The Doctor’s Failure


Passage taken from A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor

“Her asthma continued and caused structural deterioration of the lungs. She now survives on steroids. Her face is moon shaped. The expression of her large eyes is placid. But her brows and eyelids and the skin pulled tight over her cheek bones twitch at every moment and sound which might constitute a warning of the unexpected. She looks after her mother, but very seldom leaves the cottage. When she sees the doctor, she smiles at him now as she would probably smile at the solider of the Salvation Army.”

Before, the water was deep. Then the torrent of God and the man. And afterwards the shallows, clear but constantly disturbed, endlessly irritated by their very shallowness as though by an allergy. There is a bend in the river which often reminds the doctor of his failure” (Berger and Mohr 23).

In A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor, John Berger and Jean Mohr create a story detailing the relationship between a doctor and a young girl in a village in rural England. At the beginning of the passage, words such as “structural deterioration” and “steroids” which are associated with disease, “an alteration in biological structure or functioning,” are used to describe the girl’s condition (Kleinman 5). In the middle of the passage, words that describe the patient’s specific features such as her “placid” eyes and “cheekbones” twitching signify the doctor’s transition into also recognizing her symptoms of illness, or “the innately human experience of symptoms and suffering” which he realizes two years later (Kleinman 3).

Towards the end of the passage, Berger describes a body of water which is likened to the girl’s personality. Prior to the assault, the girl is characterized as “deep” where she is willing to put a deep trust in those around her. Then, there is a “torrent” when her trust is shattered by her sexual assault and the doctor’s inability to understand her anxiousness. Given her trust has been diminished, her personality is likened to the “shallows” in her maintenance of a superficial relationship to those around her.

Through word choice and metaphor, Berger and Mohr ultimately reveal the deterioration and destruction of the doctor-patient relationship that can arise when doctors only consider symptoms of disease and are unable to earn their patients’ trust. The doctor has failed to recognize symptoms of illness in the girl’s facial expressions and nonverbal actions by merely questioning her instead of trying to recognize her actions, thereby losing her trust. The doctor’s failure is clearly seen in her smile towards him as how “she would probably smile at the soldier of the Salvation Army,” a superficial smile signifying a lack of trust which he cannot earn back.


Works Cited

Kleinman, Arthur. The Illness Narratives: Suffering, Healing, and the Human Condition. Basic Books, A Member of the Perseus Books Group, 2007.

Berger, John, and Jean Mohr. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. Canongate, 2016.