Law and Conversation

May 18, 2011

Three doctors in fiction

Earlier this week I posted about an awful case of medical malpractice that Gustave Flaubert depicts in his classic, “Madame Bovary.” Flaubert doesn’t have much sympathy for his fictional physician, Charles Bovary; he paints him as boring and not very smart. Certainly, that’s how Bovary’s wife, Emma, sees him, though her more memorable character is far less attractive.

The medical profession has long been a source of fascination for many storytellers and their audiences. I still remember watching episodes of two long-running soaps, “The Doctors” with a young Kathleen Turner and “Days of Our Lives,” where a significant portion of the action took place in the hospital coffee shop (the characters would find one another there and one would inquire whether the other Wanted To Talk About It), in the early 1980s with my mother (who would guiltily leap up to turn the television off when she saw my father, a doctor who disdained soap operas as a waste of time–not that he’d ever watched any–arriving home).

Here are three novels with wonderful doctor characters, all of which deserve to be much more widely read:

1) “Doctor Thorne,” by Anthony Trollope. I love Trollope and have recently noted that I’m now reading what’s generally considered Trollope’s masterpiece, “The Way We Live Now.” Like “Madame Bovary,” “Doctor Thorne” is a 19th century novel about marriage.  Unlike Charles Bovary, Doctor Thorne is intelligent and perceptive as well as kind and generous. In a story that probate law buffs should enjoy, Thorne serves as guardian of his niece and executor of a wealthy man’s will. Though Trollope excels at depicting mankind’s mercenary motives–the family of one of the heroes of the story, Frank Gresham, emphasizes throughout that “Frank must marry money”–you can count on him to get everything to come right at the end.

2) “A Country Doctor,” by Sarah Orne Jewett. Like Trollope, Jewett displays a keen understanding of human nature. Unlike Trollope, she had some trouble with structuring her stories–ending them, in particular–and many are not so much stories but peaceful landscapes of life in Maine, where she lived. Her model for “A Country Doctor” was her father, Dr. Theodore H. Jewett, to whom she was very close and who would take her, as a young girl, on his rounds of visiting patients.

3) “The Citadel,” by A.J. Cronin, who himself was a physician. Full disclosure: I haven’t read Cronin’s book. I saw the UK production on PBS’s “Masterpiece Theatre” years ago and loved the story and the production. Ben Cross, who may be more familiar to some of us as the star of “Chariots of Fire,” was perfect in his role as Dr. Andrew Manson.

A fun result of my posts on Trollope was that The Trollope Society and I chatted across the pond and started following each other on Twitter. Another interesting person I recently came across on Twitter is Caroline Rance, whose website, “The Quack Doctor,” has lots of fascinating info for anyone interested in medical history.

Ramona Koval moderated a delightful conversation with several Australian doctors about their vocational reading on the Australian Broadcasting Company’s “The Book Show” a year ago, on May 28, 2010.

What stories of doctors and/or medical issues in fiction have made an impression on you?

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