What the Doctor Said

Carver, Raymond

Primary Category: Literature / Poetry
Secondary Category: Literature / Poetry

Genre: Poem

Annotated by:
Terry, James
  • Date of entry: Mar-05-2002


The narrator recounts the interview with his physician during which he learned the bad news about his lung cancer--although the word "cancer" is never mentioned. But the interview is marked throughout by signs of imperfect communication. At several points, the physician's grave remarks are matched by diffident, sometimes humorous responses.

For example, when asked if he is a religious man or a communer with nature, the narrator responds "I said not yet but I intend to start today." The culminating account of miscommunication is near the end: "he said something else / I didn't catch and not knowing what else to do / and not wanting him to have to repeat it / and me to have to fully digest it / I just looked at him." The final line clinches the oddly blurred nature of the whole exchange: "I may even have thanked him habit being so strong."


Physicians and patients are often of different educational levels, often have different values about the meaning of illness or death, and can have different styles of communication. Given such differences, the possibility for misunderstanding is strong.

Even grave news, gravely delivered, may be received by a patient with the mixture of confusion and cheerful equanimity that Carver displays here. Also, patients like this one may feel sympathy for their caregivers or embarrassment at having caused distress or at not having understood properly.

Primary Source

A New Path to the Waterfall


The Atlantic Monthly

Place Published

New York



Secondary Source

A New Path to the Waterfall