The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams: Summary and Analysis

The story The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams shows a conflict between the doctor and a determined child patient who has been suffering from fever for three days. The narrator of this story is a doctor who is called to check a new patient Mathilda by her mother Mrs. Olson.


William C. Williams (1883-1963)

Mrs. Olson, the patient's mother, takes him into the kitchen where the fully-dressed child is sitting on her father's lap Mr. Olson. The doctor looks things over and finds that all of them are very nervous and looking at him doubtfully. They expect him to tell everything because they are spending three dollars on him.

The child stares at the doctor. She looks as strong as a heifer. Her face is red. She is breathing rapidly and has a high fever. Her hair is blonde. She is very attractive. She has had a fever for three days. Her parents gave her some medicine. It did not do any good, so they have called him. Then the doctor asks them if she has a sore throat. They reply that their child says her throat does not hurt her. The mother tried to look, but could not see.

They have had a number of cases diphtheria in the child's school. So the doctor wants to take a look at her throat first. He smiles and asks the child to open her mouth, but the child; Mathilda, does not respond. He shows her his empty hands and says that he just wants to take a look. When the mother tells her that the doctor will not hurt her, he begins to hate her. He does not like the word 'hurt'. But slowly he goes near the child. The child suddenly attacks his eyes with her nails. His glasses fly and fall on the floor, but they are unbroken. Both the parents feel sorry and abuse the child. When the mother calls him "a nice man", he does not like it. He just wants to look at her throat because she may have diphtheria and die of it. The child is old enough to understand what the doctor says. So the doctor warns that if she does not open by herself, he will have to open it forcefully for her. She does not move at all. Her breaths are faster. He has to have a throat culture for her own protection. If the parents take the risk he will not examine her throat. The mother scolds her severely and threaten that she will have to go to the hospital.

The doctor has fallen in love with the child, but he hates the parents. At the following events they are more hopeless, defeated, weak, but she rises to greater heights of anger. The father can't hold her. He releases her when the doctor is about to look into the throat because he thinks that the doctor may hurt his daughter. But he asks the doctor to examine the throat fearing that she might die of diphtheria. The mother also is restless thinking that her daughter might not stand the force.

Then the doctor orders him to put her on his lap and hold both her wrists. The child begins to cry uncontrollably. She says that they are killing her. The mother does not like the use of force. The doctor then grasps the child's head and tries to get the wooden tongue depressor into her mouth. She closes her teeth tightly. The doctor becomes angry and can't control himself. He gets the depressor into the mouth, but she breaks it with her molars. Next, he asks for a spoon. The child's mouth is already bleeding. If he stopped now and came back in an hour or more, it would be better, but such a neglect might cause her death. Also, he himself is more uncontrollable. He wants to tear the child and enjoy it. He enjoys attacking her. His face looks happy. Moreover, the child must be protected, although she is stupid. It is his social responsibility. Therefore, his anger, his shame and his desire to use force inspire him to attack her unreasonably. He forces the spoon back of her teeth and throat. He finds that she has a sore throat with both tonsils covered with membrane. She has fought bravely to keep it secret and she has been lying to her parents for three days because she does not like to be examined by a doctor. Now she feels that she is defeated and is more furious. Instead of defending herself, now she is willing to attack. But she can’t see clearly because of tears in her eyes.

The story tells that the use of force for benevolent purposes is justifiable. Mathilda has had a fever for three days. The doctor has examined a number of cases of diphtheria in the school to which the child goes and she may die of it. The doctor has to have a throat culture for her own protection. But the child does not allow him to look at her throat. In such a condition, he has no choice. He must examine her immediately. She can’t be persuaded, so the use of force is the only way to look at her throat. The child must be protected against her own stupidity. If the child dies of diphtheria, people will not say anything against the dead person. They will blame the doctor. In such a condition the use of force is right.

It appears rather unkind to use force upon a little child. But the story may be trying to say that it is justifiable to use force for a right cause. Using force to upset or hurt someone is really bad. But if the same force is used for a right purpose, it can be justified. Finally, the doctor’s behavior upset the child for a short time, but its long term effect will certainly be good.