Confined by her illness to cage-like existence, the woman subject in excerpt of John Berger’s A Fortunate Man, becomes newly acclimated to her surrounding air. Revealed most explicitly in her acquired condition of asthma, air — the pattern and availability of it — becomes an important observational thread throughout the story. Berger begins the story by taking note of this air ‘about’ the woman, one he equates to that of a schoolgirl. He foreshadows the vanishment of this particular kind of air and by the end of the story we realize it is the doctor that has disturbed such. The woman has suffered from insomnia and asthma though her tests for allergy were negative. We find that the source of her illness is not irritability from the surrounding environment but rather deeply rooted emotional trauma. Berger offers up the metaphor, “cage of her illness,” to evoke the image of a woman closed off to the surrounding world, and possibly even herself (Berger, 21). This cage, I find, seems to play a dual role: one of constriction (similar to the way her airways behave) and one of protection (from the outside and from self). Berger carefully describes the instinctive twitching of her eyes and wrinkling her nose — like a rabbit’s — if something is to come too close to the side of her cage. These subtle changes in her features forbode the greater change in demeanor that comes when the doctor asks the woman if her manager ever made a pass on her; “She froze…her hands stopped moving…her breathing became inaudible. She never answered him” (Berger, 23). The doctor had punctured the sides of her cage. By surfacing the source of her pain, it was as if he had ripped the bandaid off to expose her wound to the icy, stinging air that surrounded. His question had penetrated into the air about the woman — one that she used to control her exposure to by the protection of her cage — and taken away her breath.
Berger, John . A Fortunate Man. New York : Vintage Books , 1967. 21-23. Print.
A Fortunate Man: the Story of a Country Doctor is a memoir that follows a doctor and his experiences with two of his patients. A dynamic character, he is only referred to as ‘the doctor’ but gains merit through his actions. He swiftly conjures up a stretcher out of a door and rushes to save a patient trapped under a tree. He also psychoanalyzes a young woman and is able to help her deal with her pain. Despite these endearing elements, he is technically a flat character as he remains stable throughout the work. “He speaks for himself” and puts his patients first.
The second half of the excerpt is characterized by the doctor’s infatuation with a woman “of about thirty-seven.” Her persona, described as “slow and maternal” lends to the doctor’s timid description of her illness. It progresses from “a cold, cough, and [feeling] weak” to “insomnia and then asthma (…) [and] the result of extreme emotional stress.” By chance he finds the true cause of her suffering and realizes that she “very seldom leaves [her] cottage” because of trauma from being assaulted. He goes on to compare her to the moon and deep water full of mystery. After her trauma, “[her] shallows [are] endlessly irritated by their [own] shallowness as though by an allergy” and she lost all airs of being a schoolgirl. The doctor closes his memoir by relating back to her illness and timid nature by referencing “a bend in the river which often reminds [him] of his failure” to discover the true cause of her suffering sooner.
*from John Berger and Jean Mohr’s A Fortunate Man: the Story of a Country Doctor, 1st ed. New York, NY: Random House, 1967.
*Quote* “‘Christ let me alone.’ As he cried ‘alone’ the doctor was beside him. The wounded man recognized the doctor; his eyes focused. For him too the conclusion was nearer and this gave him the courage to be quieter. Suddenly it was silent. The men had stopped hammering but were still kneeling on the ground. The knelt and looked at the doctor. His hands are at home on a body. Even these new wounds which had not existed twenty minutes before were familiar to him. Within seconds of being beside the man he injected morphine. The three onlookers were relieved by the doctor’s presence. But now his very sureness made it seem to them that he was part of the accident: almost its accomplice.”
The first story in A Fortunate Man, The Story of a Country Doctor takes place in the countryside in the Forest of Dean in the mid-1960s (Francis). The characters include 4 unnamed men including the doctor, 3 woodsmen, one of which whose leg was just crushed by a fallen tree. The story began with one man shouting out a warning that the woodman had been in an accident which creates urgency from the beginning. The text is written in the 3rd person omniscient point of view which allows the reader to understand the emotions of the doctor, the onlookers, and the wounded man.
For me, the text really hammered in on the ambiguity of suffering care in the block of text that I included above. The entire text, and especially this passage, seemed to say that the alleviation of suffering is not clear cut and can’t be concluded with the presence of a doctor or treatment. At the beginning of the text, the “wounded man” says ‘Christ let me alone’ while the doctor comes closer. I took “alone” to mean for the pain to leave his body or possibly for death considering the amount of agony he was in. However, the doctor’s very presence solidifies that the pain is real which for a second brings all of the people in the text closer to a “conclusion.” At the perception of a conclusion, the tone of the text seems to shift. In the beginning, there was a sense of urgency as the doctor rushed to the site, the men were anxious about the fate of their friend, and as the wounded man writhed. Afterward, the tone is still and silent, almost as if the characters are holding their breath. They seem to trust the doctor because his hands “are at home on a body.” However, this same comfortability shifts the mood once again. Berger says the doctor is like an “accomplice” of the accident. There is the sense that they are uneasy with the outcome of the doctor’s place in the scheme of the man’s pain. The author frames the relationship as inseparable (pain, treatment, and the doctor) which makes it difficult to consider the doctor as a good force. Essentially, you only need the doctor or healer when something is going wrong and after the doctor goes away the physical and emotional damage will continue to impede the injured person’s life. In the final lines of the text, the author discusses the marker in the ground where the man had been trapped and says that with the visual reminder the other woodsmen questioned if “the doctor could be right” about him not losing his leg. I’m unsure if this means physically, (given that the medical and technological advances probably aren’t where they are now) or emotionally, but I think that the statement could refer to both.
John Berger, A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor (Pantheon, 1967), 12-19.Berger_A_Fortunate_Man_One_of_them_shouted_She_is_a_woman
Francis, Gavin. “John Berger’s A Fortunate Man: a masterpiece of witness.” The Guardian. 7 Feb, 2015. https://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/feb/07/john-sassall-country-doctor-a-fortunate-man-john-berger-jean-mohr
The physical constraints and limitations of the woman in the narrative is striking in a way that makes the reality of her sickness feel tangible. Throughout the text, the writer describes the ways in which the woman is affected medically, as expected. He details her cough, her insomnia, her asthma, the results of her X-ray, and how her lungs continue to handle the illness of her body. The text’s tone is a blend of scientific and narrative by describing the decline of the woman that the doctor senses through interaction with the woman. “Her eyes were round like a rabbit’s. She was timid of anything outside the cage of her illness. If anybody approached too near her eyes twitched like the skin around a rabbit’s nose.” By using an extended analog comparing the woman to a rabbit, my perception of the text made me forget the “soul” of the woman and had me registering the illness she experienced strictly in the context of her body. The illness feels less like a statistic and more like an experience due to the way the writer describes the woman’s account in this detail.
The experience of illness and injury in Berger’s A Fortunate Man reflects a state of panic and confusion inherent in emergency treatment as seen in the fallen tree event. The scene begins in media res as characters and setting are largely unknown, the only exception being a bystander named Harry. The repeated usage of ‘He’ as a stand-in for characters exemplified a state of strangeness to the viewpoint, as though it were merely an example of the immaterial whirlwind of healthcare in a setting where a doctor is poorly equipped to treat their patients and merely serves as an “accomplice of disaster” ( Berger and Mohr 19), unable to take any direct role in healing.
Nonetheless, the doctor is imagined as a powerful force, capable of bringing understanding and giving an injured man “the courage to be quieter” (Berger and Mohr 18). Nearby characters look to the doctor for understanding, as the doctor insists that the injured man will not lose his leg while others had previously merely accepted this loss, showcasing a struggle between modern and premodern medical forces in a setting without a large biomedical influence. Yet, the image of a man waving behind mist provides powerful imagery to this scene, in both direct imagery and its relation to “trying to wipe clean a vast steamed-up window” (Berger and Mohr 17). In both cases, the individual attempts to compete with immaterial natural forces of mist and steam, concealing and providing confusion. Although temporary relief may be found as the mist and fog is cleared up, neither case will provide permanent improvement. Healthcare in this unknown rural area will continue to stagnate, the area will once more be covered with mist, and the ‘vast window’ will once more fog up. This state of confusion and ambiguity thus gives symbolic meaning to the falling of the tree, showcasing typical emergency treatment in this medically isolated countryside.
Berger, John and Jean Mohr. A fortunate Man: Story of a Country Doctor. Random House, 1967.
January 26th, 2020
While reading Henry Berger’s A Fortunate Man, I noticed the majority of the piece regarding the man crushed under a tree was neither really focused on the injured man or the doctor, it was focused around the other woodmen who were present at the scene. Though the woodmen provide the context of the accident to the doctor, they way they view the doctor plays a much more important role in the narrative. For example, near the beginning they view the doctor as an important figure who can help save their friend and his arrival is referred to as an advent. Further along in the story the doctor is described as an accomplice and they seem to lose faith in the doctor. In fact, the last sentence states “But every time they noticed the place they questioned whether the doctor could be right” ( Berger and Mohr 19). There was also a shift in the way the other woodmen viewed the man trapped under the tree. The woodmen originally viewed the man as someone who needed help but as you read further they seem to view the man as someone who brought this injury upon himself. The woodmen had very little sympathy for this man the longer the doctor worked on him and even started placing blame on the injured man. The focus on the woodmen in the story shows how illness is not something just between the doctor and patient, it is something experienced by everyone around them.
Berger, John, and Jean Mohr. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. Vintage Books, 1997.
Michele Rivkin-Fish and Jane Thrailkill
ENGL 264/ANTH 272
26 January 2020
Reading Response: A Fortunate Man
A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor by John Berger has many elements of chaos and disorder, which is accentuated by the style of narration and use of dramatic irony.
The narration in the story is somewhat unusual; the flow is constantly broken as the narrator cuts in by speaking about something that will happen as it pertains to the situation before going back to the present events. This is seen throughout the text, like when Berger writes, “The man would tell the story many times, and the first would be tonight in the village. But it was not yet a story” (p. 17-18). This interruption of the story as future events are referenced breaks the flow but also correlates to the theme of injury. Just as accidents and disability disrupt the normal flow of one’s life, the way it’s written is reminiscent of this as it continuously interrupts the usual flow of the story.
Berger also utilizes dramatic irony, which is when the author and audience have knowledge that characters in the story don’t. In this case, it’s that the man will eventually lose his leg despite best efforts. On page 18, the narrator states that he worked on “the leg the fourth of them would lose.” However, toward the end, the doctor tells Harry that he’ll keep it. This is at odds with the sentence referenced earlier; this incongruence between the doctor’s optimistic prognosis and what actually happens shows the volatility and unpredictability of injuries. Even if all the correct actions are taken, you cannot ensure a certain outcome; the worst can still occur despite best preventions. This is a common theme throughout stories of disability and affliction, and the text highlights this by contrasting the doctor’s prediction with the loss of the man’s leg.
Berger, John, and Jean Mohr. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. Vintage Books, 1967, pp. 17-19.
January 25th, 2020
I chose to examine a section of the second vignette of Berger’s “A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor.”. This story recounts the slow decline of a woman throughout the years, despite the doctor’s attempts to diagnose and cure her. He pursues many routes of diagnosis, ranging from x-rays and allergy tests, but everything comes back inconclusive, leaving the doctor without any potential treatment. Over time he learns what is causing the illness, and realizes it is too late to treat her, shown when the narrator describes that “She now survives on steroids.” (Berger and Mohr 23). The rest of vignette further describes the impact of the illness on the woman, and ends with a paragraph describing a river. This is a stark contrast to the story told immediately before it, where the doctor was confidently able to save a man whose leg was crushed under a fallen tree. In this way, the story of the woman can be seen as a failed restitution narrative, as the woman was unable to receive a cure, or get better. It is interesting how the author explores how the doctor feels about failing in this key moment of the narrative, as generally stories of suffering and illness focus on the feelings of the patient. The doctors feelings on this are best exemplified in the lines “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). The river being clear, but being constantly disturbed exemplifies the condition of the woman, where she is stable and living, but her condition leaves her with constant problems. The bend in the river exemplifies how, even though he failed in his task, the doctor must learn from his experiences, move on, and continue trying to heal others.
Berger, John, and Jean Mohr. A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor. Vintage Books, 1967.
Elizabeth Grace Newhall
26 January 2020
Response to A Fortunate Man
On the surface, Henry Berger’s A Fortunate Man tells the story of a country doctor. Each passage, however, tells not only the doctor’s story, but a story he shares with at least one other person, including the patient. In the short narrative about the man caught under a tree, the bystanders play an equal, if not greater, role in the story. In fact, the reader hears more from the bystanders than the actual injured person, who doesn’t express anything except for some grunts and groans. Once the doctor arrives and the initial franticness of the accident subsides, all three onlookers begin to parrot this idea that the man caught “had a chance” and “could’ve got clear” of the tree before it fell. Readers feel the awkward lull that accompanies being a bystander without a “job.” In the beginning, the men occupied themselves with leading the doctor to his patient, but once the doctor takes over, the only thing the men can do is stand there. They transition from bystander to commenter just in an effort to fill the uncomfortable silence.
Although the tone is fairly innocuous, they imply through their comments that the man had a choice as to whether or not he would be injured, but he chose to get caught under the tree. For a reader, this attitude can be angering and especially disturbing. Although this takes place in early 20th century England, it has implications on the modern idea of victim-blaming. Although today we normally don’t shame people for being victims of this type of physical injury, it makes as much sense as blaming a victim of sexual assault or a person that suffers from mental illness, which is no sense at all.
John Berger’s chaos narrative “A Fortunate Man: The Story of a Country Doctor” begins with a physician driving to a person trapped under a fallen tree. The Doctor arrives at the field and approaches the injured man along with three others. The dialogue between the Doctor and the three people was very rich in significance to the meaning of the story. The Doctor tells the men to lift and they worry that “we could injure him worse than ever” (Berger 19). This harsh reality of Medicine is an internal struggle the physician encounters because professional treatment can cause further injuries to the patient (i.e. surgery risks). This would have been especially true in the 1960s since medical techniques and treatments were not much advanced. The author continues to exclaim, “He could see the crushed leg… like a dog killed on the road” (19). This simile emphasizes the gruesome injuries that the Doctor witnessed daily and the traumas it created for him. This perpetuates the theme that Medicine can be horrifying and taxing on the healers themselves. The dialogue continues to assert that the Doctor “seemed the accomplice of disaster” (19) as if the Doctor was actively attempting to harm the patient. The theme of Medicine being merciless and unpitying is presented, as the Doctor probably struggled with vivid memories of watching people die and feeling responsible for their death. In Medicine, not every patient will survive their injury nor will they live to tell their story of illness. The dialogue ends with a dark mood, yet contrasted with a glimmer of hope, as the Doctor believes the man “won’t lose his leg” (19). This is referencing the hopefulness that the Doctor must maintain to continue helping patients, while also dealing with the hardships caused by previous patient death.
Berger, John, and Jea Mohr. A Fortunate Man: the Story of a Country Doctor. Vintage Books, 1997.