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Trauma and "The Use of Force"

From: William Carlos Williams Review
Volume 29, Number 2, Fall 2009
pp. 161-175 | 10.1353/wcw.2009.0028

In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

Williams's two hats as an American modernist writer and an on-call physician in Rutherford, New Jersey combine strikingly in one of the most anthologized stories from his 1938 collection, Life Along the Passaic River. With clinical attention to psychological detail and Hemmingway-like terseness, "The Use of Force" follows the house call of a rural doctor. A young girl, Mathilda Olson, is suspected to have diphtheria, a contagious throat infection that may have already claimed the lives of "at least two children" neglected before the doctor had seen them (FD 134). In order to confirm his suspicions, which are shared by the girl's parents, the doctor needs to examine her throat, but his patient intractably refuses to allow him to peer into her mouth. After failing to entice the young girl to open her mouth for him, the doctor recruits the girl's parents in an aggressive bid to pry her mouth open. During the struggle the girl destroys the doctor's wooden tongue depressor, cutting her tongue in the process. The story ends with the doctor's use of force seemingly vindicated by his positive diagnosis. However, the child's visible torment during the examination, as well as the doctor's analysis of his motivations for proceeding despite her obvious distress, seem to undercut any obvious utilitarian justification for his actions.

Over the years, criticism has gradually bifurcated Williams the modernist and Williams the physician by reading the story mainly in terms of one or the other of his two vocations. The representation of the narrator's implied sexual desire for his patient and the perilous confluence of sex and violence in his forced ingress into his patient's mouth occupied the attention of most interpretations until about 1990. R. F. Dietrich's 1966 essay "Connotations of Rape in 'The Use of Force'" offered perhaps the first interpretation of the violent eroticism that Williams weaves into the doctor's examination of the young girl. Subsequent readings have enriched Dietrich's central argument that the story offers a window into a thinly sublimated desire, like Marjorie Perloff's suggestion that similar illicit sexual appear in several of the other male narrators in Life Along the Passaic River.1 These readings set Williams's story within a tradition of early-twentieth-century creative texts that draw—however tacitly—on the emerging discourse of psychoanalysis. As such, they reveal a story keenly interested in how inner life takes on linguistic form in written texts, and how written texts, much like the writings of a Venetian-born scientist, can enrich our notions about inner life. More recently, scholars have shifted attention to the story's treatment of Williams's workaday vocation. These later readers explore some of the more pragmatic, but equally important questions, raised by the text around a specific set professional and ethical dilemmas. In general, these scholars—in some cases writing from within the medical field—consider how the doctor retrospectively narrates his examination of his patient in order to evaluate the appropriateness of his actions, namely to decide whether or not, or to what degree, he violates his Hippocratic Oath. In this light, the emphasis falls on Williams's presentation of the doctor's social self; his values, behaviour, and understanding of these things are seen as extensions of his professional culture and his participation within it.

I want to consider how these two perspectives—roughly, the historical psychoanalytic and the contemporary medical—are compatible with one another despite remaining almost wholly disparate in scholarship on the story. Although these readings posit different sets of questions about Williams's text, the treatment of bodily and psychical wounding in the story as well as the doctor's attempt to work through his memory of the experience overlap in the notion of trauma. Drawing on scholarship already linking "The Use of Force" with Freud's foundational text on trauma, Beyond the Pleasure Principle (1920), and offering new evidence to further bring these two texts into comparison, I propose that the common tongue-depressor exam supplies an analogy for trauma in the writings of each modernist doctor and writer. From Freud, Williams obtains an analogy for exploring the power...



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