Placed and prized ever since in the 1938 publication in the book Life along the Passaic River, my favorite William Carolos Williams’ short story “Use of Force” is a first-person exposition with very little dialogue. I am comfortable with the tension created by the lack of quotation marks, as I like reading in a smooth steam, and Williams’ intensions to tell the story appear to be clear. Focusing on his profession, Williams is recounting a story from the medical practice in which he started out.
The words are important in social discourse and we discover as the narrator draws our attention to the uncomfortable welcome the mother into her house, that the doctor is an important guest whose presence is crucial. The object of the visit is her sick daughter. Williams describes the daughter as “One of those picture children [sic blue-eyed blondes] often reproduced in advertising leaflets and the photogravure section of the Sunday papers” presuming the readers’ familiarity with reading and with these American publications (22). This identifies his audience but puts distance between them and the characters in the story.
Doctor, father, mother, and the beautiful Olson child are afraid because cases of diphtheria have been found in the local school district and its contemplation, embedded in the social context of life in the poor industrial towns of New Jersey, was too awful to even be spoken about out loud. The child says her throat does not hurt, she has a fever, and she will not let anyone look at her throat. Here we have to defer meaning of the title “Use of Force.” Who would want to force something on a very sick child? The examination becomes a test in several layers.
The most obvious area to look for closure is in how the doctor has to eventually force her mouth open in order to see her secret: “both tonsils covered with membrane” (24). I see meaning in a more disordered sense of the title, however. Deferring until I had reread and highlighted the sexual and physical terms in the story, I also see another struggle or use of force.
Observing moments of difficulty when the narrator’s description, which if taken out of context, could be mistaken for a physical act of abuse, we hear that he “had already fallen in love with the savage brat” and that “her parents were contemptible to [him]” (23). He “wanted “to kill” her father over his behavior and word choice (23). When the doctor first tried to see inside the child’s mouth he says “…I coaxed, just open your mouth wide…opening both hands wide…just ….let me see” (22). He thinks of her as a heifer (22). Her magnificent blonde hair…is in profusion” and he wants to “expose her throat for inspection” (22, 23).
Likewise the child looks at her adversary with “cold, steady eyes, and no expression to her face whatever” (22). She pounces on the doctor with catlike movement[s], knocking his glasses off (22). She “fights valiantly” to keep him away (24).
These major clues of dysfunction in the natural order of caretaker and innocent could actually describe a rapist’s behavior: “I could have torn the child apart in my own fury and enjoyed it. It was a pleasure to attack her. My face was burning with it (23). Why else would he make an “unreasoning assault” and “overpower the child’s neck” (24)? The concluding evidence implies her rage and downfall as she attacked him again with “tears of defeat blinded her eyes” (24).