The overworked doctor-narrator finds himself extremely irritated by the requests of a poor immigrant couple in their twenties to examine their infant. He spouts an alarming number of cultural and economic prejudices and tries to avoid seeing them. They persist, however, and the doctor examines the child, whom he finds healthy. The husband then asks if the doctor can examine his wife. The doctor flashes his anger again but agrees.

He finds her legs extremely bowed, probably from severe childhood rickets, and asks the husband about her history. It turns out that she had grown up in Poland during World War I and had lost all her family. As he hears of the woman's suffering, the doctor becomes empathetic, suddenly understanding the couples' fearful tenacity which had so annoyed him before. The woman responds in kind, and the doctor-patient relationship changes significantly for the better.


In this story, as in "The Use of Force," "Jean Beicke," and several others annotated in this database, Williams airs one of the "great unmentionables" of doctoring (Robert Coles's phrase from his introduction to his collection of Williams' writings). The unmentionable here is something like the stressed physician's capacity for extreme selfishness and unprofessional behavior.

The behavior is harsher in this story than in "Jean Beicke" because its cause is not specified and because it is unreasonably and repeatedly directed at competent adult patients. For some readers, the narrator's conversion to good doctoring through the empathetic grasp of the patient's suffering may come too late to save either him or the story.


First published: 1938

Primary Source

The Doctor Stories


New Directions

Place Published

New York




Robert Coles

Page Count