When it rains, it pours. Or in the case of the doctor in Franz Kafkaï¿½s short story, when a snowstorm comes, it comes in full flurry. From start to finish, the doctor encountered numerous challenges on his way to visiting a sick patient. The first of these obstacles involved the loss of his trusted horse, which died the night before. No doubt the doctor needed to reach his destination in a hurry. After all, a sick man was in need of his urgent attention. However, the ten-mile journey would be a difficult one without a reliable horse.
A second challenge facing the doctor entailed his servant girl. Though suitable replacements were found for the doctorï¿½s dead horse, nevertheless the fate of Rosa would always serve to haunt the ill-fortuned physician. At first, it seemed as though a miracle had taken place, in so far as no one else in the small village had been willing to help the doctor on his way. Now at least, the doctor would be given a pair of horses to aid him on his path. However, the groom would prove to be less than an ideal choice as the caretaker of the doctorï¿½s servant. All throughout the escapade, then, the doctor would be concerned for her welfare, at one point even blaming himself for her demise.
A third hindrance to the doctor related to the family he was aiming to help. First of all, he could not understand anything they were doing or saying. The parents of the sick, though they were eager to learn the doctorï¿½s opinion, did nothing to help him in his quest to come up with a cure. Moreover, the patient himself was equally unhelpful, as he gave no clear initial indication as to his actual infirmity. For example, he was ï¿½without fever, not cold, not warm, with empty eyes.ï¿½ He simply asked the doctor to let him die. At first, the doctor believed the man to be well.
However, it soon became apparent that the young man was wounded in his side. This, of course, was a bit disturbing to the doctor.
This leads to a fourth challenge which faced the doctor, namely, the unusual events surrounding the attention given to the young man by the doctor. The doctor, of course, was simply trying to do his job. But apparently that was not quite enough. In an unexpected twist of fate, the families and the village elders, with the encore of chorus singing, began to strip him of his clothes and toss him into bed alongside the sick man. This, again, was not just a little perple to the doctor. Therefore, in a momentary flash of sheer panic and distress, he quickly gathered his possessions and fled the scene, never to return again.
In the words of one writer, ï¿½dreams are the touchstones of our charactersï¿½ (Thoreau 315). Sadly for the doctor in this story, however, dreams serve only to become nightmares. At almost every turn, he was surrounded by unwelcome circumstances. Whether it was the death of his horse or the capture of his personal maid, the doctor constantly faced new threats to his own safety and dignity. What is, of course, most terrible about this particular tale is that the man at the center of the story was a person who simply wanted to help others. He was not a greedy man. Nor was he incompetent. Instead, he was the type of person who faithfully discharged his duties, yet only to be tormented on every side. Such a plight nearly cost him his life.
Several themes can be found in this story. First of all, there is the unavoidable theme of death and doom. With the mention of the doctorï¿½s dead horse at the beginning of the narrative, as well as with each passing incident, it becomes painfully obvious that death is to be an ever-present and nonadjustable thread in the overall storyline (Dickinson). Moreover, the groomï¿½s hijacking of the servant girl also warns of forthcoming doom. For example, as the doctor rides off into the night, Rosa is last seen screaming and running into the house, chaining and locking the door behind her and turning off all the lightsï¿½a scene plainly intended to give the reader a glimpse into the terrors that lie ahead. Not surprising, then, is what follows: At the sick manï¿½s house, the sight is all too horrible. Everyone, it seems, is awaiting death. Even the young man, who finds himself in the presence of a doctor, requests that death come upon him at once. And as if that were not enough, once it becomes clear that the doctor cannot bring forth a suitable cure, the elders of the town rip off his clothes and, for all intents and purposes, seek to kill him. Fortunately, the doctor makes it out aliveï¿½but just barely (though his former maiden does not prove so lucky).
A second theme in the story involves mystery and betrayal. Starting with the groom, nothing is quite as it seems. At first, the groom comes across as a helper. After all, he offers two strong and healthy horses to transport the doctor where he needs to go. However, it soon becomes apparent that the groom is not working for anyone elseï¿½s good. Instead, he is only serving himself. Things, then, are not as they first appear. Similarly, when the doctor arrives at the sick personï¿½s home, he initially concludes that the young man is well and has nothing wrong with him. But that diagnosis is quickly discarded when the doctor sees in the sisterï¿½s hand a bloody towel that proves otherwise. As it turns out, the young man has a wound in his side. Tragically, however, the townspeople do not appreciate the doctorï¿½s services and even resort to attempted murder (though their wicked scheme fails).
A final theme is perhaps less explicit. This involves the unhappiness of life in general. The entire tale itself includes virtually no scene worth smiling about. And when one does smile, it will be, as Oliver Wendell Holmes puts it, for ï¿½wrinkles and not dimplesï¿½ (99). All seems a sheer waste. There is, according to the doctor, no reason to laugh or shout. If anything, the reader is left to pity each character, for none has escaped the downpour of sorrow and misery.
Dickinson, Emily. ï¿½All but Death Can Be Adjusted.ï¿½ Emily Dickinson Poems. Edison, NJ:
Caslte Books, 2007. 149.
Holmes, Oliver Wendell. Poet at the Breakfast-table. Oxford: The Riverside Press, 1883.
Thoreau, Henry David. A Week on the Concord and Merrimack Rivers. Winona, WV: West
Virginia Pulp, 1966.