A Country Doctor Kafka Essay
credits to the Animation World Network for the image
One doesn’t know the sorts of things one has stored in one’s own house (Kafka, par. 1).
A Country Doctor is a depiction of a waking dream – one that occurs before entering into the realm of consciousness. Nonetheless, like any other dream, one does not have control of the events… and as they transpire, the main character becomes a mere spectator – and as in any other case, a victim. The difference rests on the events’ realistic component. As a dream gets more surreal, the events slowly build up – forming rubble of profound realisms, of hidden messages from one’s soul.
A Country Doctor is a story of self-absorption. As the physician grapples with his own struggles, he tried to deal with the world outside. He was a failure, in trying to save Rosa, in trying to save the afflicted man, in trying to assert himself to the groom, in trying to get out so he could somehow save himself. The doctor failed to take control of the events because he failed to take hold of himself.
In the cold winter night he stood and waited outside – fully aware that he could not achieve anything in his actions. He was well aware of the futility of the task… and yet he stood… and yet he waited…
Rosa came – a flickering lamplight in a dark stormy night. She was not able to borrow a horse that would carry the doctor to his destination.
Salvation came in the form of a groom in the pigsty. The doctor should’ve known that the groom is up to no good. If the groom was a decent person, he should’ve sought refuge in the doctor’s abode. But then one could not be very picky at those times. The urgency of his need left the doctor with no choice. Or was it really the case?
The doctor had a good carriage – such good beasts of burden. Only when the groom succeeded with his plan to be left alone with Rosa did the doctor realize that the horses were real beasts – a diversion of sorts, one that took away all of his control over what he had.
With such beasts, he was in his destination in no time. He was confronted with the sick man’s parents, and later on with the sick man himself. He was thin, without fever, not cold, not warm, with empty eyes, without a shirt (Kafka, par. 2). The ailments seemed to be spiritual in nature – a broken soul, willing itself to receive death on its doorsteps. What could a physician like him do? A broken soul could not rescue another.
He was ready to give up. He must go back if he still wants to save Rosa, but then people are expecting him to do something for the sick man.
As he approached the sick man, the doctor saw a wound that is already infested with worms. The people were happy once again, because the doctor started to take charge. Nonetheless, he – the doctor as well as the sick young man knew that he could no longer do anything to cure his sickness. Still, he must be there to witness the slow decay of the wound, the gradual wilting of life – just as he had witnessed the sullying of his own rose’s innocence.
He tried to flee, mounted on the horses that bore him so swiftly to the man’s house. But as if amused with his purpose, the horses took their time going back. And he knew that things would never be the same again.
The doctor’s story is an allegory of human failings and the struggle to keep one’s spirit alive. The story has presented spiritual themes – of challenges and the crumbling of purposes.
The story was written at the time Germany became a republic. AlthoughGermanystill has to see Hitler’s coming to power fifteen years after the writing of the story, A Country Doctor has managed to evoke the senselessness of going into war. The doctor is the soldier – who with the call of his patriotism must fight for his motherland. He was resolute and he could not be stopped. Only then when there’s no turning back did he realize the huge amount of sacrifice he must shed in order to perform this undertaking. And yet he continued to set forth. He arrived in a scene, where there is little that he can do. He did not become the hero that he wishes to be. Instead, he performed what was only expected of him – to fight for an otherwise pointless battle. He then thought of what he has so unceremoniously left at home. He thought of how he could’ve valued the things that he once possessed – the people, his people. He thought, with despair, the reason why he’s in the battlefield. He is no God. He could never change the course of events. He is only one man.
When all the fights have been fought and war reached into its inevitable conclusion, he threw his arms and decided to go home. He would be back – just in time to save what was still left of his possessions, his family, his sanity, his sense of self. After all, it was never difficult to leave. Surely, his steeds would carry him faster for the return journey. He had ventured from the familiar to the unknown, how hard it would be to go back to what’s already familiar.
He had lost his footing as soon as he started. Fate mocked him. He could not go back that easily. He could never be that same man who has left his homeland years back. He had lost a limb or two, and seen death – hundreds of death before his very eyes… He had been numbed by the explosions and the cold weather. Yet, all of these could never be compared with the shattering of his soul. He picked the pieces one by one and found that he could never make them whole again… a chink had gone missing and the crevices could never be simply filled with glue.
But the war is over. He must move on. Whether this is a waking dream or a glaring reality. And he did. Only after becoming a ghost of his former self.
Bernardo, Karen. “Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor.” Rev. of A Country Doctor by Franz Kafka. www.storybites.com. 17 October 2009
Kafka’s A Country Doctor. Dir. Koji Yamamura. Shochiku. 2007. Internet movie database
Kafka, Franz. A Country Doctor. Trans. 2009. Web. 17 October 2009
Hornek, Daniel. “Franz Kafka: Biography.” www.kafka-franz.com.
17 October 2009.
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German 390/Comp. Lit. 396/Engl 363/CHID 498/JSIS 488/Lit 298
I. Structural and Literary Features
"I was in great perplexity; I had to start on an urgent journey; a seriously ill patient was waiting for me in a village ten miles off; a thick blizzard of snow filled all the wide spaces between him and me; I had a gig, a light gig with big wheels, exactly right for our country roads; muffled in furs, my bag of instruments in my hand, I was in the courtyard all ready for the journey; but there was no horse to be had, no horse."
-- Like Murphy's Law: whatever can go wrong will go wrong. Crisis; confluence of problems. Doctor prepared, willing, and ready to set out to his patient, despite all these hindrances. BUT one final hindrance prevents him from following up on his intention. Problem; resolution; new problem; resolution, new problem . . .
-- Note profusion of intensifying adjectives: "urgent"; "seriously ill"; "thick" blizzard; "light" gig; "big" wheels. Almost a sense of rhetorical exaggeration?
-- Emotional oscillation: urgency, impossibile challenge; THEN: suitability of his wagon; personally (furs) and medically (instruments) prepared; BUT: ultimate hindrance, repeated for effect!
-- Sentence establishes tension; great, effective opening line; draws us into the action, communicates to us the tension the doctor feels. It also anticipates in its own series of coordinated clauses the structure of the story itself, composed of a loosely linked series of scenes. The sentence evokes a sense of crisis, aporia, dilemma; a conflict that cannot be resolved. The structure of this sentence anticipates the general structure of this text as a whole.
"I was in great perplexity." In the original German: "Ich war in grosser Verlegenheit."
The word "Verlegenheit" as a kind of Freudian nodal point in this text. It has 3 very different possible meanings:
1) "dilemma": "I was confronted with a great dilemma." = problem, aporia. A conflict in need of a solution. Note how the text operates i such a way that the doctor's personal problem is displaced into external circumstance, into the situation he faces. Freud would call this "projection."
2) Verlegen as an adjective means "shame" or "embarrassment": "I was in a very embarrassing situation." Alludes to problem of shame. Recall Freud's reference in "Creative Writers and Daydreams" to the shame that prevents us from revealing our most intimate fantasies. The text will reveal a (distorted) fantasy about which the doctor feels shame.
3) Verlegen as a verb means "to misplace", to "lose" due to being distracted, etc. "I had misplaced something of great importance." Note the connection to the distraction the Country Doctor experiences when he kicks open the "unused" pigsty and discovers the horses. In terms of Freudian theory "misplacing" is related to the repression or forgetting of significant memories or urges. The doctor has "set something aside" and forgotten it, but now it is re-discovered.
Thus one of the opening words of Kafka's German text is overdetermined (to use Freud's terms) by concentrating into one single word these 3 different possible meanings or allusions. Each possibility points in a different direction, but each direction proves to be relevant for a deep-psychological reading of Kafka's text.
Reflect on these 3 motifs in the text: Dilemmas (and their solution); Shame (and its consequences); Misplacing (or repressing) important information/things/people, etc.
What is the doctor's dilemma? How is it made manifest in the story?
1) Choice between professional responsibility (ambitious wish) and desire (erotic wish): Patient or Rose.
- Aporia: an impasse, conflict without clear resolution; expression of doubt, confusion; inability to decide, make a final choice. The doctor is confronted with an either/or, but he would prefer to have it both ways, a both/and.
2) Expressed in terms of spatial and temporal disorder:
- Always in one place and needing to be in another
- Narrative oscillates between past and present
- Blizzard-filled space, ending in suspense (suspension)
- Dream-logic; minimal transitions between scenes; logical leaps; mysterious, irrational occurrences invade the events of the plot and lend it a fantastic aspect.
3) Shame and embarrassment:
- Three times asks what he is doing, fear of incompetence
- Constant self-justifications: "I'm only a doctor!" "People expect too much of me!"
- Initial diagnosis corrected; "exposed" to villagers (stripped naked)
Further Structural Features
1) First-person narrative form: an "I" reports on previous experiences of the same "I." This split between two historically (temporally) distinct versions of the self is typical of autobiographical forms of writing. Note how this duality in the structure of Kafka's narrative harmonizes with the thematic of duality and splitting at the level of content, or in the fictional world of the story.
2) Tense changes: Past tense > present tense > past tense > present tense. Narrating a previous event in the past tense is typical of autobiography, in which the self recounts a prior experience. One "I" corrects the other "I". But in the original German, much of Kafka's text is narrated in the present tense: Text begins in traditional past tense, but shifts to present tense at the moment the groom begins molesting Rose (top of p. 221). It remains in present tense until the doctor takes leave of the boy (p. 225), where it returns to past tense until the quotation of the children's song, and after the song it goes back to present tense.
In the use of present tense, the narrating and the narrated self converge (as do the narrated time and the time of narration), so that we must imagine the Country Doctor telling his tale while standing naked on his sled, suspended between his home and the house in the village. Thus the present tense suggests a kind of convergence, or nearing of the 2 "I"s in the story, the narrated and the narrating I.
The suspension of time and place on the sled is reflected on the level of narrative in the present-tense form, which one critic (Dorritt Cohn) referred to as "Kafka's eternal present." The doctor's "suspension" translates his psychic dilemma, his "tornness," into a visual metaphor (as a dream might do).
Drama of Self-Exculpation?
Like Freud's "Dream of Irma's Injection," Kafka's "A Country Doctor" can be read as a wish-fulfillment fantasy motivated by self-exculpation. The Country Doctor as narrator constantly places blame for his failure on others:
1) on the lack of horses;
2) on the Groom
3) on the villagers
4) on the Boy, etc.
His narrative attitude is one of: "If I have failed, it's not my fault, but rather the fault of these other people. I've done my best, indeed, all that is humanly possible, but these others are the cause of my failure. If the Boy is not cured, I'm not to blame. If Rose is raped, I'm not at fault." Etc. Thus the tone of the narrator is defensive. (Note the similar reflex to shift blame onto others in our previous text, Schnitzler's Lieutenant Gustl.)
Related to this is the frequency of passive situations: the Doctor is carried away by the horses, against his will; he lets himself be undressed despite the fact that he has resolved to leave (p. 222); the patient's family must clue him in to the boy's wound; he is carried to the boy's bed, and he submits to this without resistance; his inability to "control" the horses as indicative of his failure to rescue Rose (p. 222).
II. Structures of Doubling in Kafka's Story
III. Extend this Dualistic Structure to the Level of the Characters
1) Country Doctor: his counterpart = the Groom
Country Doctor / Groom
old / young
tired / energetic
responsibility (duty) / sexuality, eroticism
weak / strong
"human" [civilized] / animal (pigsty; "on all fours")
protects Rose / molests Rose
lives with Rose without noticing her / has eyes only for Rose
Note how these characters are joined by opposition;see Freud's comments in "Three Caskets" about connections via opposites and their role in the structure of the unconscious.
2) Rose: her counterpart = the Boy, the Patient
Rose/Boy (displacement of Sister?)
needs help, rescue/needs help, rescue
3) Interactions between these 2 pairs of characters
Doctor > duty, responsibility, profession > Boy/Patient
Rose < sexuality, lust < Groom
Note that the boy/patient is a composite image, fusion of Rose and patient, marked by gender reversal.
Connection between Boy/Rose suggests connection between Doctor/Groom
Is the Doctor's sense of professional responsibility nothing but a displacement of his desire for Rose?
Is the Groom the Doctor's "alter ego," the erotic side of his professional personality?
Rose lives in the Doctor's house for years "without [him] noticing her" (p. 223)
night alarm: the call to urgent professional action, or the sudden arousal of the Doctor's repressed erotic longing for Rose?
Freud's theory of "sublimation": erotic energy is transformed or diverted into alternative outlets, into professional accomplishment (for example), creativity, scientific discovery, etc.
Is "Country Doctor" an example of the sublimation of erotic impulses into a sense of professional responsibility, duty, ambition, etc.?
Note that in "Creative Writers and Day-Dreams" Freud identifies only 2 types of wishes: ambitious and erotic wishes. Do we witness the conflation of these 2 in "Country Doctor": ambitious = Boy as object; erotic = Rose as object. What happens when the Doctor is placed in bed with the Boy? These 2 drives are condensed into a single event or image. Does the story tell a tale of failed sublimation?
Does Kafka's text portray the problem of psychic ambivalence (see the suspension of the Doctor between home and house of patient)? Does the story enact or choreograph the fundamental conflict between the ego and the id, the conscious and the unconscious, that is the cornerstone of Freud's theory of the psyche?
IV. Composition of the Text; Structural Elements
V. Possible "Symbols" or Dream Images
VI. General Conclusions to be Drawn from the Analysis
1) We can apply Freudian methods or interpretive strategies without necessarily relying on autobiographical information about the author. The method we have pursued here is similar to that applied by Freud in "The Theme of the Three Caskets" in that it begins with a structural analysis (the phenomenon of doubling) and moves from there to an interpretation of theme.
2) We can import certain Freudian themes and apply them, where appropriate, to literary interpretation and arrive at a (relatively) coherent interpretation. E.g.: dichotomy between conscious/unconscious; problem of ambivalence; sexual repression; sublimation of instincts (libido) into other activities (the Doctor's ambition and professional aims); characters as representations of psychic phenomena, agencies: the "splitting" off of parts of the "self" into distinct characters (Doctor and Groom); repression and distortion; etc. The "boy" and "Rose" represent distinct objects of desire: one represents professional desires, the other erotic, and the two are in conflict with one another.
3) In "Country Doctor" we witness a second example of how literary and narrative structures can accommodate the representation of Freudian psychoanalytical themes. If Gustl's stream-of-consciousness method represented a kind of graphology of the psychic processes, an immediate "inscription" or "recording" of the mental dynamics of an individual character, "Country Doctor" uses first-person autobiographical techniques to exemplify the logic of the Freudian "dream-work" as concretized in a literary text:
split self of autobiography as the split self (ego and id) of the Freudian psyche;
suspension of temporality and its transposition into spatial relation; annulment of narrative logic in favor of loose juxtaposition and succession of scenes;
visualization of central abstract ideas (ambivalence!);
dramatization of problems issues through the character interactions;
non-logical sequencing, a series of seemingly unrelated images that are strung together by certain images (wound), ideas, symbols;
the concentration of meaning into "nodal points," centers of the text that focus multivalent ("overdetermined") significations and point to diverse constituents in the text.