On Three Doctors

Note: This is old, an assignment back from when I was still in undergrad. It’s interesting reading old things you’ve written and seeing how you have and have not changed.

The arrival of the Enlightenment throughout Europe during the 17th and 18th centuries heralded the rise of large bureaucracies in European governments that were meant to rule the people with the ideals of reason and justice. As the bureaucrats become more powerful in the 19th century, the logical ideal became closely associated with the government’s power, and therefore also became tainted by its corruption and incompetence. In Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wallpaper,” Leo Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Scandal in Bohemia” doctors become symbols of authority and reason. Because of their training in the sciences and logic, they command great respect from the community and are characterized as infallible, their decisions being final. For Gilman and Tolstoy, however, because the doctors often make their patients more ill, the absolute authority of the physicians is largely undeserved. Doyle, however, portrays the character of Watson as a physician who uses his training in reason to do good deeds through solving crimes during his adventures. Seeking reform in their societies, Gilman and Tolstoy urge the reader to question the authority held by the physician and to think for himself, while Doyle emphasizes the physician’s heroism and his dedication to justice. This difference in views shows the difficulty faced by physicians to connect with their patients and the importance of communication in health care.

In “The Yellow Wallpaper” Gilman writes the diaries of a woman who is suffering from an unnamed malaise, and is made worse by her physician husband who insists that the only cure is more rest and that she must not worry about anything. Initially, Gilman’s character submits herself to the authority of her husband.  The narrator emphasizes that her husband, John, is a “physician of high standing,” and that her brother “is also a physician, and also of high standing, and he says the same thing” (Gilman 29), demonstrating how the two doctors represent a center of power that she must obey. It is important that her physician is also her husband, emphasizing that she submits to his judgment not only as a patient, but also as a wife, showing how completely overpowering is his influence over her. Although John “laughs at [her]” (29), despite her illness, she claims that “of course one expects that in a marriage” (29). John’s dual role as husband and doctor creates a scenario where, in addition to the husband mocking his wife, the doctor is mocking his patient. John treats her like a child, addressing her as a “little girl” (36) and patting her head. This condescending behavior creates a distance between the doctor and the patient, and the narrator withdraws emotionally, deciding that she will hide her thoughts in her diary. In addition, the description of her treatment of “phosphates and phosphites –whichever it is – and tonics” (29), reveals an intellectual barrier between her and John. The doctor doesn’t respect her enough to properly explain the treatment, and when she doesn’t seem to get better, he threatens to send her to yet another notorious doctor, Weir Mitchell, who is “just like John and my brother” (33). Although all these men are in agreement about the proper course of treatment, over time the narrator becomes more ill psychologically, turning mad at the end of the story. She becomes obsessed with the pattern of the yellow wallpaper in her room, which has “a lack of consequence, a defiance of law, that is a constant irritant to a normal mind” (37). The narrator is attracted to this pattern because it defies logic, and is the opposite of her physician husband, who “is practical in the extreme” (29). Because the yellow wallpaper unlocks her imagination, she can escape the strict limitations imposed on her by her husband’s treatment. She expresses a desire to creep around with disregard to how society perceives it, revealing the desire for action and freedom (42). When the wallpaper ultimately takes over her mind, the narrator locks the door and begins creeping along the walls of her room. She tells her husband defiantly that she has “pulled off most of the paper, so you can’t put me back” (42). John, who was portrayed as always in control, is so baffled by this that he faints, while the narrator continues creeping. John fainting is symbolical of the failure of reason to treat her malaise. In fact, her husband’s rest cure was detrimental to her condition. Gilman’s short story showed the need for reform in the way society treated women, starting with the need to question the absolute authority of physicians and a look at the impact their ineffective treatments had over women’s lives.

In “The Death of Ivan Ilyich” Tolstoy paints a similar portrayal of physicians and their futile treatments. All of the doctors are considered to be famous, with each new physician being more renowned than the one preceding him. Ivan is constantly visited by “yet another celebrity” who says “almost the same thing as the first, but put his questions different” (Tolstoy 64) with the only effect that “his questions and conjectures confused Ivan Ilyich still more and increased his doubts” (64), which reveals how in Tolstoy’s eyes the physicians protect each other’s authority, but fail to improve the condition of the patient who comes to them seeking help. Tolstoy’s physicians also create an intellectual distance between themselves and their patients. When Ivan goes for the first time to see a doctor about his pain, he finds the process to be “the same as it was in court” (61). The doctor is dismissive of the patient in the same way that Ivan, a judge, would be dismissive of a man on trial. When Ivan finally asks the doctor to explain the seriousness of his condition, he is met with a pompous “I’ve already told you what I consider necessary and appropriate” (62). Such mistreatment by the physicians causes Ivan to develop a resentment towards them that grows into a feeling that it’s a “lie, a lie for some reason acknowledged by everyone, that he is merely ill and not dying, and that he needed only to keep calm and be treated” (75). The famous doctors put him on a strict regimen and at first Ivan’s “main occupation since his visit to the doctor became the precise following of the doctor’s prescriptions” (63), showing how the doctor’s absolute authority can consume a person’s personal life. The treatments fail to improve his condition and ultimately the doctors can only give him increasingly “large doses of opium” (83) to control the pain. Ivan’s deteriorating condition symbolizes the failure of medical science, and therefore the failure of reason, to save not only his life, but also his soul. Despite being trained in logic as a judge, when Ivan runs the logical exercise that “Caius is a mortal” (70), he refuses to accept the logical conclusion that he himself is a mortal, and that he also will have to die. Tolstoy’s view of medicine criticizes doctors for not being able to connect to their patients on an emotional level and he seeks reform in the increasingly bureaucratic Russian society to solve social problems from a merciful Christian perspective instead of only using cold logic. This is shown when Ivan’s pain is comforted only by the peasant Gerasim, who “alone did not lie…he alone understood what it was all about” (76).

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle was himself a professional physician, and out of the three authors is the most positive about the characteristics of a doctor. In the story “Scandal in Bohemia” the Dr. Watson is portrayed as an adventurous man who dutifully serves the powers of reason and uses it for justice. To Watson, the character of his friend Sherlock Holmes represents logical perfection, because of his exacting “process of deduction” (Doyle Part I) with which he is able to uncover the most obscure truths. The attraction that Watson feels towards Holmes’ mind is almost erotic at times, with their interactions often being flirtatious in nature. Watson “could not help laughing” at Holmes’ brilliance and the two men communicate “with hardly a word spoken, but with a kindly eye” (I) like two lovers exchanging secret glances in public. Doyle goes on to show Watson as a courageous man who isn’t even afraid of “breaking the law” (II) in his quest to aid Holmes. Doyle also has Holmes emphasize that Watson’s help “was all-important” (II) and that none of his exploits would be possible without Watson. With this Doyle emphasizes the role of doctors as individuals who sacrifice themselves in order to enable others to succeed. Dealing with deadly diseases on a daily basis means physicians are constantly surrounded by danger, which is why they must have adventurous personalities much like Watson. Doyle also emphasizes the humanity of Watson, showing that the physician is an empathetic character in contrast to the cold Holmes who is so rude that he even insults a king (II). In addition, the choice to write the Adventures of Sherlock Holmes in first person shows the very personal impact each of these adventures have on Watson, much the same way each patient would have an impact on the doctor.

For Gilman and Tolstoy the physician represents how reason can become corrupted by its own power.  They portray doctors as centers of authority that are respected by the society but don’t deserve such praise because they often do more harm than good to the patient. For Doyle, however, the doctor is a heroic character who seeks to use reason for purposes of justice despite his own human flaws. The great difference between these two views of doctors as villains and heroes reveals the importance of doctors’ ability to communicate empathetically with their patients. Tolstoy and Gilman are frustrated that the physician doesn’t listen earnestly to the patients’ complains, and seek to reform that. Doyle approaches the divide between doctor and patient from the opposite perspective, showing that doctors aren’t the ideals of reason that society makes them out to be, but have their own human desires and fears that they have to overcome. These short stories demonstrate that because the doctor is placed in such a respectable position by society, they have a duty to offer the best care possible. They also show that such effective care can’t be achieved by only applying drugs and surgeries, but requires an honest connection between the doctor and his patient that makes the patient comfortable with his treatment.


Tolstoy, Leo, Richard Pevear, and Larissa Volokhonsky. “The Death of Ivan Ilyich.” The Death of Ivan Ilyich and Other Stories. New York: Vintage, 2010. Print.

Dock, Julie Bates., and Charlotte Perkins. Gilman. Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s “The Yellow Wall-paper” and the History of Its Publication and Reception: A Critical Edition and Documentary Casebook. University Park, PA: Pennsylvania State Univ., 1998. Print.

Doyle, Sir Arthur Conan. “A Scandal In Bohemia.” The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes. N.p., n.d. Web. 9 Dec. 2012.