William Carlos Williams William Carlos Williams Short Fiction Analysis

Start Your Free Trial

Download William Carlos Williams Study Guide

Subscribe Now

William Carlos Williams Short Fiction Analysis

(Literary Essentials: Short Fiction Masterpieces)

William Carlos Williams was one of the major figures of literary modernism whose peers included Ezra Pound and Wallace Stevens. Highly influenced by the visual arts and the imagist movement, Williams’s work was marked by a rejection of metaphysics, characterized by his famous dictum: “No ideas/ But in things.” Williams’s objective approach to literature is reflected in the coarse realism of his short stories. His prose shares the basic principles of his poetic theory: use of an American idiom, adherence to a locale, communication through specifics, and belief in organic form. The pastiche effects of Williams’s poetry and prose had a profound influence on the next generation of American literary modernists, particularly the so-called Objectivist School, which included Louis Zukofsky, George Oppen, Carl Rakosi, and Charles Reznikoff.

M. L. Rosenthal claims that William Carlos Williams’s short stories “are often vital evocations of ordinary American reality—its toughness, squalor, pathos, intensities.” As such, this short fiction tends to exhibit distinctive characteristics. First, its style is the American idiom, with heavy reliance on dialogue and speech rhythm. Second, Williams inevitably writes of his own locale and stresses the Depression’s dramatic effect on ordinary working people. Third, as he shows in his poem “A Sort of a Song,” there should be “No ideas/ But in things”; in other words, details should suggest underlying ideas, not vice versa. Fourth, Williams himself is often present, but as a doctor, never as a poet; thus biography and autobiography constitute important plot elements. Last, the author allows plot to develop organically, which affects length (the tales range from one to thirty pages) and structure (the stories may appear diffuse or highly compressed).

Williams published two main short-story anthologies: The Knife of the Times, and Other Stories and Life Along the Passaic River. In 1950, he collected these and other stories into a single volume called Make Light of It; then, in 1961, this was superseded by his complete collected stories entitled The Farmers’ Daughters. Although these stories may indicate progressive technical sophistication or experimentation, they all treat “the plight of the poor” (as Williams says on several occasions) or the physician’s frequently ambiguous role of healing the sick within an infected society.

“Old Doc Rivers”

On the choice of title for his first short-story anthology, Williams observes “The times—that was the knife that was killing them” (the poor). A typical story is “Old Doc Rivers,” which provides a full background on one rural general practitioner. It also contains a strong autobiographical element because the narrator is a younger doctor (apparently Williams). An enormously complex picture emerges of Doc Rivers: efficient, conscientious, humane, yet simultaneously crude, cruel, and addicted to drugs and alcohol. The story builds this portrait by piling up specifics about the physician’s personal and professional lives and interweaving case studies among the young doctor-narrator’s comments. The narrator is astonished by River’s psychological sharpness, intuition for the correct diagnosis, and ability to inspire blind faith in his patients. As with many Williams tales, the reader’s moral response is ambiguous, for when sober, Rivers is not a good doctor, yet when drunk or doped, he is at least as good as anyone else. The plot follows a roughly chronological structure which charts Rivers’s gradual mental and physical decline. This story’s particular strengths are its narrator voice, concrete details, re-creation of dialogue, and exploration of the doctor-patient relationship.

“Jean Beicke”

Williams further considers the physician-patient relationship in “Jean Beicke” and “A Face of Stone,” representative of his second short-fiction collection. Told by a pediatrician-narrator (but this time an established,...

(The entire section is 1,699 words.)