in William: Each seeks through hidden means to dominate their chosen realms. Both Mercury and William are echoed in Judge, the monster who mixes religious fervor and murderous evil in almost pure forms, much as mercury and William mix religion and evil. Even among briefly appearing characters, there are echoes: For instance, Sgt. Janet Beale is like William; both belong to do-gooder professions, and both defile their professions by their greed and their amoral disregard for the well being of others. Lyman, Henry, Ben, and Judith also each echo the others: They are caught up in events that they only are dimly aware of, and each tries to become good, and each suffers greatly for misunderstanding the consequences of their actions.

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