Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

Point of view is critical in this story about force. The external facts of the story are fairly simple: The doctor does what is necessary to diagnose a potentially fatal disease. The fact that the story is told from the doctor’s point of view, however, makes it possible to see the changes that take place in his mind as he progresses from cool professional to animalistic assailant. He could have justified on the basis of logic alone his persistence in forcing the examination. What he cannot justify even to himself is his motivation for doing so. Still, the doctor is calm and controlled in telling the story. He exposes for analysis his mental state just as he exposes for examination the little girl’s throat.

There are clear sexual undertones to the act of violence that the doctor directs against the child. That element could have been avoided completely had the patient been a little boy. As it is, the doctor acknowledges early the physical attractiveness of the child and the fact that he loves her for her spirit. The doctor’s aggression toward Mathilda takes on characteristics of a rape as his anger builds up at her resistance and finally results in violence. The examination becomes an assault on her mouth cavity with the phallic tongue depressor, which she renders useless, and then with the spoon.

As her fear of the doctor increases, Mathilda’s breathing becomes more rapid. The doctor’s face burns with the pleasure he feels in attacking her. Mathilda resists as she would resist an actual sexual assault, and she bleeds as a result of his probes into her mouth. The story and the assault reach their climax when the doctor achieves a sense of physical release by forcing Mathilda’s mouth open and revealing the hidden membrane. Ironically, her parents let the assault take place and actually aid in it because they fear their child’s death more than they fear any other form of assault on her. Mathilda herself, however, is left with a sense of violation and defeat.


(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

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