When a wealthy man falls victim to incapacitating attacks of vertigo, a young doctor decides that the problem and solution both reside in the patient's head. Gierke is an eccentric widower in his forties who remarries. While honeymooning in Italy with his 17-year-old bride, he collapses after looking down from the heights of a bell tower. Gierke becomes paralyzed by a fear of future attacks of vertigo and eventually stops walking.

Multiple physicians evaluate him without success. Finally a neurologist, Dr. Hugo Spitz, is consulted. He wants to try psychoanalysis but the patient has become extremely introverted. Spitz interviews all Gierke's relatives and even hires private investigators. The doctor devises a theory that Gierke murdered his first wife by pushing her off a mountain and then inherited her fortune.

Spitz reasons that Gierke's vertigo is the result of repressed feelings of fear and guilt. After confronting Gierke with the explanation, Spitz orders his patient to stand. Gierke walks without experiencing any dizziness. Immediately after the doctor exits the house, there is a loud sound and Gierke's dead body, fractured in multiple places from a fall, is found at the bottom of the staircase. Spitz deduces it was suicide.


Karel Capek may be most famous for introducing the term "robot" to the world vocabulary, but in "Vertigo" he has crafted a wicked medical mystery. The doctor and his patient are both obsessed--the former with diagnosis, the latter with avoiding impending occurrences of vertigo. The tone of the tale is plainly cynical. Dr. Spitz and psychoanalysis are a bit suspect. The doctor's cockiness seems more like hubris than confidence. Psychoanalysis as depicted in this story might be a kind of magic or quackery.

The story focuses on truth and trust along with the difficulty in establishing each. The tale sparks discussion of desperate patients, the doctor's reputation, and guaranteed cures. The value and even necessity of paying close attention to people is noted: "the main thing this kind of doctor has to learn is how to listen patiently" (301).

What should readers make of the ending of the story when Gierke falls down a flight of stairs and dies? Dr. Spitz chalks it up to suicide, but other possible causes might include another bout of vertigo, a clumsy accident, a seizure, or a stroke. "Vertigo" illustrates how difficult diagnosis can be and sometimes how convenient it can be too.


Translated from the Czech by Norma Comrada. The story first appeared in 1929.

Primary Source

Tales from Two Pockets


Catbird Press

Place Published

North Haven, Conn.



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