Welcome to “Peas in a (Reading) Pod”, an attempt to partially reproduce and also synthesise Reading Pod discussions. At Reading Pod, students meet once a week to discuss and respond to a particular text. For AY 2019/2020 Semester 2, we are reading The Complete Short Stories of Franz Kafka. Kafka, a German-speaking Bohemian writer, was known for exploring bureaucracy, alienation, and absurdity in his works.
‘Kafkaesque’. Often, we use the word to refer simply to the bizarre and surreal. But like the writer and writings it is derived from, so much lies beneath its easily misunderstood surface. While Franz Kafka’s works were surreal and bizarre, they were driven by an acute understanding of the forces of bureaucracy and society familiar to everyone. At the forefront of his sometimes incomprehensible writing are feelings of existential anxiety, absurdity, and alienation that are, in fact, unsettlingly comprehensible.
“A Country Doctor” (“Ein Landarzt”) is Kafkaesque for its firmly nonsensical quality. It begins with the titular country doctor who is due to make an emergency visit to a dying patient ten miles away and is utterly bereft of the means to do so. His horse died the previous night, and despite the efforts of his servant girl, Rose, nobody is willing to lend him one. Upon kicking open an uninhabited pigsty in “confused distress”, they discover a groom “crouching on his hams in that low space”, along with two horses. Despite their initial elation, the groom’s aggressive advances on Rose soon make clear the expected price for the journey–one not up for negotiation. Before the doctor can argue, the horses magically whisk him away to his patient’s home.
The Doctor is unable to get his mind off the servant girl he has left with her potential rapist and first finds his patient “quite sound”. Under pressure from the boy’s family, he examines the boy once more to discover a “great wound”. The family is pleased. The boy begs the Doctor to save his life. The Doctor reflects, “That is what people are like in my district. Always expecting the impossible from the doctor.” The family and village elders come to strip the Doctor’s clothes off and put him into bed beside the patient. Meanwhile, the school choir, headed by a teacher, sings: “Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us, / If he doesn’t, kill him dead! / Only a doctor, only a doctor.”
Now unwilling bedmates, the sick boy confronts the Doctor. “I have very little confidence in you. Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet. Instead of helping me, you’re cramping me on my deathbed. What I’d like best is to scratch your eyes out.” He soon turns his deprecation onto himself: “A fine wound is all I brought into the world; that was my sole endowment.” The Doctor attempts to comfort him, despite knowing him to be a hopeless case. His thoughts now on escape, the Doctor leaps onto the horses. As if revolting against the urgency of Rose’s rescue, the horses only plod along slowly. The Doctor is borne away into the cold. He is as helpless in his return as he was in his departure. He mourns the loss of his servant girl and what he thinks of as betrayal from the world.
The above was first read and summarised aloud in the Reading Pod, according to the belief that Kafka would read aloud his stories to his friends at gatherings. While opinions were diverse among the Reading Pod members, everyone was in agreement on two points: (1) general feelings of confusion; and (2) the Kafkaesque absurdity manifested in “A Country Doctor” as the socially-bound rules that people almost arbitrarily confine themselves to.
It is under the weight of others’ expectations that the Doctor loses his humanity. He is enslaved to his trade, the night bell as clear a symbol of this as a collar bell. Where the meaning of night is to answer the mortal body’s natural desire for rest, the Doctor is bound to answer the night bell as part of his duties. It professionalises him and erases his human vulnerability, and thus his humanity.
Rather than a fellow human, the Doctor becomes more of a tool, a medical instrument. The villagers force him into bed with his patient and strip his clothes, a metaphor for how they strip his humanity away. When they lay him on the patient’s bed “on the side of the wound”, they transform him into something akin to a poultice, a kind of medicine spread over wounds to cure them, an object. It is him at his most dehumanised. He is less a medical practitioner and more a passive object, valued only for its use.
The scene also reveals that despite the Doctor’s desire to be Rose’s saviour, he might not be that different from her. The pseudo-sexual ‘bedding’ of the Doctor echoes the rape of Rose. The Doctor is unwilling to “pa[y] for [the groom’s services] by handing the girl over to [him]”. He understands that Rose provides a sexual service (though not by consent) to the groom in exchange for the Doctor’s ability to fulfil his duties. Similarly, the Doctor is stripped and put into bed with the patient as part of his duty to cure the patient. An act meant to be intimate and private is perverted into a transactional exchange. They both give themselves away in the name of ‘duty’: Rose as a servant and the Doctor as, well, a country doctor. A pointless sacrifice enables another pointless sacrifice.
The Doctor’s attitude towards such pointlessness seems almost fatalistic. His fatalism isn’t rooted in the religious, but in the societal. In particular, it is about the roles and expectations society imposes upon people.
He is almost a willing slave to his fate and role. As the boy notes of the Doctor: “Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet.” Indeed, the horses dictate where he goes and when, like the societal expectations that dictate his behaviour. His acts as a doctor are characterised not so much by efficacy as they are by performativity. He performs what is expected of a doctor when he pretends to look over the sick boy, when he pretends that there is hope. Certainly, the family would like it if he could heal the boy, but what they seek in his motions is not confirmation, but comfort. That does not make them villains, merely desperate.
Yet the family members are also incredibly powerful as social agents enforcing the Doctor’s adherence to his role. At first, the Doctor asserts there is nothing wrong with the boy. Pressure from the family then drives him to a complete one-eighty. He becomes “somehow ready to admit conditionally that the boy might be ill after all”.
Rose-red, in many variations of shade, dark in the hollows, lighter at the edges, softly granulated, with irregular clots of blood, open as a surface mine to the daylight. That was how it looked from a distance. But on a closer inspection there was another complication. I could not help a low whistle of surprise. Worms, as thick and as long as my little finger, themselves rose-red and blood-spotted as well, were wriggling from their fastness in the interior of the wound toward the light, with small white heads and many little legs.
The family almost seems to drag the Doctor into a social reality of their own making where the boy is indeed ill. How is it possible that a wound, so viscerally, vividly described, could have escaped any doctor’s notice? Is a collective belief in the wound’s existence enough to make it manifestly real?
Like the Doctor, the boy is trapped in his role as patient. He is expected to be a patient, and, well, not much else. He is his wound. Any individuality he has outside of it is completely subsumed to him being a patient. It is similar to the Doctor’s humanity being subsumed to his role as a doctor. In believing that “[a] fine wound is all [he] brought into the world; that was [his] sole endowment”, he equates himself with his wound, with only his wound. The Doctor attempts to liberate him from that, telling the boy his wound is “not so bad”, given a “wide enough view”. Ironically, though, that only encroaches upon what little individuality the boy does have. The boy, in turn, has his thoughts return to his sickness, as he accuses the Doctor of “deluding [him] in [his] fever”.
Such is the power behind expectations, enough to completely shape people’s perceptions of themselves. But they also rob people of the autonomy to change their fate. Their inherent destructivity is represented in the horses. It would be generous to say the Doctor mounts and dismounts the horses of his own free will; he has little say over the speed at which they travel, or the places they bear him to. With those aspects the horses call to mind the kelpie, the water horse.
The kelpie usually appears in folklore as a mysterious black horse half-submerged in a body of water. Anyone foolish enough to mount or even touch it will soon find themselves stuck to the creature. The kelpie will then drag them to the depths of the pool to drown and devour them. In the case of the Doctor, the horses lure him into mounting them with the promise to help him fulfill his social obligations. Only, he then finds himself unable to dismount them of his own accord once the groom sends them off. People’s expectations, like kelpies, soon drag him to his doom.
But what imbues people’s expectations with so much force? To return to an earlier point: desperation. People expect impossible things from the Doctor because in the face of the apathy of the natural world, we expect anything of anyone. And desperate people are never wrong.
In the Middle Ages, the French and English believed their rulers to be divine beings who could cure their subjects with their ‘royal touch’. But then came the Age of Enlightenment. Now we believe in science as the cure. We have supposedly abandoned our ‘irrational’ beliefs for a more ‘rational’ one. But are they not both beliefs nonetheless? Are they all that different?
That is what people are like in my district. Always expecting the impossible from the doctor. They have lost their ancient beliefs; the parson sits at home and unravels his vestments, one after another; but the doctor is supposed to be omnipotent with his merciful surgeon’s hand.
In “the parson [who] sits at home and unravels his vestments” the Doctor finds proof of the people “hav[ing] lost their ancient beliefs”. Yet, it also echoes the villagers’ later stripping of the Doctor. It casts a shadow on the Doctor’s opinion that the people believe in a doctor’s omnipotence “with his merciful surgeon’s hand”. Never mind the parson, perhaps the people do not have ancient belief in their Doctor either.
While the Doctor makes his internal monologue on the people’s turn from faith to science, the external reality (to use the word ‘reality’ very loosely in such a story) presents a people ready to thrust all of their faith into one thing or another. In actuality, people make little differentiation between science and religion. “Well, as it pleases them; I have not thrust my services on them; if they misuse me for sacred ends, I let that happen to me too.” The only constant is whatever they choose to put their faith in, they put too much of their faith into it.
Never shall I reach home at this rate; my flourishing practice is done for; my successor is robbing me, but in vain, for he cannot take my place; in my house the disgusting groom is raging; Rose is his victim; I do not want to think about it anymore.
Might the Doctor’s “successor” refer to the groom? On one level, the groom might be the Doctor’s successor for having ‘inherited’ (read: taken) the Doctor’s property, his house and his servant girl. On another level, the groom might represent what comes after. He is that which will replace science and religion. The specifics of him being an uncouth lecher who “cannot take [the Doctor’s] place” hardly matters. His failure, his “robbing [of the Doctor] … in vain” is not a failure peculiar to the groom, but a general failure of the entire succession. People will invariably have blind faith in something that will invariably disappoint them.
The essential character of people’s faiths remains the same, be it faith in medicine or in ritual. At the heart of faith is desperation. Though gods may be apart from humans in their omnipotence and power, to people praying in their desperation, no god is apart from other gods. One god is as good as any other. Accordingly, the doctor is irreplaceable; the man, utterly replaceable.
Societal roles and expectations blind the characters to the possibility of free will, whether or not it exists. At the end of the story comes a denouement that “[a] false alarm on the night bell once answered … cannot be made good, not ever”. It would have been better to not have done anything at all from the start, but it is impossible to not do anything. Narratively, we see this in a country doctor who cannot refuse to save his patient. But if we step back, we also see the country doctor in all of us, equally unable to refuse the roles society has thrust upon us.
Admittedly, that might seem a depressing conclusion. Yet, in Kafka’s style, it becomes more than pure nihilism. Through the veins of the oppressive and frustrating narration pulses a magnetic, vibratory language. “A Country Doctor” is a fever dream of hyper-focused details, from the vivid portrait of the worm-infested, rotting wound, to the minutiae clustering every corner of the family’s home. The story is suffused with suffering, but also with a quiet beauty we patch together out of our willing suffering.
Header and feature image from Kouji Yamamura’s animated adaptation of the short story, カフカ 田舎医者 Kafuka: Inaka Isha (Kafka: A Country Doctor).
About the author
Tan Yanrong is a first-year literature major who has all the right opinions on all the wrong things.