What happens in The Use of Force?

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.

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At the beginning of the story, a doctor arrives on a house call at the home of a sick young girl, Mathilda. Diphtheria has been making the rounds at her school, and more than one child has died from it. However, the child claims she does not have a sore throat, though she does have a high fever. Mathilda is resolute; she will not allow the doctor to examine her. She tries to claw his eyes out, refuses his polite requests, and even chomps down so hard on the tongue depressor that it splinters in her mouth and makes her bleed. The doctor grows irritated with the parents' attempts to persuade, cajole, and even threaten their daughter into better behavior. Finally, he uses a silver spoon to force Mathilda's jaws open, and he sees that her tonsils are, indeed, covered with membrane, a clear sign of diphtheria. This proves that she's been lying to her parents to avoid an examination of this nature. The doctor resorted to using force, in part to protect the child and others against the disease she carries, but he admits that he "too had got beyond reason." He says, "I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her." The child finally launches one last attack on the doctor, furious with him.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,301 words.)