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  • Zihan Mei

The Wound in Kafka's "A Country Doctor"

What is the patient’s disease? The doctor made two examinations. His initial conclusion was that the boy was not sick but “sound, and best turned out of bed with one shove.” The calling for the doctor was just one of the many false alarms. But this diagnosis was not accepted by the boy’s family, who pressured the doctor to take another look. This time he did find the boy sick. On the boy’s right side there was a wound, open, large, rose-red, teeming with worms. Surely the treatment could begin now? Surprisingly, there was nothing the doctor could do about the wound. According to him, asking him to heal such a wound would be to “[expect] the impossible from the doctor”. Why? To make sense of this strange claim, we read on: “[the people] have lost their ancient beliefs; the parson sits at home and unravels his vestments, one after another; but the doctor is supposed to be omnipotent with his merciful surgeon’s hand.” These few lines shed light on the nature of the boy’s wound. The wound must not be interpreted literally, for it certainly would not be “impossible” for a doctor to treat a wound in the literal sense. It should, therefore, be interpreted metaphorically as to mean a mental disorder, the treatment of which is supposed to be entrusted to parsons, or God’s representatives, spokesmen of religions. Yet the people, in A Country Doctor, had abandoned their faith (“ancient beliefs”) and the traditional institutions of religion were dying. This seems to be the central issue of the short story: while the people had, to speak metaphorically, killed their God, who was the sole healer of their mental wounds, they asked to be saved by the mortal doctor, who was not only incapable of saving them, but also in need of that kind of salvation himself. This is an accurate allegory for our time as well: while we loath, abhor, and abandon the spiritual, calling it the remnant of ancient superstitions, we turn to “science” to cure our everlasting mental suffering, as if it is “supposed to be omnipotent with [its] merciful surgeon’s hand.”

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