The Good Thief: A Novel

by Hannah Tinti

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Chapter 28 Summary and Analysis

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Summary

Ren arrives at the hospital, intending to say goodbye to Mrs. Sands before he leaves. He is not sure how much time he has before McGinty sends the hat boys after him, but he feels that he must see her. He rings the bell at the gate. Doctor Milton answers, welcoming Ren as though he were expecting him. He urges Ren to enter, saying, “We’re just about to begin.” Ren follows Doctor Milton to the basement door, noticing the depository for dead bodies that runs beside his feet as he walks down the stairs. They reach a cellar with a dirt floor and a few operating tables. Tom is lying across the table in the center, with Brom and Ichy holding each of his hands.

Ren is relieved to see them as the twins run over to greet him. Their clothes are still caked with dried mud and their arms are covered with bruises and scrapes, but they are “still the same boys from Saint Anthony’s—their bad luck turned to good.” Ren asks how they made it to the hospital, and Ichy explains that Brom stole a donkey cart and threw rocks at the pigs that the cart’s owner sent after them. They tried to search for Ren, but Tom needed to go to the hospital. He screamed and beat them before falling silent, and the twins were afraid that he would die before they reached the hospital. They prayed, and Tom did not die. Ren looks at Tom’s pale face and his beard, which is full of sticks and grass. He pulls a burr from beneath Tom’s chin. Tom wakes up, asking where “Benji” is, and Ren’s hopes begin to sink. The twins tell him that Benjamin is not with them.

Doctor Milton interrupts, saying that Tom will lose his leg if they do not “get to work.” Everyone has a job: Ichy must clean the wound, Brom must hold the bandages, and Ren must help Doctor Milton straighten Tom’s leg. Doctor Milton gives Tom a bottle of whiskey, which he drinks “as if he were nursing.” After Ren, Brom, and Ichy finish helping Doctor Milton with his preparations, they are ready to begin. A leather belt is placed between Tom’s teeth, and Doctor Milton asks if he is ready. Tom nods, and Doctor Milton and Ren straightens Tom’s ankle and pulls. Tom begins shrieking, so loud that Ren’s ears pop, “leaving behind a strange, fuzzy, hollow roar.” After Doctor Milton finishes straightening Tom’s leg, Ichy pours soap and hot water over the wound. Brom follows with the bandages, which he uses to bind Tom’s leg. Doctor Milton begins preparing the splint, and Ichy washes Tom’s forehead. Brom pulls Ren away from them, whispering that Doctor Milton was asking about the bodies that they were supposed to deliver. Brom and Ichy had lied, saying that the bodies were with Ren, because they feared that Doctor Milton would not help “Papa.”

Doctor Milton finishes making the splint and a sling for Tom’s foot, saying that he will be able to walk with a crutch soon. The twins return to Tom, with Brom holding his hand and Ichy pulling out weeds from his beard. Doctor Milton gestures for Ren to accompany him to a door at the other end of the room. He unlocks the door and invites Ren into his office. He immediately begins making a salve for Tom’s leg. While he works, Ren holds a lantern to a dark corner of the room and notices something glistening on another table. It is a large body, covered with a...

(This entire section contains 1626 words.)

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blanket. Ren, horrified, fears that it is Dolly—but, when he pulls back the blanket, he does not recognize the man lying in a pan full of brown liquid. Both of his legs are gone, and there is a large cavity in his abdomen. All of his organs are missing, leaving only “a mass of red and white and bits of purple” left. Ren does not think he looks like a human anymore, with “his face fallen in.” Ren notices that the man’s hair had been blond and there is a bluebird tattoo on his shoulder.

Doctor Milton pours the ground-up powder into a jar full of a thick liquid and pulls out his watch to check the time, explaining that the powder must soak for ten minutes. He joins Ren beside the table, looking at the body. He observes that Ren is probably curious about why he uses whiskey. He dips a finger into the pan and lifts it to Ren’s arm so that the brown liquid runs down his skin. He points out how quickly the alcohol whiskey evaporates, which helps to keep the bodies from “decaying” too quickly. However, bodies are only usable for several days, and Doctor Milton is trying to find a more effective means of preserving them. He uses the thin end of his pipe to poke the dead man between his ribs, telling Ren that the man “probably saved ten lives today.” Doctor Milton observes that he cannot claim that he has done the same and asks Ren if he can. Ren, however, cannot answer—he is becoming nauseated from the smell of the whiskey and the sight of the dead man’s spine poking out from his muscles. Doctor Milton retrieves a bottle of lavender water and pours some of it into a handkerchief, which he gives to Ren. He says that Ren’s reaction “happens to everyone at first,” but that “you grow used to it.” Ren breathes in the lavender aroma and asks how anyone could become accustomed to such a thing. Doctor Milton replies that, just like with “anything unpleasant,” one must “remove your senses from the process, and look beyond the task at hand.” Eventually, one becomes numb, “and you find that you can do anything.”

Ren removes the handkerchief and tries to look at the body again, but he gags and resumes breathing in the lavender. Doctor Milton appears dissatisfied with Ren and changes the subject, reminding him that they were supposed to bring five more bodies to the hospital for his students to study. Ren leans against the wall, trying to steady himself. He tells Doctor Milton that they are all leaving, and that they will not bring more bodies. Doctor Milton expresses his disappointment, but he asks how Ren plans to pay for Tom’s newly-set leg and the rest of Mrs. Sands’s care. Ren offers him McGinty’s gold watch, which Doctor Milton inspects before handing it back and proposing a “better idea.” He writes out an agreement with an ink pen and hands both to Ren, saying that he can sign his name with an X if he cannot write it out. The agreement requires Ren to promise his body to the hospital after he dies, “to be used for the greater purposes of science, to further the understanding and knowledge of anatomy, for the benefit of the human race and for all of mankind.” Ren holds the pen, which is as heavy as Doctor Milton’s surgical knife. He imagines the knife cutting into his body, and “what a job it would be.” He writes out his new name: “the one that seemed so unfamiliar, the one he could never have imagined for himself.”

Analysis

The novel’s ongoing themes of the dehumanization and the commodification of bodies merge during the scene in Doctor Milton’s office. Ren finds a corpse and understandably responds by humanizing it; he panics, fearing that it is Dolly. However, he immediately begins dehumanizing the body when he sees that it is not anyone he knows, and that it has lost its legs and organs. The man no longer appears human; his body is “a mass of red and white and bits of purple,” and his face has “fallen in.” Ren seems unable to think of the man as a person anymore because he cannot accept or cope with the trauma that his body endured. Though Doctor Milton claims that the man “probably saved ten lives today,” the caved-in appearance of the man’s face is certainly meant to elicit distrust in the doctor’s intentions. The scene also recalls the inhumane leg amputation that Ren overheard in chapter 14 and how the patient’s face also looked “caved-in” as he was carried out of the operating room. Therefore, it is possible that the man in Doctor Milton’s office suffered significant pain upon death. It is also possible that Doctor Milton killed him in order to harvest his organs.

Furthermore, when Doctor Milton perceives Ren’s immense discomfort, he encourages him to “remove your senses from the process” and “look beyond the task at hand.” In doing so, Doctor Milton explicitly instructs Ren to overcome his feelings of empathy and horror so he can become numb to the suffering of others. According to Doctor Milton, doing so will empower a person to be able to do “anything,” suggesting that he is capable of even murder if it suits his agenda. When Ren attempts to take a moral stand by refusing to bring Doctor Milton more bodies for his experiments and teachings, Doctor Milton offers Ren the option of commodifying his own body by promising it to the hospital when he dies. Though Ren has likely endangered himself by agreeing to this bizarre arrangement, his decision to sacrifice his body to help his friends represents a significant moment of self-empowerment. Ren not only values himself by commodifying his body, but also he signs with his true name, which is an act of claiming his identity.

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