Monday, May 16, 2011

Franz Kafka: "A Country Doctor"

Franz Kafka, "A Country Doctor," a short story.

It begins relatively sanely:

"I was in great perplexity; I had to start on an urgent journey; a seriously ill patient was waiting for me in a village ten miles off."

The situation? He had to get to a village ten miles away to treat a seriously ill patient, it was snowing heavily, his horse had died during the night from overwork, and he couldn't find anyone to loan him a horse. He does have a serious problem, but it doesn't sound strange or bizarre at all, at least not to me. But wait . . . This is Kafka!

I've read a number of Kafka's short stories (I find his novels almost unreadable) and some critical commentaries about them. Many refer to a "dreamlike" quality to them, and my immediate thought is that "nightmare" would be a more accurate term. However, I had to agree when I read "A Country Doctor." In fact, I will argue that this really is a dream, for there are too many elements in this story that are found typically in dreams to even consider it something happening in reality, even a bizarre reality that Kafka so frequently creates.

Spoiler Warning:

The first sign of a dream occurs immediately after the setting of the story. A stranger crawls out on his hands and knees of the abandoned pigsty. He is followed by "two horses, enormous creatures with powerful flanks, one after the other, their legs tucked close to their bodies, each well-shaped head lowered like a camel's, by sheer strength of buttocking squeezed out through the door hole which they filled entirely." The doctor does not seem surprised at this and immediately accepts the offer of the loan of the horses.

Does this seem possible, even in Kafka's admittedly bizarre world--that a horse would or even could crawl on all fours into a small pigsty? In a dream, this might happen, and the doctor's lack of surprise is typical of a dreamer's reaction to the outlandish events found in dreams.

What happens next is also commonly found in dreams: a quick change of scene. The doctor goes through his courtyard gate and is at the patient's farm, with no time passing, as if the two were adjacent and not ten miles apart. It seems that there is no travel time in dreams if one succeeds in going from one place to another.

He arrives at the farmhouse and discovers there's nothing wrong with the patient. He is about to leave when, again, the scene turns bizarre. The horses have somehow slipped loose from their halters and are standing at a open window, with their heads protruding into the room. They whinny loudly, and he discovers that the patient has a large wound near his hip. The village elders suddenly appear, and they and the family take his clothes off when the village choir appears and begins to sing:

"Strip his clothes off, then he'll heal us,
If he doesn't, kill him dead!
Only a doctor, only a doctor".

They pick him up and place him in the bed with the patient, and all leave the room. After reassuring the patient that all is well, the doctor gets out of bed, gathers up his bag and clothes, and without bothering to dress, he goes outside in the nude, in the midst of a blizzard. He mounts one of the horses and as is typical of a dream, or nightmare, when one wants to travel quickly, the exact opposite occurs.

"Gee up!' I [the doctor] said, but there was no galloping; slowly, like old men, we crawled through the snowy wastes; a long time echoed behind us the new but faulty song of the children:

'O be joyful, all you patients,
The doctor's laid in bed beside you!'

Never shall I reach home at this rate."

While Kafka is known for his bizarre tales, many of the elements here indicate that this really is a dream (nightmare, if you prefer). Looking at this as a dream, one might come up with some interesting interpretations of several of the elements. For example, the stranger and the horses are found in a pigsty. His servant girl laughs and says, "You never know what you are going to find in your own house." This, of course, is not true for the pig sty is a separate place. He doesn't know what is in there, just as we do not know what is in our unconscious minds. The unconscious is the repository of desires and needs, many of which we don't wish to acknowledge--disgusting things--the type of things suggested by a pig sty. Dreams supposedly are the manner in which the unconscious makes known these hidden needs and desires, although in a disguised way.

Numerous dream interpretation theories also include the belief that some characters found in dreams are actually disguised substitutes of the dreamer, engaging in activities that the dreamer finds distasteful or evil. As the doctor leaves his house, the stranger breaks into the house, and the doctor knows that he is going to attack the servant girl, "the pretty girl who had lived in my house for years almost without my noticing her." He "almost" didn't notice that she was a "pretty girl." I wonder if the stranger is acting out what the doctor has really wanted to do for a long time.

Later, at the patient's house, he, at first, couldn't find anything wrong, but then discovers a large wound near the hip. One of the most common ways of suggesting impotence is a reference to a wound near the hip or thigh. Is the patient another substitute for the doctor? Could the dreamer be having doubts about his sexuality? In addition are the strange events in the farmhouse where the doctor is stripped of his clothes and placed nude in the bed next to the patient, on the side where the wound is. That could suggest that the two are the same person.

I think there are enough clues in the tale to suggest that this really is a dream, but I must admit, though, that unless written confirmation by Kafka is found, there is no way of proving that the above interpretation has any validity. On the other hand, letting one's imagination run loose once in awhile can be fun. Stretching one's muscles is healthy; perhaps stretching one's mind is also.


  1. I recently read Kafka's "Arabs and Jackals"-the several possible ways of looking at this story all are potentially offensive to people in the middle east so I declined to post on it but it is a very powerful story that one way or another for sure applies today-

    I enjoyed and profited from your excellent post on Kafka-I have never tried one of his longer works as I think they are all unfinished-I want in time to read all of his Short Stories-

  2. mel u,

    I had several collections of Kafka's stories, but until I finally found the Complete Collection of his stories, I had never seen "A&J."

    I still have to read it. You've got me curious now about it. I guess I will move it up in my queue.

  3. Hi Fred, I found your post really interesting. I writing an essay on Kafka's A Country Doctor, and it will help a lot. Could you explain this to me: "One of the most common ways of suggesting impotence is a reference to a wound near the hip or thigh." Did other writers used this metaphore? Can you give me some example?

  4. Maggy,

    Greetings and thanks for stopping by.

    It's a rather common euphemism to suggest impotence or infertility. One of the most interesting occurrences is in the "Search for Holy Grail" stories that are part of the Arthurian tales. The Fisher King is wounded is the leg and as a consequence his land has lost its fertility and is becoming a wasteland.

    Gene Wolfe in his "Book of the New Sun" uses this theme also, only in his work the sun is slowly dying and the ruler of earth is impotent. The hero replaces the ruler, but he has been injured in the leg. He has, therefore, to take another journey to revive the sun.

    You might also want to check Frazer's _The Golden Bough_ for the discussion of the relationship of the king to his land, his weakness being transferred to the kingdom.

    I hope this helps.