The Anatomy Lesson

Morley, John David

Primary Category: Literature / Fiction

Genre: Novel

Annotated by:
Ratzan, Richard M.
  • Date of entry: Aug-26-2005
  • Last revised: Jan-23-2013


One of two sons of a broken U.S.-Dutch family, Kiddo chooses to live off the Dutch welfare system spending his state alms on drugs. Although he realizes it is but the bleakest of efforts not to come to grips with a difficult relationship with his older brother, Morton, Kiddo perseveres, forming an uneasy alliance with Pietje, a woman who also knows Morton.

The novel is told by Kiddo with contributions to the multi-faceted story in the form of letters from Morton, who gives up a brilliant future as a genius in physics to travel around the world, and diary entries by Pietje, who has some unpleasant truths to tell about Kiddo's world. Morton, known as Mort, writes Kiddo that he has cancer and not long to live, returning home to die. Honoring the dying request of his brother, Kiddo attends Mort's autopsy (yes, the play on Morte/Mort proves irresistible to Morley, or is it Mor(te)ley), a fairly gruesome scene. This proves not to be the death of Mort/Morte/Death for Kiddo and he requires help from Pietje and more introspection before Kiddo can lay his brother's bones to rest.


Central to the novel is Rembrandt's famous oil, The Anatomy Lesson of Nicolaes Tulp. Mort writes to Kiddo about the painting and the novel includes reproductions and magnifications of it for the readers (both the readers of his letter - Kiddo and us - and the novel) to follow as Mort refers to it. As an extended disclosure of this eery portrait, Morley's novel, like Robbe-Grillet's In the Labyrinth (with much less experimental shifting of point of view, however) plays "real" words (the novel's discourse) against images (Rembrandt's), and imaginary words (Pietje's diary) against "real" images (the autopsy), i.e., fact versus fiction (finally begging the question which is which). Using all the evidence at hand, Kiddo is forced to choose, if he wishes to escape drowning in the memory of his brother, which Mort was his real brother.

The Anatomy Lesson is an interesting literary use of a well known painting in the art and medicine canon to explore, among other issues, the control that bodily concerns have over spiritual ones and coming of age when there are not the usual family supports. Along the way, Morley has nothing good to say about the addiction scene or the welfare system in the Netherlands.

There are eloquent passages about being ill and cancer ("Remember those drawings that used to hang up in the loft? You know, when I try to visualize this disease, what comes to my mind are an engineer's construction drawings, exploding an object into its parts. It's a nightmare of a drawing gone wrong. The parts keep on exploding and generating new strings of parts, until they are no longer parts of anything, because they overrun the whole, and obliterate it." Page 81) and unusual use of autopsy material (literally and metaphorically) conscripted in the service of fiction.



St. Martin's

Place Published

New York