The Use of Force Summary
by William Carlos Williams

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The Use of Force Summary

"The Use of Force" is a short story by William Carlos Williams in which a doctor is called to examine Mathilda Olson, who resists his efforts to obtain a throat culture.

  • A doctor is called to the Olson house to examine their young daughter, Mathilda.
  • There has been a diphtheria outbreak at Mathilda's school, and the doctor suspects that Mathilda has contracted the disease.

  • 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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American writer and poet William Carlos Williams’s “The Use of Force” was first published in his 1938 short story collection Life Along the Passaic River. It was later anthologized alongside his other medical fiction in the 1984 collection The Doctor Stories. Williams was a modernist writer who prioritized clear, concise imagery and economy of language. He was strongly influenced by the imagist movement, a literary philosophy that developed in the early twentieth century. Imagists rejected the sentimental, existential approach of the Romantics and instead preferred more straightforward, tangible images and themes. Williams drew inspiration from everyday events and believed that grounding fiction in the realities of life had greater resonance than fantastical inventions. His literary efforts also frequently drew from his experiences as a family physician and pediatrician, leading some to speculate that “The Use of Force” may have autobiographical elements.

Plot Summary

The story begins as the narrator, a doctor, arrives at the Olson residence for a house call. The Olsons’ daughter, Mathilda, has a high fever, and her parents want the doctor to examine her. Diphtheria, an infection of the nose and throat, has been making the rounds at Mathilda’s school, and more than one child has died from it. The doctor begins by asking if Mathilda has a sore throat, which the child denies. Her parents have been unable to get a look at her throat and have called the doctor in to assist them.

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 bites down so hard on the tongue depressor that it splinters in her mouth and cuts her tongue. The doctor grows irritated with the parents’ attempts to persuade, cajole, and even threaten their daughter into better behavior. He acknowledges that it would probably be best for him to leave and return at a later time when Mathilda has had a chance to calm down. However, fueled by a mixture of frustration and fear for the child’s health—as well as a private enjoyment of the struggle—he decides to continue the exam.

As a final measure, he uses a heavy silver spoon to force Mathilda’s jaws open. Finally successful, he triumphantly notes that her tonsils are, indeed, covered with membrane, a clear sign of diphtheria. The doctor reasons that he resorted to using force in order to protect the child and others against the disease. However, he also admits that he “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.” With her “secret” exposed, Mathilda launches herself at the doctor in a blind fury, enraged at having been defeated in their battle of wills.


(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...

(The entire section is 1,539 words.)