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The Imp of the Perverse

Poe, Edgar Allan

Last Updated: Jan-29-1997
Annotated by:
Moore, Pamela

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

The story begins with a philosophical discussion about how science (especially phrenology) understands human beings. It is the narrator's contention that science develops a priori. One first decides on the basic needs of humankind, then ascribes to certain organs the role of satisfying those needs. The narrator thinks this is backwards: "It would have been wiser, it would have been safer to classify . . . upon the basis of what man usually or occasionally did, and was always occasionally doing, rather than upon the basis of what we took for granted the Diety intended him to do."

One major trait scientists have overlooked is perversity. Men often do things for no better reason than that it will hurt themselves or others. The narrator then tells how he murdered a man and lived contentedly with the knowledge for many years until he was suddenly, perversely compelled to confess.

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Annotated by:
Moore, Pamela

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

A young man is traveling through France with a companion. They pass near a well-known "Mad House" and decide to visit. His companion introduces him to the superintendent, Monsieur Maillard, then leaves. The superintendent informs the young man that the hospital has given up the system of management it was famous for. Previously, patients were allowed complete freedom. The practice had finally proved too dangerous and Maillard promises to show the young man the alternative system he installed after dinner. He escorts the young man to a banquet table crowded with guests and laden with food.

To the visitor, the dinner guests seem rather mad as they take turns describing and then demonstrating the delusions of patients. But Maillard assures him that the lunatics are locked up; the guests are keepers. Maillard says the new system was invented by Doctors Tarr and Fether. He describes the dangers of the former system used. In one instance, he says, patients rebelled and imprisoned their keepers while they themselves enjoyed the wines and beauty of the grounds.

Suddenly, there is a crash at the boarded-up windows. The visitor thinks it is the escaped madmen. It turns out, however, to be the keepers who were indeed imprisoned by the madmen, tarred and feathered and kept on a diet of bread and water. Maillard, the former superintendent, had gone mad himself and organized the rebellion.

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A Country Doctor

Kafka, Franz

Last Updated: Jan-29-1997

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

A hapless country doctor describes with breathless urgency a night-time summons to attend a young patient. Events soon take on a surreal aspect as "unearthly horses" transport him instantaneously to the bedside. The doctor, preoccupied with personal distractions and grievances against those he is employed to care for, fails to find what is revealed to be a vile, fatal wound (symbolizing the Crucifixion?). He is humiliated by the villagers, who are "always expecting the impossible from the doctor," and doomed to an endless return trip, losing everything.

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Annotated by:
Woodcock, John

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Short Story

Summary:

Elizabeth, a coal miner's wife, waits anxiously for her husband to return for dinner, concerned for his safety and at the same time angry at the trouble he has made for her by coming home late, and drunk, so often. She ponders their unsatisfactory relationship and tries to keep up appearances with her two young children.

Then word comes that there has been an accident and that her husband has been killed. His body is brought into the house and laid out (undamaged because he died of suffocation). Washing the body with her mother-in-law, she goes through a complex series of reactions, including curiosity, anger, sympathy, forgiveness, and cool appraisal. She sees that the two of them had long ago rejected something deep within the other, and that they had lived utterly separate lives. At the end she is “grateful to death, which restored the truth.”

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Annotated by:
Terry, James

Primary Category: Literature / Plays

Genre: Play

Summary:

Two radically different people find themselves together on a hospital roof garden, where they first come to terms with each other, then with their pasts, their illnesses, and death. Parmigian has a fruit and vegetable stand, a terminal cancer, and a bitter wit. Richard Landau is an investment adviser in fine art, fastidious, but haunted by his childhood escape from the Holocaust.

Only in for tests, Landau becomes forced to confront Parmigian's fatalistic view of the world. As Parmigian taunts and jokes, he draws Landau into his laughter and wild imaginings, as key weapons in the fight to stay alive.

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Sonogram

Kirchwey, Karl

Last Updated: Jan-29-1997
Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

Like Paul Muldoon's Sonogram (see this bibliography), this poem was occasioned by the poet's wife's ultrasound of their first child, Tobias. (See pgs. 258-259 of the anthology for a description of the poet and his comments on this poem.) "Sonogram" is alternately lyrical and bright ("through succulences of conducting gel") and dark (" . . . or sinuses of thought / like Siracusa's limestone quarries, where / an army of seven thousand starved to death.") The language is highly poetic (and successfully so) in conjoining the worlds of medical technology and poetry ("or alveolus in a narthex rose") and playful ("God's image lies couched safe in blood and matter" punning on "vouchsafed").

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Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Autobiography

Summary:

Laqueur writes about his experiences as a volunteer at the Home for Jewish Parents. The elderly he meets there have lived fantastically broad lives, many having fled from eastern Europe in front of the German armies of World Wars I and II. Laqueur explains how different their impressions of world events are from his.

He notes the variety of responses the residents have to their own aging process and that of others. Those who are still mobile and mentally alert avoid those who are not. Some residents cling to life and self-respect, others abandon it. Over all, Laqueur is reassured by his visits. If these people have made it this far through such a crazy century, certainly he, too, can go on.

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In Sickness and Health

Jarman, Mark

Last Updated: Jan-29-1997
Annotated by:
Terry, James

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Summary:

In a short 28 lines, Jarman captures the hothouse images of a bout of fever and the dreariness of an urban apartment where he recuperates under the care of his spouse. He can feel the way that, as he gets better, his wife's emotions unravel. She has suppressed her hatred of the apartment and the city--and perhaps, of his requirements of her as a nurse, despite the title's reference to marriage vows. As she cries, Jarman addresses himself in conclusion: "You have married the patient wait for exhaustion."

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White Rabbit

Phillips, Kate

Last Updated: Jan-29-1997
Annotated by:
Wear, Delese

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Summary:

A very sad, discerning, funny novel about the final day in the life of smart, impatient, fiercely independent, cantankerous, what-you-see-is-what-you-get, imaginative, eighty-eight year old Ruth Caster Hubble. Now living a life full of routinized quirks (sleeping in a sleeping bag on top of her bed so she won’t have to make it) with her second husband Henry--"King of the Boobs," Ruth leads readers through the dailiness of a life shaped by memory, family connections, and a failing body.

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Summary:

This book offers an insightful, well-reasoned interpretation of the nature of medicine. Hunter, an English professor who teaches and coordinates humanities programs at a medical school, observed first-hand how an academic medical center functions--she joined various teams during their multiple rounds and conferences for two years. In sum, she "behaved rather like an ethnographer among a white-coated tribe." The resultant book details the profound importance of narrative in medicine.

Narrative is integral to the medical encounter, to communications by and about the patient, and to the structure and transmission of medical knowledge. For example, the patient's story is told to and interpreted by the physician, who then tells another story of the patient, in case format to other physicians, and records that story in a formulaic chart entry. Hunter observes that most of the rituals and traditions of medicine and medical training are narrative in structure, and explains why narratives such as cautionary tales, anecdotes, case reports and clinical-pathological conferences are central, not peripheral, to medicine. The thesis is further developed to maintain that, if the narrative structure of medicine is fully recognized by physicians, they will attend to their patients better and acknowledge the details and importance of their patients' individual life stories.

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