The Second Tree from the Corner

by E. B. White

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 625

Mr. Trexler, a New Yorker, is an unenthusiastic psychiatric patient. Plagued by what he claims are the dullest set of neurotic symptoms in the world, he suffers from dizziness, pains in the back of the neck, apprehension, tightness in the scalp, anger and anxiety over his inability to concentrate or work, pressure, tension, and gas in the stomach.

Trexler’s relationship with his doctor is uneasy from the start. The doctor’s initial question, asking if he has ever had any bizarre thoughts, unnerves Trexler. As one who has had nothing but bizarre thoughts since he was a young boy, Trexler feels cornered. Unable to choose an appropriate bizarre thought to share, Trexler lies that he has never had them.

After what seems to Trexler like an interminable length of time, the session draws to a close. The doctor shakes his hand and, with a smile, assures him there is nothing wrong with him: He is just scared. The doctor knows this because of the way that Trexler kept inching away from him in his chair when he asked him questions. Trexler politely feigns acceptance of this assessment and exits.

Despite his ambivalence, Trexler continues to see the doctor. After several weeks, he notices that their time together takes on a pattern. Trexler begins by recounting his symptoms, which persist unabated, and the doctor listens attentively. The doctor then asks if he has found anything that brings relief. Trexler answers that a drink helps, and the doctor nods his understanding.

Trexler’s thoughts wander during these meetings. He gazes at the medical books on the office shelves and his eyes rest on a title, The Genito-Urinary System. He is suddenly gripped by the certainty that he has kidney stones.

Along with his hypochondriacal musings, Trexler is beset by the tendency to put himself into the shoes of others. He finds himself mentally slipping into the doctor’s chair and engaging in the proceedings from the other man’s point of view. During one of these reversals, the doctor asks Trexler what he wants. Trexler replies that he does not know what he wants; probably nobody knows what they really want. Does the doctor know what he wants? The doctor assures him emphatically that he knows just what he wants: more money, more leisure, and a new wing for his vacation home.

Repelled by this pat response, Trexler resumes his role as patient for the rest of the visit. At the end, the doctor again assures him that nothing is wrong with him; he is only afraid and his fears are insubstantial.

Out on the street, it is dusk and Trexler is struck by the scene before him. The final rays of the sun play on the “brick and brownstone walls . . . giving the street scene a luminous and intoxicating splendor.”

Walking along, Trexler continues to ponder the doctor’s latest question to him. Immersed in the beauty of the early evening, he is suddenly aware that he knows what he wants, in fact, what all men want, only they don’t always know it. Certainly the doctor doesn’t; a new wing, indeed! What he longs for is both inexpressible and unattainable, and anyone who attempts to define it in a doctor’s office will fall flat on his face.

Gazing up at a small tree rising out of the concrete sidewalk, aglow in the last light of day, Trexler declares out of his depths, “I want the second tree from the corner, just as it stands.” Basking in the knowledge that no one can give and no one can take away, Trexler befriends his sickness. Having glimpsed “the flashy tail feathers of the bird courage,” he is strengthened to face his fears and go on.

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