‘The Country Doctor’ by Ivan Turgenev

The Country Doctor by Ivan Turgenev, 1852

The magic trick:

Opening and closing story with a casual, light tone – further heightening the emotional tale in between

Today’s tale from the Sportsman’s Notebook is a layered narrative. Our narrator tells of coming down with a fever, and then hands the entire story over to his attending doctor, a talkative guy with a troubled conscience.

The story he tells is intense – a rapid-fire mix of moral conundrums, professional ethical dilemmas, love and loss into about eight pages. It’s exhausting to read and leaves you feeling emotional.

So it’s interesting to note that the framing device around the story takes a very tossed off kind of tone. The doctor starts his story with “I was playing cards one night…” and ends it with what amounts to a “Take my wife .. please!” joke.

It’s as if the doctor spills his story in a fit of lucid earnestness, only to recover his wits at the end in time to retreat back to casual, socially distant communication.

Somehow witnessing that start and stop as a reader only makes the sad story he tells in between feel all the more special and affecting.

And that’s quite a trick on Turgenev’s part.

The selection:

“Well, then. My patient kept getting worse and worse. You are not a doctor, my good sir; you cannot understand what passes in a poor fellow’s heart, especially at first, when he begins to suspect that the disease is getting the upper hand of him. What becomes of his belief in himself? You suddenly grow so timid; it’s indescribable. You fancy then that you have forgotten everything you knew, and that the patient has no faith in you, and that other people begin to notice how distracted you are, and tell you the symptoms with reluctance; that they are looking at you suspiciously, whispering . . . Ah! it’s horrid! There must be a remedy, you think, for this disease, if one could find it. Isn’t this it? You try—no, that’s not it! You don’t allow the medicine the necessary time to do good . . . You clutch at one thing, then at another. Sometimes you take up a book of medical prescriptions—here it is, you think! Sometimes, by Jove, you pick one out by chance, thinking to leave it to fate. . . . But meantime a fellow-creature’s dying, and another doctor would have saved him. ‘We must have a consultation,’ you say; ‘I will not take the responsibility on myself.’ And what a fool you look at such times! Well, in time you learn to bear it; it’s nothing to you. A man has died—but it’s not your fault; you treated him by the rules. But what’s still more torture to you is to see blind faith in you, and to feel yourself that you are not able to be of use.

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