The Use of Force Characters

The characters in "The Use of Force" are the doctor, Mathilda Olson, and Mr. and Mrs. Olson.

  • The doctor is the unnamed narrator of the story. Though he initially wants to help Mathilda, his reason and professionalism are quickly overshadowed by his urge to dominate his reluctant patient.
  • Mathilda Olson is a beautiful young girl who is sick, possibly from diphtheria. Her refusal to allow the doctor to examine her throat leads to an unpleasant struggle.
  • Mr. and Mrs. Olson are Mathilda's parents. The doctor resents their attempts to help and disdainfully notes the stark contrast between their weak natures and their daughter's admirable ferocity.


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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 643

The Doctor

The unnamed doctor arrives at the Olson house in order to examine Mathilda. He is calm and professional at first, but he gradually loses control over his emotions as he does battle with the inexorable child whose illness he is expected to identify and treat. “The Use of Force” can be read as a character study focused on the impacts of violence on the user: as the doctor is compelled to use increasingly forceful measures during the examination of Mathilda’s throat, his control over his emotions and sense of rationality both steadily dissolve. He comes to view the examination as a battle of wills, one that he is intent upon winning. By the end of the story, he claims that he would gladly tear Mathilda apart, showcasing the emergence of his animalistic side in response to Mathilda’s apparent provocations. The doctor’s devolution from rational healer to bestial combatant suggests that the human impulse toward violence is contained only by the thin veneer of civility; when Mathilda strikes the first blow in their battle of wills, the doctor is unable to resist the lure of his instincts, and he becomes fixated on dominating his opponent—even if she is only a little girl.

The doctor can also be read in a more sympathetic light, however. Williams spent most of his life working as a pediatrician, and much of his writing draws from that experience. Mathilda’s refusal to allow her potentially deadly illness to be treated vexes both the doctor and her parents, highlighting the oftentimes disparate goals of adults and children. The doctor, as both an adult and a medical professional, is expected to possess a greater degree of experience and perspective than an ill child: he knows the consequences of allowing diphtheria to go untreated, so he is willing to subject the irrational child to a bit of discomfort in order to ultimately save her life.

Mathilda Olson

Mathilda Olson is the terrified and unruly child the doctor is called in to examine. The doctor thinks of her as a “savage brat,” but he also seems to understand, on some level, that she is acting like a wild animal because she is so frightened. Her youth and apparent disregard for her own well-being initially provide a contrast with the rational concern of the adults present. However, rather than submitting to the exam and embracing the logic of Western medicine, Mathilda instead forces the doctor to operate at her level and employ force himself. Furthermore, her anguish at the end of the exam, and the violent rendering of the doctor’s actions, position her as a victim. In the end, no one is triumphant in the battle of wills between Mathilda and the doctor; instead, Mathilda is left bleeding and crying, violated against her will, while the doctor is forced to reckon with the “adult shame” he feels as a result of having enjoyed using force against a small child.

Mr. and Mrs. Olson

Mr. and Mrs. Olson are Mathilda’s parents. They are both concerned for their daughter and embarrassed by her behavior toward the doctor. The doctor becomes very frustrated with the parents, as they seem to constantly say and do the wrong things, such as referring to the doctor as a “nice man” or using the word “hurt.” They scold Mathilda throughout the examination, and they even threaten to take her to the hospital if she refuses to cooperate. When the doctor asks the father to hold Mathilda, the father is so afraid of hurting her that he lets her loose just as the doctor is about to get a good look at her throat. The parents’ behavior toward their child provides a contrast with that of the doctor: whereas Mr. and Mrs. Olson represent parental love and compassion, the doctor represents the more primal urge toward domination.

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