‘The Use Of Force’ by William Carlos Williams

Williams, William Carlos 1938

The Use Of Force by William Carlos Williams, 1938

The magic trick:

The calm, step-by-step storytelling by the doctor

It’s maybe not quite as dependent on its first-person narration to creep out the reader as Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” but “The Use Of Force” is pretty close. In the story, a doctor tells the story of his house call for a sick girl, one that starts normally but turns into an intense physical altercation. The key is his demeanor as a storyteller. He is calm and deliberate. Unlike the Poe narrator, he is not trying to convince the reader of his innocence, or really anything at all. In some ways, that is what is most unsettling of all. The doctor makes no apologies. He doesn’t even seem to have a guilty conscience at all. The story, then, unfolds more as a rote report to the doctor’s supervisor than a story. Very creepy. And that’s quite a trick on Williams’s part.

The selection:

Aren’t you ashamed, the mother yelled at her. Aren’t you ashamed to act like that in front of the doctor?

Get me a smooth-handled spoon of some sort, I told the mother. We’re going through with this. The child’s mouth was already bleeding. Her tongue was cut and she was screaming in wild hysterical shrieks. Perhaps I should have desisted and come back in an hour or more. No doubt it would have been better. But I have seen at least two children lying dead in bed of neglect in such cases, and feeling that I must get a diagnosis now or never I went at it again. But the worst of it was that I too had got beyond reason. I 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.

The damned little brat must be protected against her own idiocy, one says to one’s self at such times. Others must be protected against her. It is a social necessity. And all these things are true. But a blind fury, a feeling of adult shame, bred of a longing for muscular release are the operatives. One goes on to the end.

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