Fred McCann is an energetic man in his thirties, something of a playboy, when the Second World War breaks out. He becomes a soldier, and in an Italian village one day he goes to a pump for a drink of water. The pump is booby-trapped and explodes. He is blinded and loses all four limbs. The story traces the development of a relationship between Fred and Alice, his nurse in the military hospital.

As he learns to submit to being entirely helpless, reliant on Alice for all his needs, he gradually begins to adapt to his new condition. Then Alice changes everything by having sex with him. At first their new and obsessive relationship makes him happy, restoring some of his old sense of himself as a man. When Alice is moved to another duty and replaced by a sadistic male nurse, Fred is so devastated and makes such a scene that he gets Alice back.

To celebrate her return, Alice sneaks some whiskey into his room and they get drunk. She then says something that appalls him: she calls him her "thing" and confides that she has always hated men, who look at her and touch her and have power. Fred is nauseated, seeing himself reduced to nothing more than a "a phallus on its small pedestal of flesh." He realizes now that he is no longer a man, and later that night he manages to drag himself out into the garden, where there is a small pool in which he drowns himself.


This melodramatic but revealing story explores the relationship between professional caring and personal desire, and between body image and identity, especially in terms of gendered power. In her appropriate role, the nurse reduces Fred to a child and takes care of him; when their relationship becomes inappropriately sexual, he understands her desire as proof that he is still a complete man, and when he learns that this is not the case, his sense of himself is so shattered that he chooses to kill himself, to complete the work of the bomb that has already destroyed him.

The nurse's behavior is ambiguously presented. There is disapproval, for she is moved to another service because the relationship has been discovered, but she is allowed to return, it seems, because the doctor decides that it may be good for the patient. Her desire for Fred because of, rather than despite his disfigurement, is presented as a perversion. Far more perverse, though, is the male nurse, who, largely because he is male and a nurse, is shown (in Esquire, in 1956) to be a dangerous aberration.


The anthology is part of a Garland series, The History of American Nursing. First published in Esquire, 1956.

Primary Source

American Nurses in Fiction: An Anthology of Short Stories



Place Published

New York




Barbara Melosh

Page Count