A Country Doctor written by Franz Kafka is about man's struggles against his own frailties.
Franz Kafka’s A Country Doctor is an enigmatic tale of country doctor beset by various dilemmas. This doctor’s life is predicated on duty. His main obstacles in the story serve to challenge his ability to carry out his duties. This is where the conflicts in the story arise and revolve in.
This paper will examine the different nightmarish trials the physician encounters as he struggles to perform his duty. How the doctor faces those challenges, the nightmare aspects and the themes of the story are all discussed in the paper.
Kafka’s doctor finds himself in midst of events that is spinning out of control. In the story, the doctor faces four main challenges: 1. severe snowstorm, 2. the mysterious groom, 3. the dying patient and finally 4. the torment he feels for Rosa.
The first challenge the doctor confronts is the severe snowstorm. At the start of the story, one learns that the doctor struggles to respond to an emergency some ten miles away in the midst of a heavy snowstorm. His horse died due to overexertion amidst the harsh elements. The brutal winter greatly frustrates the doctor and causes him "great perplexity."
The same scene repeats at the end of the story as the doctor hastens to go home but is "dragged slowly through the snowy desert" hindering his progress. The brutal winter is a steady element all throughout the story.
The second challenge the doctor deals with is the wicked groom. The lecherous groom appears out of nowhere from the pigsty. This description gives him a surreal-like presence which lends a nightmarish feel to the story. Suffice to say, the doctor’s nightmare becomes real when the groom appears.
The groom’s intentions on Rosa is obviously anything but honorable which is blatantly kept hidden under the guise of helping the doctor by lending him two horses.
The doctor finds himself torn between saving Rosa from the unwanted advances of the groom or saving a patient’s life. But the decision is made for him when the groom sends him off. The doctor sped off helpless in preventing the groom from breaking into the house and raping Rosa. One gets a feeling that there is something foreboding and unbecoming in the doctor’s complacency in this part of the story.
The third challenge confronting the doctor is the patient. The ill young man looks perfectly normal at first except that he begs the doctor to let him die. It was only then that the sister take out a bloodied towel that he realizes the patient is mortally wounded. An ugly, gaping, worm-infested wound confronted the doctor. Despite his heroic efforts to reach the patient in time, there is nothing the doctor could do to help him.
The fourth and final challenge that the doctor faces is largely due to the third challenge. It’s the torment the doctor feels for Rosa. He left Rosa in danger, in the hands of a devilish stranger. He offers a huge sacrifice in the person of Rosa so he could attend to the sick patient and his efforts are all to no avail.
The doctor is forced to make a choice between two people who urgently need his help: one, physically ill and the other, he exposes to great peril. This puts the doctor in the midst of a moral dilemma. Since he swore to the Hippocratic Oath to attend to the ill, his sense of duty is strongly inculcated in him. In the end, he chooses to heed his profession.
It is the thought that he is saving another person’s life that accounts for his earlier complacency with regards to Rosa’s fate. But since the young man is beyond saving, the thought offers him no comfort now. His torment over Rosa only serves to heighten his feeling of inadequacy.
His contant thoughts dwell on the fate of Rosa while he is attending to the patient. He torments himself for his decision to leave her as he thinks, "I had to see that Rose was all right...and I wanted to die too." Even the patient's wound, twice described as "rose-red", seems to remind him of Rosa even more.
The story is an epitome of a nightmare. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, nightmare is defined as “a variety of frightening experiences associated with sleep.” All throughout the story one can sense surreal, terror dominating the scenes.
At the start of the story, the narration is short and tight which is probably to depict the anxiety the doctor feels. The strange nature of the horses and the groom are part of the doctor’s nightmare. Their appearance from the pigsty seems to be based on creatures of ancient mythology. These horses resembled the mythical creatures in that they carried the doctor to the patient in almost instantaneous swiftness like he is "deafened and blinded." When they return to the doctor’s place however their pace is "like old men".
All these lend to the nightmarish atmosphere that is prevalent in the story - when the groom and two horses crawl out of the pigsty door, when the horses watch and neigh through the bedroom windows of the ill and when the family removes the doctor’s clothes so he can lay beside the sickly patient.
The theme, which is the basic and universal ideas expressed in the story, revolves around various truths. One probable theme of the story springs from a telling line when the doctor reflects on the people of the village. He says they are “Always demanding the impossible from the doctor. They have lost the old faith. The priest sits at home and tears his religious robes to pieces... But the doctor is supposed to achieve everything with his delicate surgeon’s hand.”
This is the dilemma which beset doctors even to this day. In the story, Kafka examines the importance of faith by reflecting on its absence as demonstrated by the dying young man. It is about faith vs medicine. Can physicians heal without faith? Is the spiritual aspect removed from the physical? Are physical ailments manifestation of metaphysical conflicts? The soul (mind)-body debate has echoed through the years and it is difficul to overlook the close correlation between the two. Kafka’s faith predisposes him to believe that ailments have spiritual struggles. Physicians must have moral sense to be able to heal and medicine should be an act of faith.
Another universal theme is man’s vulnerability to elements. We cannot battle nature and win. We are at the mercy of nature’s wrath. The same way that the doctor fights the elements and risks his life in the process. Nature kills the doctor’s horse, rots the patient’s wound and renders him helpless and eventually, kills the doctor.
Still another theme is man’s confrontation with obstacles. From start to finish, one can read in the story the unending battles the doctor wages against challenges and impediments. It is a hard fact in life that our challenges never end. Sometimes, we merely trade one stress for another, as evident in the fact that the doctor left Rosa at the mercy of the groom to be able to attend to a sick patient.
Man’s complacency is another universal theme. The doctor sadly permits these obstacles to overhwelm him – the groom, the family and the horses. By submitting to their manipulations he becomes part of the problem. He never consciously fights them until towards the end when it is too late. He should have asserted his rights, his beliefs and his decisions right from the very start to avoid complications.
Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” is a tragic tale of man’s failings. It offers no redemption, no consolation and no escape. We have to face our dilemmas squarely and assert ourselves like a real man. Perhaps, then, we would arrive at a safe place where we can perceive and eventually admit to ourselves our frailties as human beings.