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Schwartz, M.M. (1972). “The Use of Force” and the Dilemma of Violence. Psychoanal. Rev., 59(4):617-625.

(1972). Psychoanalytic Review, 59(4):617-625

“The Use of Force” and the Dilemma of Violence

Murray M. Schwartz

Be certain what you do, sir, lest your justice prove violence.

Shakespeare, The Winter's Tale

My subject is a very short story by William Carlos Williams called “The Use of Force,” about a doctor who forces a spoon into a little girl's mouth to reveal diphtherial membranes that she has been hiding for three days. But, as so much else in Williams’ art, it also represents the dynamics of violence, the convergence of motive and situation which transforms the apparently ordinary into the revelation and partial recognition of sadistic desire enclosed by it. In this condensed expression of a critical incident in the life of a doctor we see the precarious closeness of therapeutic and destructive motives. I want to subject the story to a detailed psychoanalytic reading, to identify its core fantasies, to explore the relationship between manifest and unconsciously acted roles, and to suggest some explanations of its violence. In spite of its brevity, “The Use of Force” brings together central aspects of our current concern with the psychodynamics of aggression. It provides the literary critic with an opportunity to relate careful textual analysis to the more comprehensive concerns usurping our energies.

A doctor, who remains anonymous, is called to the house of “new patients”10 named Olson. He enters an atmosphere which he perceives as distrustful. In the kitchen he attempts to examine the throat of the daughter, named Mathilda. The girl refuses to open her mouth.

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