Franz Kafka

A Country Doctor

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A Country Doctor Summary

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“A Country Doctor” is a short story by Franz Kafka written in 1917. It was first published in the German writer’s collection of short stories by the same name. In the story, a country doctor makes an emergency visit to a sick patient on a winter night. The doctor endures a series of absurd, surreal predicaments that eventually result in his demise.

As the story opens, it is a snowy night and the doctor has received word that a young boy in a village fifty miles away is very sick. The doctor is desperate to reach the boy in spite of the treacherous weather conditions. His own horse had died just the night before due to overexertion, and Rosa, his servant girl, is unable to find another suitable horse to pull his carriage.

The doctor stumbles upon a groom and two horses in an unused pigsty in his barnyard and instructs Rosa to help the groom to hitch the horses to his carriage and to prepare them for the journey. The groom attacks Rosa as soon as she gets near him. The doctor climbs into the carriage, but the groom informs him that he has decided to stay behind with Rosa. When she hears this, she turns and runs screaming into the house. The doctor protests in vain, as the horses whisk him away and arrive seemingly instantaneously at the patient’s door.

Upon his arrival, he is greeted by the parents and the sister of the young boy, who usher him into the house and toward the poorly ventilated room of the sick boy. When the doctor examines the boy, he finds that he is quite thin but without a fever. The boy whispers to the doctor that he wants to die. The doctor is at a loss as to what to do. He takes out his instruments and fiddles with them idly, trying to decide what to do next. His mind wanders to thoughts of Rosa, and he realizes, although he never paid her much attention, he is now quite worried about the predicament he left her in.

The horses manage to open a window from the outside of the house to observe the sick boy. As the doctor approaches the bed, one of the horses neighs very loudly, startling him. As he is an underpaid employee of the district in which he works, the doctor often believes that his impoverished patients are taking advantage of him. Deciding that the boy is probably not sick at all, he packs up his things in preparation to vacate the premises. However, the parents express their disappointment at the doctor’s decision, which persuades him to stay, a decision that the horses condone with their loud neighs of approval.

Upon further examination, the doctor finds that the boy is, in fact, very ill. He has a large wound on his right hip that is pink and full of worms. The family looks to the doctor hopefully, thrilled that he has decided to stay and care for the boy, but the doctor feels that there is no way he can possibly save the patient’s life. He believes that, as people have lost their faith in religion, they have come to place it all in the hands of the physician, expecting him to work miracles.

A school choir appears seemingly out of nowhere and sings, “If you undress him, he will heal,” as the family and other villagers join together to strip the doctor down and place him in bed beside the boy’s wound before leaving the room. The boy tells the doctor that he has very little confidence in him and his ability to heal the wound. The doctor apologizes for his own shortcomings, attempting to reassure the boy by telling him that his wound is not uncommon and surely will not be his demise.

Feeling that he has done all he can for the boy, the doctor promptly gathers his clothes and instruments and prepares for his departure back home. Remembering the terrifying speed at which he arrived at the patient’s house, the doctor hitches the horses to his wagon before commanding them to take him home but slowly, “like old men.” They plod through the snowy wasteland. Behind him, the doctor hears another song of the schoolchildren: “Rejoice, you patients, the doctor has been laid in bed for you.”

The doctor thinks that he will never arrive home and that he has lost his practice, a successor is robbing him, the groom rages in his house, and Rosa has been sacrificed. He feels betrayed by his patients and his community. “Naked, exposed to the frost of the most unhappy of times, I, an old man, drive around with an earthly wagon and unearthly horses. . . . Deceived! Deceived! There can be no making amends for having once followed the false ringing of my night bell.”