"A Country Doctor" is a short story written by Franz Kafka (1883-1924), a Polish Jew renowned for his distinctive literature. It is the story of a rural doctor who is called upon to attend to a patient in circumstances of perfect difficulty-deep in the night, amid a severe snowstorm, to travel ten miles when he has lately lost to the cold the life of his horse that draws his carriage. His maid's efforts to search around for a borrowed horse are fruitless-as the doctor himself anticipates. Acting in frustration he kicks open an old disused pigsty, and from it proceeds help: a groom and two horses to his aid-or so he believes-only for the groom to set him up for the journey and then unexpectedly remain to embark on fulfilling his violent lust on the doctor's defenceless maid, as he has wickedly proclaimed intent.
The doctor arrives in no time and is briskly shown to the patient, who immediately makes his desire to die privately known to the doctor, causing this journey to reveal itself to the doctor as an exercise in futility, especially as he recollects the desperate situation he has left his maid in on account of his own imprudent departure, and as he initially fails to see what is ailing the invalid youth. He rejects the old host's courtesy of a drink of rum offered, feigning attention to the patient's case in spite of his foregone conclusion.
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It soon becomes clear that he plans to leave the young man unattended, but amid all the unease this realisation causes on the hosts, he is helped by a maiden's holding of a bloody cloth to see the patient's wound near his hip-a festering ugly 'rose-like' wound with large worms wriggling inside. The hosts soon strip off his clothes and cast him beside the patient on the wounded side as children sing strangely outside, and the two are left alone together. The doctor is forced to calm the patient to tranquil death with somewhat self-excusing arguments. He is keen to escape this situation and hurriedly climbs a horse naked, dragging the other one, the carriage and fur coat along, but the horses make no haste, painfully suspending him in the moment of feeling empty and wasted.
Challenged first with the requirement to be capable of responding urgently to a patient's call in spite of inconvenient timing, distance and weather; secondly with the requirement to procure means in a situation of unanticipated lack which highlights his precarious unsociability (or that of his neighbours); thirdly, the requirement to protect his vulnerable maid from an explicit threat of a sex predator at a time when duty calls elsewhere; and fourthly, the requirement to make a correct professional decision, faced with a patient who wants to be helped to die and amid feelings and thoughts of guilt, the doctor is dismayed to find himself failing too often.
Even after he finds these challenges daunting, he is left to wallow in frustrations he encounters: one being his ultimate inability to rescue his maid; he is incapable of being urgently helpful to her despite meaning to be all along since he left for duty. Things do not work out for him as he had hoped, though initially it is a frustration to him as well that she is abandoned to this vile groom who prefers to delight himself in her misery over accompanying the doctor as the doctor had expected.
Yet another is that he finds himself unable to treat his patient-he does not end up curing him. Furthermore, the patient does not even wish to be cured; he wishes to die, and is hostile to the doctor's attendance. The doctor finds the whole journey amounting to a response to a false alarm, with added professional frustrations, which rubbed it in how truly unhappy and humiliated it makes his life.
Initially, the death of his faithful old horse was a frustration that he hoped to overcome, but it persists as he finds that the horses he is newly experiencing only serve to complicate his predicament, as if by some conspiracy of circumstances, in the manner which they ride him off when he wishes to stay and help his frightened maid; and they walk him ever so slowly back whereas he wishes to escape his unpleasant ordeal and return to redeem his already his already molested Rosa.
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Perhaps we can call this short story a nightmare. Perhaps it is a literal nightmare-that is plausible-owing to the psychological intensity of the narrated experience. The author almost seems to rush and club together the doctor's experiences, giving him such little control, and all along portraying how intense the doctor's emotions and thoughts are over the whole ordeal. Or it may be viewed as a metaphorical nightmare; a narration of events that anyone would hate to experience in real life as they fictionally occurred to the country doctor, the main character of the story. Arguably, though, some events in the story occur in a manner somehow fraught with mystery, such as the plot-convenient and plot-rescuing presence of the pigsty, from which come this groom and these horses which serve to deepen the doctor's personal crisis; the mischievous and uncharacteristic but highly aware songs which the children sing and the 'intelligent' behaviour of the horses.
But there are themes which emerge in this story.
One is the dilemma of professional occupation and domestic or private obligation. This theme is demonstrated especially in that moment when the doctor helplessly witnesses his maid being ambushed by the groom, as he is ridden off in his carriage to work. The predicament haunts him throughout his call of duty, and is regularly brought to stark remembrance as he works, causing in him an inner restlessness and emptiness. Some commentators have shown this theme as being pertinent in Kafka's life-he is torn between happiness in relationships and his writing career.
Another is the moral complexities professional ethics face, as in the case of euthanasia in the medical profession. Is it right to cure a patient who wishes to die? Should a doctor have to make such a decision? Might a doctor sometimes lack the will or form to be helpful to a patient owing to a personal or private crisis? What happens then? Should he be forced to work-is such compulsion successful anyway?
Moreover, there is an apparent thematic conspiracy of circumstances, and its potential to change a person's perspective to life. Is it an ordinary thing-and is it good?
Especially because we see another theme: the doctor is plunged into an existential crisis. All what he values in his life -both private and professional-is under attack, and he fails to satisfy his own standards and expectations of himself. Is private life worth sacrificing for profession-particularly if profession is potentially life-saving? Could it be that sacrificing private life ends up destroying one's professional competence? Clearly though, the choices sometimes may have to be mutually exclusive, and the individual risks suffering helpless regret whichever way.
Kafka, Franz. "A Country Doctor". Trans. Ian Johnston. Nanaimo, BC: Malaspina University-College, 21 Feb. 2009. Web. 18 May 2010.
Soman, Ebey. Literary analysis: The Country Doctor, by Franz Kafka. Helium, Inc. Web. 21 May 2010.
Bernardo, Karen. Franz Kafka's "The Country Doctor". www.storybites.com. Web. 21 May 2010.