Benign or Malignant? : The Ineffable Doctor

Casey Austin Williams

Various iterations of the doctor in theatrical literature highlight the increasingly complex and contested role of the doctor within society and in the lives of their patients. Playwrights Ibsen and Chekhov depict the doctor in such a way as to expose the profound sense of disillusionment and overall nihilistic ontology that pervades these figures. The doctor, as an intellectual figure with incumbent authority, is ironically rendered inept not only in his inability to produce personal meaning through psychological introspection but more poignantly so due to his profound alienation from his work and consequent failure as a symbolic figure. Doctors Rank and Chebutykin serve as emblems for the inevitable failure and inefficacy of the consuming modernist preoccupations with health, vitality, and the presupposition of meaning. The doctor’s inability to staunchly adhere to the professional doctrine, coupled with their overall ineptitude in the field, results in their resignation to a listless existence in which the consequent deterioration of their personhood defines their very being. The incongruous and fluid understanding of these doctors as emissaries of both the public and private spheres further propels the occupants of this role to be regarded with ambiguity and thus relegated to a state of impassable estrangement. Essentially, having been so engrossed in the restoration of others, the doctor is rendered completely incapable of negotiating his personal restoration and fulfillment.

Henrik Ibsen’s A Doll House introduces the basally tragic figure of Doctor Rank; Rank, in an attempt to consolidate and provide some semblance of meaning to his existence, must come to terms with the inevitability of his physical demise and the impossibility of his fantastical and relatively perverse romantic desires. Doctor Rank, in having succumbed to “the philosophy that’s turning our whole world into a hospital” (Ibsen 159), is locked into perpetuating the physicians rather macabre role of “chronic deception” (The Doctor In Literature 5) of his patients and evidently himself. Being fully aware of the various incongruities and deceptions that make up the Helmer household, these spanning from his own illicit and unprofessional desire of Nora to his intimate knowledge of Torvald’s potentially dire health, Rank is forced to attempt to reconcile the increasingly blurred lines of his professional and personal roles. Rank is thus intrinsically out of place and disadvantaged in regards to his professional and personal occupancies. This profound sense of disillusionment and unbelonging stem from the apparent inversion of the customary proceedings of “the basic relationship between patients and trained expert helpers…[having] remained essentially unchanged” (The Doctor In Literature 8) over time. Being unable to even “comprehend – what would have become of me if I had never found my way to this house” (Ibsen 179), the doctor inadvertently expresses the utterly precarious state of his being; one in which his identity is entirely contingent upon the literal health and wellbeing of not only the Helmer’s but of himself in association to them.

In defining himself and his worth solely upon his relationship to the Helmer’s, Rank transcends the intended menial and systematic role of caretaker and advisor to that of an unencumbered and eccentric devotee who seeks to placate his own despondency and barrenness through being at Nora’s “service with body and soul…[and doing] whatever is humanly possible” (Ibsen 180) to secure her well being at the expense of his professional and moral sanctity. In order to assert some sort of agency and meaning to his life of service, Doctor Rank must express his concerns surrounding his impending death theatrically in order to support his illusion that he is more than just his profession, “Doctor Rank, Physician and Surgeon”, rather seeking to be remembered as an integral “part” of Nora and Torvald (Ibsen 196-197). Having dramatically likened his death to slipping “into the next masquerade…invisible”, Rank resigns himself from life by the very same means in which he lived it, acting as “a cloudy background to…[others] sunlit happiness” and furthermore fulfilling his prescribed role of the doctor in successfully, although depressingly, “transcend[ing] time and place” (The Doctor in Literature 9).

Ivan Romanovich Chebutykin, of Anton Chekhov’s Three Sisters, is representative of the inherent hopelessness, existentialism, and alienation that the archetypal doctor embodies and seeks, but inevitably fails, to overcome intellectually. Doctor Chebutykin quite frankly comes across as “an ignorant, drunken clown” (The Physician and His Family 314) however upon further inspection, much like Doctor Rank, he is revealed to be an inherently tragic figure who defines himself solely upon his failure as an authoritative and respected practitioner. Chebutykin is represented from the very outset of the play to be living under the complete control of Irina, in a somehow simultaneously paternal and marital role, and in being so is stunted due to the fact that his entire identity and personhood is founded on Irina, having no qualms in asserting that “I will, I will…” (Chekhov 252) adhere to anything and everything that she needs. Not only is Chebutykin stunted as an individual in his steadfast adoration of Irina, and by association the Prozorov family, but is impeded from actualizing and effectively partaking in the role of the physician as he has “never done a thing…[and] won’t work” (Chekhov 252).

Furthermore, Chebutykin reconciles his ultimate failure as a doctor through the
excessive and fundamentally unhealthy adoration he holds for the Prozorov’s and consequently derives his very purpose for persisting in his old age from the recognition that although he is “an old man; a lonely, insignificant old man…There’s nothing good about me, expect this love for you” (Chekhov 254). What makes this declaration of essentially a lifetime of dignified self hatred and servitude so tragic is the means in which it is expressed; Chebutykin shows no signs of trepidation or shame in the fact that his entire personhood is contingent upon a group of people who will never be able to love him the way he loves them. This notion of dignified self hatred elucidates Chebutykin’s understanding of himself as an ultimate failure and in a counterintuitive capacity allows him to revel in his resignation to the “ignorance [that] constitutes [him to be] a menace” (The Doctor In Literature 194). In employing this rather pessimistic and defeatist means to define his professional failure, and in doing as such transform it into a flawed trait instead of a fundamental inadequacy, Chebutykin unconventionally and paradoxically takes on a sort of pride in the humiliating fact that he has “been a sinner from way back” (Chekhov 264) and therefore sees no possibility of redemption. This inversion of any semblance of negative sentimentality to that of a comedic and nonchalant attitude is repeatedly reflected in Chebutykin’s divisive and nonsensical use of language, shifting from the poignant and esoteric claim that “However you philosophize, loneliness is a terrible thing” to almost immediately thereafter declaring that “Of course, it doesn’t matter!” (Chekhov 278). Chebutykin, although seemingly willingly resigning himself to perpetuating self loathing, recognizes that this attempt to embrace mediocrity is “intellectually incompatible…[and] obviously not conducive” rather being a foolhardy “distraction…[which seeks to] distort the image” rather than remedy it, as a good doctor should (The Physician and His Family 316).

Doctors Rank and Chebutykin, in failing to overcome their incessant desires to belong and be loved above all, fall into a profound nihilism which only exacerbates their preexisting alienation from their prescribed role as doctors. This process of upheaval results in the breakdown of these already deeply flawed and fragile figures who are now not only forced to reckon with the impossibility of their personal desires but their consequent inability and inadequacy to perform their most basic duty, care. Doctor Rank, in becoming increasingly aware of his fate to be “rotting in the churchyard” (Ibsen 177), must confront “almost an occupational hazard for physicians” (The Physician and His Family 316); the process in which the carer becomes the cared for. This disconcerting heightened awareness of his mortality propels Doctor Rank to accept that “I’m the worst of all my patients” (Ibsen 177) and in realizing so is required to admit that he has failed in the most basic task of the doctor, to “retain sufficient insight” (The Doctor in Literature 106) into his own health so that he may continue to attend to the health of others. In passing away, due to a fundamental neglect of his own health and wellbeing, Rank somewhat inadvertently contributes to Nora and Torvald’s estrangement as he is unable to
complete the one simple task that is asked of him, that “for Torvald…[and Nora]…he simply will not die” (Ibsen 178). While Doctor Rank fails in his duty as a doctor by involving himself to such a high degree in his patients lives that he neglects himself, Doctor Chebutykin ultimately proves to be an inadequate doctor due to his obsessive preoccupation with ensuring his own destruction through incessant philosophizing and his inability to come to terms with the fact that he doesn’t “know anything, nobody knows anything” (Chekhov 285). Upon the unnecessary and easily preventable passing of one of his patients it is evident that Chebutykin’s seeming “total disinterest” in his field makes him “positively dangerous” (The Doctor in Literature 175) and that his overall inability to “be corrigible” has resulted in the destruction of an innocent. Chebutykin is thus forced to admit, rather unwillingly, that his “head’s empty…soul’s frozen” and that in actuality he doesn’t “know a blessed thing, forgot anything” he ever knew (Chekhov 293, 283). In this harrowing confession, which leads to a descent into madness in which Chebutykin realizes he is destined to “sit in gloom” (Chekhov 306) for the rest of his days, the doctor is stripped of all illusions of grandeur and capability and forced to reckon not only with his personal failure, but the undeniable non fulfillment of his professional occupancy and thus his purpose.

Henrik Ibsen’s Doctor Rank and Anton Chekhov’s Doctor Chebutykin represent the nuanced and invariably complex role of the doctor in society that transcends the simple maintenance of one’s health. In highlighting the irreconcilable nature between the personal and professional spheres, Ibsen and Chekhov consider the disconcerting notion that no amount of education or intellectual prowess will result in a comprehensive understanding and consolidation of the fundamentally dissonant realms of one’s desires and one’s expected behaviours. The doctor, a figure often held in the highest esteem, is revealed to be as profoundly fractured and alienated from their purpose as the everyman and is thus subject to the same physical and emotional distress. Although seemingly preoccupied with the maintenance of everyone other than themselves, the doctor, in taking on the role of caretaker, provider, and advisor, reveals more so than anything the immense vulnerability and emotional fluidity of the occupant of this role. The doctor’s quest to be a symbol and emblematic of something so principal and revered in society, a concern for the other rather than the self, exposes the deep rooted desires of intimacy and human connection that dictate and define what it is to be human, in effect rendering the
ineffable doctor to be the most human of all.

Works Cited
Chekhov, Anton Pavlovich, and Laurence Senelick. “Three Sisters.” Anton Chekhov’s Selected Plays, W. W. Norton & Company, Inc., 2005, pp. 241–307. A Norton Critical Edition. Ibsen, Henrik. “A Doll House.” Ibsen’s Selected Plays, edited by Brian Johnston, W. W. Norton
& Company, Inc., 2004, pp. 143–207. Norton Critical Editions. Posen, Solomon. The Doctor in Literature: Satisfaction or Resentment? Radcliffe Publishing, 2005.
Posen, Solomon. “The Portrayal of the Physician in Non-Medical Literature: The Physician and His Family.” Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine, vol. 85, June 1992, pp. 314–317. National Center for Biotechnology Information.


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