The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams, 1938

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by William Carlos Williams, 1938

William Carlos Williams wrote "The Use of Force" in 1933 as one of the stories he had promised the editors of the proletarian magazine Blast. He was then at the height of his period of social consciousness, and he felt pain over the fact that many of his patients were living in poverty. The United States was devastated by the Great Depression, an economic disaster that lasted through the 1930s until World War II stimulated enough growth that the unemployed found jobs in war industries. Williams, a family doctor in the industrial city of Rutherford, New Jersey, knew what poverty meant, and, after years of being a poet and an experimental prose writer, he began to write more clearly and more directly about people's lives. "I lived among these people," he explained; "I was involved."

His aim in such 1930s stories as "The Use of Force," "Jean Beicke," "The Girl with a Pimply Face," and "Four Bottles of Beer" was to express the beauty as well as the pain of the common American. As he wrote in his Autobiography, "They had no knowledge and no skill at all. They flunked out, got jailed, got 'Mamie' with child, and fell away, if they survived, from their perfections…. They were perfect, they seem to have been born perfect, to need nothing else. They were there, living before me." "The Use of Force" appeared in Williams's second collection of short stories, Life along the Passaic River, a book titled to emphasize the connection between art and the people living in the hard-hit area around New Jersey's Passaic River.

Williams had published his first collection of poetry more than 25 years before, and he had been a friend of Ezra Pound, H. D., and Marianne Moore during his medical school days in Philadelphia. After that time he had come to be considered a leading avant-garde writer. He was not, however, known as a political writer. Turning to fiction in the mid-1920s, he explored characters and themes new to modernist writing. James Joyce was mining his Irish boyhood, just as Ernest Hemingway was writing about his adolescence in Michigan and his experiences during World War I. Williams, rather than use his own earlier years as subject matter, turned to his working-class patients. For him the key question during these crucial years was: What shall the story be about?

"The Use of Force" is a startling piece of fiction because it seems to have so little structure. Narrated as a physical struggle between the examining physician and the stubborn young patient, the story is a single episode focused entirely on the battle of wills. It is written from the perspective of the male doctor, whose charge is to open the mouth of the girl, Mathilda Olson, in order to see into her throat and to determine whether or not she has diphtheria. Held by her maudlin parents, whose dialogue with their daughter drives the brusque doctor into silence, the girl fights the physician with all the force she has. She scratches him and bites into pieces the tongue depressor he finally forces into her mouth. Through the struggle her jaws remain tightly shut and her secret guarded. The climax of the story comes when the doctor finally wrenches open her mouth and sees that she is, indeed, infected with the killing disease. The title of the story refers to both characters' use of force.

Some readers have read the narrative as an exploration of the doctor's psyche, engaged as he is in forcing the young girl to submit to his examination. It has even been read as a rape story, emphasizing the erotic over the ostensible plotline in a manner that limits Williams's real genius with short fiction. What Williams has done with the figure of the physician contributes to this complex fiction. He shows the doctor as a man of passion, determined to win over the young patient even though he admires her equally passionate will to resist his examination. But he also draws the doctor as a man with an ironic sense of language, if not humor. The doctor talks tough: "I had to smile to myself. After all, I had already fallen in love with the savage brat."

Williams makes the reader question if this is the kind of doctor one would want for one's child. Why is he calling her a "savage brat"? Why the emphasis on the conquering role of the physician? But what Williams does is intensify the drama of a simple occur-rence by giving vitality to the characters' actions. The erotic undercurrents add a dimension to the struggle that is inherent in all male-female interactions, even if polite society, which the Olsons represent, denies its presence. Williams charges the story with a duel between the language of the Olsons and that of the physician. "He won't hurt you," says Mrs. Olson. Yet the reader is caught up in the dramatic irony of knowing that the physician would indeed hurt her if he had to, for his only aim is to diagnose her illness. What he has to do to accomplish this matters little. Her parents begin labeling; they advise their struggling child to let the "nice" doctor have his way, while they call her "bad." Williams's physician sides with the child and wonders how he could appear nice to her when he is struggling to overpower her so that he can jam things into her mouth.

Williams's style is both explicit and swift. No word is superfluous, and everything that appears on the page is useful to the reader. But the spareness is not a skeletal journalistic treatment that oversimplifies. Rather, Williams's fiction remains intentionally suggestive and is often refreshingly ambivalent about moral attitudes. While he is best known as a poet, having won the Pulitzer Prize for poetry shortly after his death in 1963, Williams was also an important innovator in prose. "The Use of Force" remains a great American short story, precise in its delineation of character and carefully direct in its execution of narrative.

—Linda Wagner-Martin

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The Use of Force by William Carlos Williams, 1938

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