By Dr Oliver Tearle (Loughborough University)
‘A Country Doctor’ is one of the best-known and most widely studied short stories by Franz Kafka (1883-1924). This short story, which Kafka wrote during the winter of 1916-17, tells of a country doctor who makes a visit to a nearby village to tend to a sick boy, but the doctor’s account of his experiences is full of bizarre and unlikely details – details which make us question the doctor’s sanity.
You can read ‘A Country Doctor’ here before proceeding to our summary and analysis of Kafka’s story below.
‘A Country Doctor’: plot summary
The story is narrated by an elderly country doctor, who is summoned one winter night to visit a boy who is unwell. The boy is in a village some ten miles away, and the story recounts the doctor’s struggles in making the journey to visit the boy.
First, he learns his horse has died of exposure to the cold, but a mysterious groom appears in his pigsty and produces two strong horses for the doctor to use in his journey. The groom makes it clear he wishes to have his way with the doctor’s servant girl, Rose.
The doctor makes the journey to the village, at which he appears to arrive in a suspiciously short amount of time. But the boy who is supposedly unwell appears to be fine. The doctor believes the boy should get up and stop malingering, but the boy begs the doctor to let him die. Shortly after this, the doctor notices a towel soaked with blood in the boy’s sister’s hand, and decides to re-examine the patient. He discovers a wound in the boy’s body, from which worms start to appear, and realises the boy is dying, after all.
The family of the boy undress the doctor and place him in bed alongside the patient. He reassures the boy that his wound is not that bad and he will be all right, before opening the bedroom window and climbing down onto one of his horses and riding for home.
However, in contrast to the swift outward journey, the ride home proceeds at a very slow pace, and the doctor’s thoughts keep returning to his maid, who is at risk of being molested by the mysterious groom back home. The doctor regrets answering the call, which he likens to a false alarm.
‘A Country Doctor’: analysis
‘A Country Doctor’ is, along with ‘The Metamorphosis’ (which we have previously analysed here), perhaps Kafka’s most fantastical or surreal work. It takes its cue from Gothic literature – it has echoes of Edgar Allan Poe and Nathaniel Hawthorne – and analysing and identifying the core ‘meaning’ of the story has proved tricky. Even when set aside Kafka’s other work, ‘A Country Doctor’ remains particularly cryptic and opaque.
The mention of Poe is especially pertinent, since it was Edgar Allan Poe, more than any nineteenth-century writer, who helped to pioneer what we might call the ambiguous supernatural tale: a story in which we cannot be sure whether the events being described really happened, or whether they were merely perceived by some unstable and perhaps insane narrator.
So, in Poe’s ‘The Tell-Tale Heart’, we cannot be sure if the narrator actually hears the beating of his victim’s heart from under the floorboards, or if this is an auditory hallucination, a manifestation of his guilty conscience (perhaps even the sound of his own quickened heart rate as his panic starts to mount).
The same is true of ‘A Country Doctor’: can we be sure that the doctor is experiencing all of the events in the story for real? Or is he mad?
There are many details of this short tale which suggest that the country doctor is an example of the unreliable narrator: the way the groom, whom he has never seen before, suddenly appears; the way the groom appears to make two horses materialise out of nowhere; the telescoping of the ten-mile journey to the village so that it seems to have taken place instantaneously; the fact that the patient appears to be fine until the bloody towel reveals to the doctor that the boy actually has a disgusting and festering wound which the doctor managed to miss upon his initial examination.
These details lend a dreamlike – or perhaps more accurately, nightmarish – quality to ‘A Country Doctor’. And given the fact that the doctor’s own state of mind is so central to the story, critics have often interpreted Kafka’s story from a psychoanalytic perspective, arguing that the doctor’s behaviour is an example of sublimation. This Freudian analysis of Kafka’s story is summarised well in the excellent A Franz Kafka Encyclopedia, but is worth exploring, and developing, here.
Sublimation is the investing of unacceptable impulses into more socially acceptable pursuits: in this case, the country doctor’s sexual attraction to his young servant Rose has been redirected into his work. But when he is called out to an emergency visit, his repressed desires come up to the surface, leading to the menacing figure of the groom and the doctor’s fear that she will be at the mercy of this other figure.
Indeed, we might take this analysis even further, and argue that the groom – who, we should remember, seems to appear out of nowhere – is actually the doctor’s own double, a manifestation of his own psyche (his ‘id’, if you will), or embodiment of his repressed animal desires for the young girl. He needs to speed his way from her – and from temptation – as quickly as possible and lose himself in his work again. Revealingly, the groom emerges from the pigsty – which, as a symbol of the doctor’s repressed instincts, hasn’t been used for years – on all fours, in an act of clear animal symbolism.
It is curious that the boy-patient on whom the doctor attends is diagnosed to be fit and well, but his sister’s brandishing of a bloody towel (symbolising the loss of the servant girl’s virginity at the hands of the doctor/the ‘groom’?) is what leads to the doctor re-examining the boy.
There, in a physical embodiment (a literal embodiment, we might say) of the doctor’s own disturbing of his repressed psychical instincts, the boy’s body is discovered to be diseased and putrefying, just as the unpleasant and disgusting desires of the ageing doctor towards his young maid threaten to make themselves known.
The further details of the story can also be easily made to fall in with such an interpretation: the mysterious ritual of the family undressing the man and putting him into bed with the boy are a parody of his own desire to undress himself and climb into bed with Rose, if he could but act upon his primal impulses.
The fact that the journey home seems to take forever mimics the gulf between his desires and the reality of his age: he is too weak, too aged, to become the ‘groom’ and take advantage of his servant, even if he wanted to.
This, then, is why ‘A Country Doctor’ carries the force of a dream: Kafka understood that stories, like dreams, often communicate their truths to us only indirectly, through symbol, narrative, and ambiguous imagery.
According to Freud, a dream is our unconscious trying to communicate something to us: something which is often too overwhelming for us to face directly. The fantastical and unsettling details in ‘A Country Doctor’ might then be regarded not as the manifestation of the doctor’s madness but his own erotic desires, which he has repressed for moral and social reasons, finally coming up to the surface.
Modernist texts from this period often use ambiguous symbolism to hint at sexual desire, especially taboo desire. Only a year or so after Kafka wrote ‘A Country Doctor’, Katherine Mansfield published ‘Bliss’, a short story about a young woman, Bertha, who is only partially aware of her own attraction to another woman, Pearl Fulton.
The symbol of the pear-tree is used throughout the story to suggest Bertha’s unspoken and unspeakable desire for Pearl. Such ambiguous symbolism serves a dual purpose: it allows writers to broach themes such as sexual desire in ways which it would have been harder to do at the time if one was more direct or plain-spoken, but it also reflects the extent to which characters like Bertha, and Kafka’s country doctor, are at best only half-aware of their own desires.
Symbolism is the only way they can approach them – and even then, we as readers are likely to realise the extent of these desires more clearly than those characters themselves do.