In the beginning of Ann Darby's lovely and enigmatic short story, "Pity My Simplicity," Dr. Peary, whose medical degree came from "The Franklin School of Eclectic Medicine and Surgery" (3), is trying to deliver Orla Hay's sixth baby, a breech presentation. The doctor is weary and perhaps under-trained, but he is vigilant. Orla's sister asks if she might take over trying to tug out the baby. When the doctor glances at the sister's hands--"Fever-breeders, he's sure, and he won't be blamed for fever"--he says no, he'll manage (4). He does manage, and when the child is "wailing a syncopated, newborn wail" the doctor is undone (5). He weeps, hoping his tears will be mistaken for sweat.

In prose that is atmospheric and evocative, Darby brings us into scene after scene as Dr. Peary's evening unfolds: the delivery, then home to his child and his wife, who tells him, only after he eats his dinner, that Alma Pine down the road "isn't 'faring' well" (8). Just as Orla and her sister expected the doctor to save the baby, both Alma Pine's husband John and Dr. Peary's wife expect him to figure out what's wrong with Alma. "And you waited to tell me?" Peary asks his wife (9).

In the final and longest scene in the story, Peary hurries to attend to Alma, a woman dying of tetanus. About to enter her room, Peary laments that he's never grown "callous to this moment," the second when he enters the lives of his patients (12). He walks in to find Alma writhing in her bed and her husband glowering nearby. "Quiet! Look what you've done," the husband accuses (12). The doctor nods, accepting guilt.

Later, he thinks, he will write in her chart words that describe her state but cannot cure. At the story's end, he gives Alma "the morphia, the one centigramme dose he always carries with him" (14). As he gives Alma this dose, he never looks at her husband, "which is fine because John Pine cannot bear to look at him" (14).


This story must be read to be appreciated. Its multi-layered points of view are facile and informing. We see primarily through Peary's eyes, but we also, from dialogue and body language, enter the consciousness of Peary's wife, of Alma and John, and of their little boy. Throughout the story, small vignettes reveal this doctor's life and his deepest fears and joys: an interaction with his daughter as she plays the piano (7-8); dinnertime with his wife (8-9); a brief interaction with Alma and John's son who asks the doctor why the hands of the clock in the living room shake. Inertia and momentum, thinks the doctor, who "finds he can't parse it at all, and he hurries upstairs trying not to dwell upon what he does not know and cannot explain" (11). I wonder if it is no mistake that the doctor's name, "Peary," has embedded within it the echoes of weary and fear, of teary and near.

This story would lend itself particularly well to being "acted out" by caregivers or by medical and nursing students, permitting them to see and feel several points of view. Because the story is not neatly tied together, because we are not sure, at the end, how either the doctor or his patients will survive, emotionally and physically, this story perfectly portrays the human depth and complexity of caregiving.

Primary Source

Prairie Schooner


Univ. of Nebraska Press

Place Published

Lincoln, Nebr.


(Summer 2003)


Jonis Agee

Page Count