Summary of William Carlos Williams’s The Use of Force

The Use of Force is a short story by the American author William Carlos Williams.

The Use of Force depicts the story of two characters in confrontation. The narrative implies the severity of a situation when social roles and personal impulses intertwine. A physician is summoned to make a house call on a family with whom he has had no prior contact. He quickly sizes up the situation the household is poor but clean; the patient is a female child whose parents are nervously concerned, dependent on, yet distrustful of the doctor. The child’s beauty and penetrating stare make an immediate impression on him.

The doctor is concerned that diphtheria may be the cause of illness. He uses his customary professional manner to determine whether or not the child has a sore throat. But the child would have none of it and claws instinctively for the eyes. The attempt at an examination rapidly escalates into a physical battle as the physician, convinced that it is crucial to see the child’s throat and feeling that he ‘must get a diagnosis now or never’, becomes ever more enraged and forceful while the girl continues to resist with all her strength, and the parents are in a state of fear for her health and embarrassment over her behavior.

At a different level, this is no longer a professional encounter. The doctor admits at the beginning of the struggle to having fallen in love with the savage brat and recognizes his own irrational behavior. The closing sequence can be compared to a rape without the contextual reference to a throat examination.

The story evokes with great immediacy a number of important issues about medical examination: the predicament of having quickly to access a medical/social situation in an unfamiliar, even hostile environment; the doctor’s impressive powers of observation; his concern to do the right thing medically; the anxiety of the sick child’s parents, the power that the doctor wields; the dark side of the human nature which may allow such power to surface in unsavory ways and which the professional, like any rational person has under most circumstances learned to control.

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