Physicians as Illness Narrative Components
John Berger’s A Fortunate Man reflects cultural beliefs and conceptualizations of illness’ relationship to the physician. Berger’s vignette of the woodsman trapped beneath a tree helps show how the physician is a key component in the development of illness narratives. The piece implies that the doctor is the determinant of both the temporality and conclusion of the narrative. Berger frames this in writing “The [woodsman] would tell the story many times, and the first would be tonight in the village. But it was not yet a story. The advent of the doctor brought the conclusion much nearer, but the accident was not yet over…” (Berger 17-18). This passage recognizes that not only is an event unfolding, but that a story is forming. Furthermore, it claims that the conclusion is formed by the advent of the doctor thus yielding a concrete timeline and resolution.
This narrative framework is further implied in the story’s continual meditation that the doctor’s personhood, as perceived by the bystanders and patient, is inextricably tied to the advent of suffering. The story suggests this twice, the first time stating that the doctor’s “very sureness made it seem to them that he was part of the accident: almost its accomplice” (18) and later stating that “the doctor, whom they knew so well, seemed the accomplice of disaster…” (19). This association reveals a cultural understanding of the doctor as a person who is in a sense othered based on their occupation (in the most basic sense of the word). This is interesting because it places the occupation of medicine in the same realm as race, religion, and nationality as categories of otherness.
Moving forward, Berger’s depiction of the cultural conceptualization of the doctor is interesting and provocative– yet dated. In present time people have much more agency over their health due to the advent of the information age. It is an interesting question whether this narrative relationship is still relevant in the present given that the doctor is no longer the sole symbol of health and wellness.
Berger, John, and Jean Mohr. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. Vintage Books, 1997.