Historically, plays, then novels, treated medical doctors as stock characters, often quacks or figures of fun, as in the Commedia dell’ Arte. Similarly, in Wycherley’s 1675 Restoration comedy, The Country Wife, the doctor serves as a device for the audience to be in the know, about Horner’s camouflage as a eunuch.
And Macbeth, telling the Doctor about his wife’s condition, understands it better than the doctor does:
that perilous stuff that weighs about the heart.
Even when serious fiction was taking up professions and their ethics as a big subject, doctors did not interest it as much as (say) lawyers and clergy. Novels in this era give their medics names but continue using them for side-effect. In Jane Austen’s Emma (1815), the apothecary Mr Perry toadies to the hypochondriac Mr Woodhouse: he agrees with him about the dangers of eating wedding cake, but later a mysterious rumour says that same cake is seen in the hands of all the little Perries. Shocking, eh? Good, then, to observe that Dickens, so often a purveyor of ridiculous stereotypes, makes a doctor, Allan Woodcourt, symbolize work which (unlike that of Chancery lawyers) does real good to a sick society. Woodcourt marries the heroine, Esther. A new use, symbolism, but still secondary
Enter George Eliot, in Middlemarch (1871-72). This amazing work was conceived as about doctors, alone. She researched medical history with full zeal, in a work she called her Quarry. But the project foundered. She (GE) began a different novel, about the frustrations of an idealistic young woman, “ardent but theoretical,” literally and metaphorically “myopic.” It foundered too, until she solved both blockages by joining them. Middlemarch is about two idealists, who bump up against the narrownesses of provincial life, back in 1832, the time of the First Reform Bill.
Not that the doctor-hero, Lydgate, marries or even notices the heroine, Dorothea. They look past each other till at the climax they almost see each other as they are, and for their true worth. In Chapter 76 (76!) it seems for a flicker that Dorothea’s wealth, which is a burden to her, might resolve Lydgate’s money troubles, in setting up the hospital, where he would “do good small work for Middlemarch, and great [research] work for the world.” Happy ending?
No. Lydgate has compromised his worthy ambition too much already. He has had to side with money and power interests (Bulstrode) in order to get his hospital. When Bulstrode connives at a convenient death, by giving the wrong medicine (flouting Lydgate’s prescription), Lydgate falls with him. Lydgate has also, like Dorothea, made a ghastly marriage. Eliot finds him guilty, furthermore, of certain “spots of commonness,” chiefly about money and women. He decamps to London and a continental spa, and writes a treatise on Gout, (“a disease which has a good deal of wealth on its side”).
I object to this outcome:
(1) Lydgate has more enemies than seems quite fair: his wife; Bulstrode; his own weak “spots,” to which add his slowness to recognize his enemies (and friends);
(2) Or if fairness is irrelevant in a fiction, he falls short of full tragic effect as well. Macbeth, Othello, Hamlet, and company are destroyed by their own strengths, as “some fierce thing…/ Whose strength’s abundance weaken his own heart.”
I also think that a novel can diminish its own characters by excessive understanding of them unless it enlarges hope again, by showing “the possible other case, the case rich and edifying where the actuality is pretentious and vain” (as Henry James said about satire). Lydgate, as doctor and researcher, had it in him yet failed to combine good theory with good practice, for an unequivocal social good, health.
Readers of Corpus should value the character and dilemmas of Doctor Zhivago (first published 1957), the still controversial only novel of Boris Pasternak.
Zhivago’s name connects him with the Russian word for “life.” He stands for life, as doctor, observer and sufferer during the revolution. As a medical student he excels as diagnostician. Diagnostic insight continues, into the years watching the wealth of an elite turn into the brutality of ends suppressing means, Might over Right by another route.
Zhivago stands for life in more senses. Living his varied life, doctor, man, father, citizen, he lives it confusedly, and messes it up. What stands out is his poems. They make this novel unique: a novel about a poet, who is the author, and who really is a very great poet. His poem Hamlet speaks for both Zhivago and Pasternak’s: Indeed, Life is not a walk across a field.
Since retiring from the Otago University English Department, Dr John Hale has divided his energy between research on John Milton (six books to date), and the more pressing deadlines of a weekly Otago Daily Times WordWays column, with occasional teaching for the U3A.
See also Dr Jocelyn Harris on Jane Austen’s satire about hypochondria, Sanditon.
For a view on fictional doctoring in Hanya Yanagihara’s novel A Little Life, see Suffering patient, suffering doctor by Sue Wootton.