Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 869
Although William Carlos Williams spent much of his life as a pediatrician, and perhaps had actually experienced more than one difficult encounter with a sick child, “The Use of Force” is not simply a story about one doctor’s admirable efforts to save a child from her own stubborn self, nor is it a story about one doctor’s attacking a child with sadistic cruelty. If the event were described in a novel about the experiences of a small-town doctor, it might be merely an example of one such encounter among many others. However, the story suggests a more universal and general meaning because it is a short story, leading the reader to presume it will have some central significance; because the encounter is told in such violent, seemingly symbolic terms; and because it includes the doctor’s philosophic conclusion about what drives him to force the child’s mouth open.
The use of force is a legal concept, a principle that allows authorities to exercise physical force against another person if such force is deemed justifiable to protect the individual or to protect society from the individual. The principle is not without controversy. For example, sometimes police are accused of an unjustified use of force to subdue a suspected criminal or to quell protesters. Whereas law enforcement argues that such use of force is necessary to protect others or itself, critics often argue that law enforcement is sadistic and cruel, that it uses force to attack an individual or a group of which they disapprove.
The doctor in this story, a professional healer who epitomizes rational control and embodies a basic human desire to help others, knows the meaning of his actions when he says he has gone beyond reason in his struggle with the child. Although he has society on his side—as he says, the child must be protected from herself, and others must be protected from her spreading the disease—he knows that what drives him at the moment he tries to get the tongue depressor in her mouth is unthinking fury, what he calls a longing for muscular release. These thoughts lead to his shame.
The story does not suggest that this particular doctor is evil or sadistic, or that humankind is basically cruel. Rather, the story suggests that there is a dark human need in all of us to use force. The doctor becomes so caught up in his use of force, which ironically his profession as a helper permits in this story, that he persists even when reason tells him he should desist. Just as the little girl has a secret hidden deep within her, which the doctor’s use of force exposes, so also does the doctor, as a representative of civilized humanity, have his own hidden secret—the irresistible drive toward physical violence that only social mores hold in abeyance. The story suggests that when society gives permission to exercise this physical force against another, it is hard to resist.
The doctor’s secret in this story is similar to that embodied in Robert Louis Stevenson’s famous tale Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886). The dark impulse laid bare by Williams is the same force embodied when the civilized Dr. Jekyll drinks the potion and becomes the vicious Mr. Hyde. A much more complex exploration of this secret can be seen in Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899, serial; 1902, book). It is what Kurtz discovers in the jungle when he cries out, “the horror, the horror.”
Two linguistic aspects of this seemingly straightforward story further suggest it is more than merely a realistic anecdote of a doctor’s visit to examine a sick child. First, there is Williams’s technique of conveying the dialogue without quotation marks. This lack tends to blur what otherwise would have been merely a realistic scene, creating instead the effect of a dreamlike, universally symbolic action. This sense of the event being more important for what it represents than for what it is on a surface level is further emphasized by the repetition of language that suggests extreme physical violence, which makes the encounter seem more like a battle than an examination. The doctor says he becomes so exasperated with the father he could kill him; the girl screams, “You’re killing me”; the doctor says he could have torn the child apart in his fury and that it was a pleasure to attack her. To one critic, this language of violence is a symbolic enactment of a rape, suggesting a close link between sex and violence in civilized society.
Finally, the doctor’s philosophical generalizations about the motivation for his violence suggests that the story has some universal significance about human nature. Although the story recounts the doctor’s winning the battle with the little girl, the story is really about his losing the battle that all civilized human beings wage to subdue their violent physical natures.
Williams’s story has become a classic in American literature. Its universal meaning about dark secrets hidden in all human begins is explored also in such great works as Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Heart of Darkness, and Fyodor Dostoevski’s Prestupleniye i nakazaniye (1866; Crime and Punishment, 1886).