Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 757
Professional versus Private Life
At the center of Ferguson’s dilemma is whether his professional or private life will take priority. Ferguson has spent his whole life dreaming of being a doctor. He wants this future despite the fact that his father, also a doctor, died at a young age of a heart attack brought on by overwork. The demands of the medical profession are made clear in the play. Hochberg points out that being a doctor is not about making money, but about working hard to save lives.
Laura presents a conflict for Ferguson. She is unsupportive of his professional work because it demands his almost complete concentration. She begs him to make time for their life together. She does not want him to be a man like her father and Hochberg, who have no interests outside of their careers.
Because Ferguson loves Laura so much and cannot imagine his life without her, he convinces himself that he can balance his career and his relationship. As a means of accomplishing this new goal, he prepares to accept the associateship and enter private practice. With this decision, he is attempting to mold a future in which he can be both a doctor and a husband. The play ends, however, with Ferguson realizing how much medicine has yet to accomplish and preparing to give up any semblance of a personal life. He dedicates himself completely to his professional life and to the medical field.
The play raises the ethical questions as it demonstrates the favoritism that exists even in as noble a profession as medicine. Ferguson is offered an associateship solely because of his relationship to Hudson, whom the medical board committee is courting to become a trustee. The members of the board openly admit to trading this position for Hudson’s money, which they so desperately need. While Ferguson is a very promising intern, he is not prepared for the job, nor does he have the training to go into practice. The board further acknowledges that, even without the proper training, Ferguson will do well in private practice, because of the Hudson connection.
In a contrasting situation, however, the board refuses to award an internship to a medical student who is the nephew of a senator. The student has finished 297th out of 300 candidates who took the medical boards. Despite this abysmal performance, several of the doctors support his candidacy because of his family connections and background.
Duty and Responsibility
Ferguson is a man who wants to fulfill his duties and responsibilities to others. He believes that as a man of medicine his greatest duty lies with his patients. Although he loves his fiancée, she must take second place to people he does not even know. Ferguson briefly denies this sense of duty when he opts to accept the associateship and rejects further studies. At the end of the play, Ferguson reaffirms that a doctor’s greatest responsibility is to humanity and to learning more about medical care.
Barbara is the only person toward whom Ferguson feels a strong sense of personal responsibility. When she faces disgrace and the loss of her job and reputation after the abortion, he determines to marry her. He does not love her but feels he has no choice but to do the honorable thing because he holds himself responsible for her predicament.
Law and Abortion
The denouement of the play comes after Barbara dies as the result of an infection brought on by a botched abortion. This incident points to a theme that is essential to the play, even if it is not emphasized: that the law sometimes does not reflect what is best for the people it protects. At the time the play was written, abortion was illegal, yet many women underwent them. The individual members of the medical community in the hospital do not support the criminalization of abortion. Hochberg refers to whomever performed the abortion on Barbara as a butcher and tells a colleague that it is a ‘‘shame’’ that ‘‘some our laws belong to the Dark Ages!’’ A footnote to the 1933 edition of the play further discusses views on abortion. It notes that a doctor and former president of the American Medical Association estimated that there were more illegal abortions performed in New York and Chicago than there were children born in those cities. The footnote advocates that the United States should follow a program of fostering birth control education (birth control was also illegal at the time) as well as run legal abortion clinics.
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