“The Use of Force” by William Carlos Williams has been in print for over 80 years. It’s a popular selection for anthologies—it’s an engaging story and is only about 1,500 words.
This article includes a summary, and a look at some themes, symbolism and irony.
Summary of “The Use of Force”
A doctor relates the events of a house call he made on a new patient, the young Olson girl. He’s shown into the kitchen where the girl is on her father’s lap.
The family is nervous and suspicious of him. They don’t volunteer any information; they want to see if he’s worth his fee.
The child is expressionless and attractive. She’s flushed and breathes rapidly. The doctor believes she has a high fever. The father confirms she has had one for three days. Their home remedies haven’t helped.
The doctor asks if she has a sore throat. Both parents say no, but the mother says she wasn’t able to check it.
Realizing the child could have diphtheria, the doctor tries to coax the girl, Mathilda, to open her mouth, but she resists his efforts. When he comes closer, she lashes out, knocking his glasses off. The parents are embarrassed.
The doctor is annoyed by the parents’ passivity and ineffectiveness in dealing with their daughter. He explains that he needs a throat culture and the parents give their consent for him to continue.
The doctor loves the child’s strength of will but has contempt for the parents’ helplessness.
The father holds her still, but consistently releases her at the last second, afraid of hurting her. When her wrists are held, she cries out hysterically.
The doctor is furious with the child. He holds her head and forces a wooden spatula into her mouth. Before he can see anything she bites down, breaking it apart, and cuts her tongue.
He calls for a spoon to continue. He feels an urgency to get her diagnosed quickly, but he’s also wrapped up in the battle. His duty is put aside as he feels compelled to defeat this child. Finally overpowering her and forcing in the heavy spoon, he sees her infected tonsils.
Facing her defeat, Mathilda tries to escape from her father to attack the doctor.
The doctor understands Mathilda’s perspective on his visit. He knows she won’t respond logically to the situation.
He inwardly reacts with disgust when her mother says “He won’t hurt you”, knowing that all the child will focus on is the word “hurt”.
In this state of annoyance, he has an outburst when the mother calls him a “nice man”. From Mathilda’s view there’s nothing nice about him; he’s a stranger trying to force her mouth open. As a child, she also doesn’t understand the seriousness of having diphtheria and the necessity of the exam. Knowing her mindset, the doctor doesn’t expect cooperation.
Theme: Justifiable Violence
The simplistic saying “Violence is never the answer”, is called into question by the action of this story.
There’s a reasonable chance that Mathilda has diphtheria, a fatal illness if left untreated. The stakes being this high, the parents agree that the examination should continue.
It begins with the father holding her in an unspecified position while the doctor tries to get the tongue depressor in her mouth. The father’s concern over using too much force causes him to release her before the doctor finishes.
Next, the doctor tells the father to put Mathilda on his lap and hold her wrists. This is an increase in the level of force. The child responds accordingly as she begins shrieking hysterically. The doctor increases his level of force as well, grasping the child’s head and getting the wooden spatula into her mouth. She responds with another increase by breaking the spatula with her teeth.
Now it really starts looking like a fight. Mathilda is bleeding and the doctor has lost his cool.
He finally overpowers her using the heavy silver spoon and makes his diagnosis.
It’s noteworthy that the amount of force, or violence, that is justified is the minimum amount necessary. Each level is tested for effectiveness before moving on to the next. The doctor begins using only persuasion. This is followed by some physical restraint by the father and some force by the doctor. This leads to more complete physical control by the father and more force with the wooden depressor by the doctor. The final escalation is when the doctor uses a more heavy duty implement, the silver spoon, to complete his job.
While the violence is justified, it’s only in a very specific set of circumstances: it’s for the child’s own good and it’s measured. If the risk to the child was minimal, the force would be easy to argue against. Alternatively, if the doctor had walked in and immediately used the maximum force, the reader would form a very different opinion of him, questioning his mental balance and fitness for his job.
Theme: Reason vs Emotion
Each of the adults experiences a conflict between reason and emotion, albeit with varying degrees of complexity.
The doctor begins his visit on the side of reason. He’s professional as he questions the parents about their daughter’s symptoms, and he uses his best bedside manner on his initial attempt to persuade Mathilda to open her mouth.
After she knocks his glasses off, he reacts emotionally to her mother for calling him nice. (See Empathy above) However, he maintains his equanimity toward Mathilda. He takes a more direct approach, telling her that the examination will continue whether she cooperates or not. He’s even detached enough that he’s willing to stop if the parents take responsibility for the result.
The doctor continues to focus on making a diagnosis as he uses more force. His emotional reactions are still directed at the parents, at one point saying he wanted to kill the father for his soft-heartedness.
It’s not until Mathilda starts shrieking for her life that the doctor’s self-control vanishes. He’s furious as he manages to get the wooden spoon in her mouth. When she breaks it, he’s beyond rational thinking, admitting that he “could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it.”
He acknowledges that all the professional reasons for the examination have fallen away; all that matters now is defeating the child. In the end, emotion wins out as the doctor is consumed with fury.
The father vacillates between reason and emotion as he assists the doctor. He holds Mathilda still because he knows that putting her through this temporary unpleasantness is necessary. However, he also releases her before the doctor succeeds when his emotion takes over, “his shame at her behavior and his dread at hurting her”.
When his wife is taken in by Mathilda’s shrieks, he again focuses on the necessity of the examination, ordering her away and reminding her of the danger of diphtheria.
From this point on, the father controls his emotions. He continues to hold Mathilda after she bites through the wooden spoon and is bleeding. He stays resolute as the doctor bears down with the metal spoon and successfully completes his check.
The mother’s conflict seems to be the least complicated. She begins with reason as she agrees to the examination. She desperately wants Mathilda to cooperate, and chides her ineffectively throughout the visit. At the peak of Mathilda’s protests, the mother seems willing to stop the checkup. After her husband’s rebuke, she doesn’t protest anymore.
Mathilda doesn’t wage any battle between reason and emotion; for her they’re the same thing. As a child, she can’t reason maturely on the necessity of the examination and the advantages of cooperating. Her reasoning—a fear of treatment and the threat of a stranger forcing her mouth open—lead her to react emotionally, a unified reaction of impressive intensity.
1. What is represented by the two types of spoons used in the examination?
The spoons represent the doctor’s loss of control. At the beginning, when he’s behaving professionally, he shows Mathilda that his hands are empty. Exactly when he takes out the wooden tongue depressor isn’t clear, but it’s not mentioned until he becomes furious. The wooden spoon represents the shift from reason to emotion.
After Mathilda makes short work of this implement, the doctor calls for a stronger spoon. This represents a further escalation of his fury. Just as the silver spoon is too strong for Mathilda to resist, the doctor’s determination to use whatever force is necessary can’t be resisted either. He completes his examination here, with his fury and his spoon both at their strongest.
2. What are some examples of irony?
- The doctor’s first impressions of Mathilda suggest she will be pleasant to deal with—she’s very nice looking and seems quiet. She ends up being a terror.
- The mother refers to the doctor as nice and kind, but Mathilda won’t see him like that.
- The mother assures Mathilda that the doctor won’t hurt her, but he would, if necessary (a temporary injury for a life-saving treatment is more than a fair trade).
- The mother says Mathilda should be ashamed of her behavior, but she’s the only one in the story who doesn’t feel ashamed at some point.
- The doctor says he had “already fallen in love with the savage brat, the parents were contemptible to me”, but he ends up furiously battling Mathilda while enlisting the parent’s help.
- Mathilda shrieks “You’re killing me!”, when the adults are working to save her life.