The Use of Force Summary

In "The Use of Force," the Olsons ask the narrator to examine their daughter, Mathilda. In order to determine the exact cause of her illness, the doctor must secure a throat culture from Mathilda, but the girl makes this exceedingly difficult. Finally, the doctor must resort to force.

  • The narrator, a doctor, knows that Mathilda must be very ill if her parents are willing to pay him for a house call.

  • Knowing that there has been a diphtheria outbreak at Mathilda's school, the doctor suspects that she has contracted the disease. He needs to take a throat culture to confirm this.

  • Mathilda refuses to open her mouth for a throat swab. When the doctor's cajoling and stern rebukes fail, he resorts to using force. Mathilda does indeed have diphtheria.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

The doctor who narrates “The Use of Force” knows that the Olsons, a working-class couple, must fear that their young daughter is quite ill if they are willing to pay the three-dollar fee for his visit. Mathilda Olson is an unusually attractive child who clearly has a high fever, and the doctor sets out in his best professional manner to discover the cause. The unspoken possibility on his mind and on her parents’ is that she might have diphtheria, several cases having been reported at the school the child attends.

The story is based on the simple premise that the doctor must examine Mathilda’s throat and get a throat culture for her own protection and for the protection of others around her. It promises to be an easy enough task. A simple throat examination, however, becomes instead a battle between doctor and child, and William Carlos Williams traces the first-person narrator’s shifting attitude toward the child and the task as the doctor moves well beyond reasoned professionalism to delight in the use of force.

The doctor first tries kindness: “Awe, come on, I coaxed, just open your mouth wide and let me take a look.” In a single catlike movement, the child claws at his eyes and sends his glasses flying. Next, he tries firmness: “Look here, I said to the child, we’re going to look at your throat. You’re old enough to understand what I’m saying. Will you open it by yourself or shall we have to open it for you?” The child refuses, and the battle is on. The doctor has fallen in love with the spirited child by this point and sees her as magnificent in her terror of him. With the father’s help, he manages to get a tongue depressor into Mathilda’s mouth, but she splinters it with her teeth. The doctor sees that it would be best to stop and come back later, but he is beyond reason, and in his fury he asks for a makeshift tongue depressor that she cannot destroy: a spoon. In spite of Mathilda’s bleeding mouth and hysterical shrieks, he persists and finally manages to reveal the secret that she has been hiding for three days: Her tonsils are covered with the membrane that indicates diphtheria.


(Critical Survey of Literature for Students)

A doctor makes a house call to the Olson family because the daughter is very ill. When the doctor arrives, he sees the little girl sitting in her father’s lap in the kitchen; the parents, who are new patients to the doctor, are distrustful and do not tell him more than they have to. The doctor knows that since they are paying him to tell them what is wrong with the child, the parents feel no responsibility to assist him.

The child is particularly attractive, with magnificent blond hair. The doctor says she looks like one of those pictures of children often reproduced in advertising leaflets or in the photogravure section of the Sunday newspaper. The doctor can tell immediately from her flushed face that she has a high fever, which her parents say she has had for three days. The doctor, suspecting diphtheria, which has broken out in the school where the child attends, asks if the little girl has had a sore throat. The parents say she does not seem to have a sore throat, but that she has refused to let them look to see if she has. The doctor tries to examine the little girl, but she will not open her mouth. Strong and silent, she only stares at him coldly.

When the parents try to reassure the child that the doctor is a nice man who will not hurt her, he grinds his teeth in disgust at their use of the word “hurt,” which he knows only further frightens her. When he moves his chair closer, the child claws at his eyes and knocks his glasses to the floor. Embarrassed, the parents once again call him a nice man. The doctor, angry, tells them not to call him that—that he is not a nice man, that he is here to see if she has diphtheria, which might kill her. The...

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