“I was in great perplexity”—or so the narrator of “A Country Doctor” tells us at the start of the story. On the road to visiting a patient, with a gig and without horses, his perplexity is understandable. He is a doctor, after all, and he is in need of transportation to visit a potentially sick patient.
The story, it is worth noting, is written in the past tense, so the narrator is recounting these events from a vantage point sometime after the events he describes. It is possible that the opening statement—”I was in great perplexity”—is an expression of his state at the time the story begins; however, it’s also possible that the statement is an expression of something we would now call existential angst.
From where does this “existential angst” spring? The nature of roles and the perception of roles might supply an answer.
As frameworks for viewing the concept and consequences of roles, we can appeal to two thinkers: the sociologist Charles Horton Cooley and the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein. Cooley, working in the early decades of the twentieth century, posited what he called “the looking glass self.” Briefly, the looking glass self is a theory suggesting that our personalities are derived from how we perceive others perceive us. As Cooley once remarked, “I am not what I think I am and I am not what you think I am; I am what I think that you think I am.” (Hood :72)
In his philosophical treatise Tractatus-Logico-Philosophicus, the Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein delineated an ontology that might be useful in viewing the concept of roles objectively. In the Tractacus, Wittgenstein distinguished between things in the universe and the language we used to describe those things, arguing that the language used to describe a thing does not equal the thing itself. To put it simply, the word “matter” is not a component of the thing it is meant to signify; instead, it is a picture of that thing, distinct from it.
We, each of us, play roles. Life is a series of theatrical stages onto which we are thrust, and the roles we play depend on the situation and on the audience, so to speak. Anecdotally, I am different in isolation than I am at work, as I interact with other people. Using “me in isolation” as a baseline, then we can say that I am different at work and different still around friends. Given the situation, given the people with whom I am surrounded, my personality shifts from situation to situation.
This phenomenon is not unique to me. It occurs to each of us. How we encode and retrieve memories, how we select information, how we spin information to loosen the tension of cognitive dissonance too often blinds us from these situational-personality shifts.
Anticipating Cooley’s “Looking Glass Self” theory, the poet and filmmaker Jean Cocteau once encouraged us to embrace the way the public reproached us because, he claimed, their reproaches came closer to signifying who we really are.
In “A Country Doctor” we find several roles cast, and too often we find expectations met and affirmed, by either the people cast in those roles or the people casting those roles.
Having kicked open an uninhabited pigsty, the country doctor discovers a man inside. The man crawls out on all fours—animal-like—and asks, “Shall I yoke up?” (Kafka: 220) This behavior might be a joke, it might be a gag, but to a man in search of a horse, and to man living in a pigsty, it is an interesting pun on roles.
Expectations of roles play a part in this scenario as well. A few minutes later, when this man is helping to yoke real horses, he lashes out and bites the doctor’s servant girl on the cheek, leaving visible teeth marks. The role he had earlier cast himself in, and the role the doctor might have unconsciously cast, brought about subhuman behavior from a man living like—and joking about being—an animal.
We are who we think other people think we are—if this proposition holds true, then it can help shed light on the man’s behavior, on why he bit the servant girl: he was playing a role, that of a horse, and he was performing as he, or others, might expect him to perform.
Calling on Wittgenstein’s ontology, let us distinguish how things are from the language we use to describe them. For the sake of argument, let us presuppose that this story is true. Now consider the following: seeing a man living in a pigsty, crawling around like an animal, how would you expect him to behave: like a civilized dandy or like an animal? Assume the latter. Then assume that he picked up on your expectation: now how would you expect him to behave?
Before the man joked about yoking up, before the man bit the woman, he saw the doctor and the doctor’s serving girl. In a class system, a man living in a pigsty undoubtedly underwent social and culture training inculcating subservience to a person of a higher class—even if it is a doctor. It is possible that the man recognized this, and it is possible that it offered another role for him to perform: servant. So, “of his own free will” (Kafka: 220), the man assisted the doctor and the servant girl in yoking the horses.
The language you use to describe people, even if the language you use is nothing more than body language, even if the difference is perceived class differences, can affect how a person behaves.
On biting the servant girl, the man reverts again to his role as animal when it is implied that he is going to possibly rape the servant girl, who runs into the house and locks the door. The man smacks the doctor’s horses, and the horses race away as the man broke down the door to the house and bolted inside.
We are, each of us, a looking glass. The language we use to describe ourselves does not necessarily reflect our personality or behavior. The language other people use, or, specifically, the language we think they use, can and does affect our personality or behavior.
We can find evidence for this, within the context of Kafka’s story, if we jump ahead in the narrative.
Having arrived at his patient’s house, the doctor is rushed inside by the patient’s family. Lying in bed, the patient says, “Doctor, let me die.” (Kafka:221) The patient’s family doesn’t hear his plea; instead, they watch intently, expecting the doctor to heal their son and brother.
The doctor’s role is one in which he cast himself, but his expectations of this role differ from the expectations of those who do not belong to the medical profession. Here, the patient himself has peculiar expectations for the doctor: by pleading with the doctor to let him die, the patient seems to presuppose that the doctor can save his life—which may or may not be the case.
Yet the doctor has cast himself in another role as well, that of master and protector of the servant girl. While he prepares to attend to the patient, his role as master and protector occupies him, and he contemplates fleeing to save his servant from the clutches of the animal-like man.
We each play roles. Roles dominate our lives. In every second of every day, we play roles, we perform. Do these roles, do these performances, lead to existential angst?
To answer this, we can appeal to the philosophical movement known as existentialism, which in its reduced form makes the following claim: “meaning” is a human construct; it is not a thing that exists independently of human beings; and in lieu of latching onto meaning that exists outside of us, we are free to make our own meaning.
To the country doctor, this triggers an interesting question: what does his role mean, a role perceived by himself and others?
The townsfolk view the role of doctor as almost superhuman, or mystical–or magical. Having surrounded the doctor and stripped off his clothes, they sang, “Strip his clothes off, then he’ll heal us,/ If he doesn’t, kill him dead!/ Only a doctor, only a doctor.” (Kafka: 224)
The role the townsfolk cast is unrealistic, as unrealistic as the role the patient himself cast when he implored the doctor to let him, the patient, die. It is the case such that a doctor might cure people, or at least ease their suffering. This, however, doesn’t necessarily translate to the doctor as the hinge on which life and death always turns. In some cases, it is possible that a doctor can cure or heal someone. It is not the case, however, that, in all cases, a doctor is able to cure or heal someone. Yet these townsfolk seem to assume the latter. Punish the doctor, say, if he does not give us what we want, if he does not fulfill the role he is expected to play, which is the role of superhuman healer.
This is a role he cannot play, this is a role he does not want to play—the situation created for him has spoiled his role as doctor, and now he wants to finish his business so he can escape. However, he must finish meeting with his patient, who is cast in a role of his own: miser.
To illustrate this, pay attention to how the patient behaves when he finally has the doctor’s attention:
“‘Do you know,’ said a voice in my ear, ‘I have very little confidence in you. Why, you were only blown in here, you didn’t come on your own feet. Instead of helping me, you’re cramping me in my deathbed. What I’d like best is to scratch your eyes out.’ ‘Right,’ I said, ‘it is a shame. And yet I am a doctor. What am I to do? Believe me, it is not too easy for me, either.’ ‘Am I supposed to be content with this apology? Oh, I must be, I can’t help it. I always have to put up with things. A fine wound is all I brought into the world; that is my sole endowment.'” (Kafka: 224)
A sense of duty compelled the doctor to visit the patient, duty derived from his role as a doctor. The threats of the townsfolk keeps him by the beside, despite the threats from his patient, despite his patient’s lack of interest in living. The role the doctor plays is as both author of his circumstances and victim of his circumstances, and the expectations he has of himself, and that others thrust onto him, transform his looking glass into a magnifying glass through which rays from the sun pelt and assault him.
His role has thrust him into this circumstance, the expectations others have of him have heightened his circumstance, and he cannot appeal to his role to save him. After all, as he told the patient, “I am a doctor. What am I to do?”
Kafka, Franz, The Complete Stories (Schocken Books, 1995)
Hood, Bruce, The Self Illusion: How the Social Brain Creates Identity (Oxford University Press, 2013)
Wittgenstein, Ludwig, Major Works: Selected Philosophical Writings (Harper Perennial Modern Classics, 2009)