Kafka used an unusual technique for telling his story of "A Country Doctor": he wrote in the first person, thereby imparting an exciting degree of immediacy to the story. The story is also exciting because of its fragmentary character — a symptom of Kafka's searching mind, reflected here in an almost stammering rhythm. This effect is heightened by a lavish use of semicolons that chop up the already short and forceful sentences into even smaller units. An atmosphere of quasi-detached objectivity stands in almost eerie contrast to the story's dramatic impact and underlying miraculous character. Typical of Kafka, however, the language reflects the complete union between dream world and reality; in fact, the horses, ghostly embodiments of irrational forces, seem to drive, besides the doctor, even the author farther on. Kafka's recurring motif of the hunt (compare this story with "The Hunter Gracchus" and "The Burrow") has found expression in these galloping sentences, each seeming to chase the one before it.
The story begins in the past, switches to the present in the rape scene, reverts to the past, and finally shifts back to the present at the end, thus elevating the final catastrophe to the level of timelessness. At an even faster pace, images that share no logical connection with each other rush toward the story's last sentence: "A false alarm on the night bell once answered — it cannot be made good, not ever." Here is a good starting point for examining the story.
From the story's last sentence, it becomes evident that the whole story is the inevitable consequence of a single mistake. By following the call — a mere hallucination, a nightmare — the doctor triggers a long chain of disastrous events. His visit to the patient seems to be a visit into the bewildering depths of his own personality, for there is no actual ringing of the bell. The strange (and estranged) patient waiting for him does not really exist outside the doctor's imagination; he may be seen as part of the doctor's personality, playing a role comparable to that of the "distant friend" in "The judgment" or the gigantic insect in "The Metamorphosis." "A fine wound is all I brought into the world," the patient complains, thereby suggesting that the doctor is his potential healer and belongs to him. During his entire journey, the doctor never leaves the vast regions of his unconscious, of which his patient is perhaps the darkest aspect.
In portraying this nightmare, Kafka has succeeded in portraying the situation of the man who wants to help but cannot. Kafka may well have seen himself and the whole profession of writers in the position of the country doctor: a man fighting against ignorance, selfishness and superstition, he remains exposed to "the frost of this most unhappy of ages." This is a diagnosis not only of a specific situation but also of the condition of our whole age. This is why the patient's question is not if the doctor will heal him or cure him, but if he will save him. "That's how the people act in my district; they always expect the impossible from the doctor," he says, explaining why he — or, on another plane, the writer — cannot be of any real help to the patient. He finds himself confronted with people whose consciousness is still attached to the realm of magic. They reveal this by stripping the doctor of his clothes and laying him in the bed alongside the patient. "The utterly simple" tune following this ritual reflects their primitivism, which would not hesitate to use the doctor as a scapegoat and kill him if his art should not work.
Although "In the Penal Colony," written two years earlier, is a better expression of Kafka's horror of World War I, there is much concern here for innocent scapegoats. The anxiety prevailing throughout this story also reflects Kafka's problems resulting from his second engagement to Felice Bauer and his deteriorating health. Shortly after his condition was diagnosed as tuberculosis, he wrote to Max Brod that he had predicted this disease himself and that his anticipation occurred in the wound of the sick boy in "A Country Doctor."
There are many more autobiographical elements, none of them "proving" anything in the strict sense of the word, but all of them shedding some additional light on the gloomy world of Kafka. The story is dedicated to his father, who ignored it completely. The misunderstanding between the physician and the patient is a reflection of the equally barren relationship between the old Kafka and the young Kafka. Knowing to what extremes Kafka tends to carry the art of name-giving, it is easy to see that the servant girl's name, Rose, is by no means accidental: "rosered" is the color of the meticulously described wound, and the color rose, as well as the flower, is an age-old symbol of love in its manifold facets. There is no need to insist on one specific meaning of the word, if only because Kafka himself does not. The meaning is clear, considering that December 1917, the year after he wrote "A Country Doctor," brought Kafka's final separation from Felice, his "rose" in both senses of the word.
The groom represents Kafka's sometimes almost obsessive fear of a sexually superior rival. On this subject, he wrote that Felice did not stay alone and that someone else got close to her who did not have the problems which he, Kafka, had to face. In the story, the groom certainly gets to Rose easily, and if she says "no," she nevertheless runs into the house fully aware of her fate.
"If they misuse me for sacred reasons, I let that happen too," the doctor says. Yet his sacrifice would be senseless because it is beyond a physician's power to help an age spiritually out of kilter. It is out of kilter because, as everywhere in Kafka's work, people have lost their faith and have taken to living "outside the law," listening to the false prophets of unbridled technological progress and conformism. The boy does not trust the doctor, and his family displays the subservient and naive behavior of the average patient. As the doctor puts it: "They have discarded their old beliefs; the minister sits at home, unraveling his vestments, one by one; but the doctor is supposed to be omnipotent." This is why the song of "Oh be joyful, all you patients — the doctor's laid in bed beside you!" is the "new but faulty song": the empirical and the transcendental realms are no longer one; the only way they meet is in the form of a clash leading to a "false alarm."
Only if we understand Kafka's notion of disease as resulting from seclusion can we begin to understand the country doctor. He is the subject and the object of his long quest or, expressed differently, the psychoanalyst of his own inner landscape (on another level, our whole secularized age) and the patient. And Kafka, though interested in Freud's teachings, regarded at least the therapeutical part of psychoanalysis as a hopeless error. According to Kafka, anxiety and concomitant alienation are the direct consequence of man's spiritual withering, and all psychoanalysis can possibly do is discover the myriad pieces of one's shattered universe.
Without his doing anything special, the doctor draws exactly the help he needs when he kicks the door of the pigsty. Like his whole trip, the sudden appearance of horses, groom, and gig bears the mark of the miraculous and the supernatural. Ever since Plato's (Phaidros) famous parable of the chariot being pulled by one white horse and one black horse, symbolizing the bright and the dark aspects of irrationality (rationality is in charge and tries to steer a middle course), horses have symbolized instincts and drives. The fact that they have come out of a pigsty here underscores their animalistic nature. Twice the doctor complains that his own horse died, and both times his remarks are accompanied by winter scenes, suggesting the barrenness of the (spiritual) wasteland around him.
Right away, the horses respond to the fiery "gee up" of the groom, who has already demonstrated his kinship with their world by calling them "brother" and "sister." The doctor also yells "gee up" at the end but, time being the correlative of experience, they will only crawl "slowly, like old men"; escaping from the patient and erring through the snowy wastes, the doctor has no experience by which to divide up time and, consequently, loses his orientation. The horses take over completely, at any rate, covering the distance to the patient's farm in an incredibly short period of time which, symbolically enough, is exactly the time it takes the groom to subdue Rose. Greatly adding to the story's dramatic impact, the doctor's night journey and Rose's rape are merged here on a logically inexplicable level.
"You never know what you're going to find in your house," Rose says, "and we both laughed." This line may be a clue. It is important that it is she who says this statement; she is better attuned to the realm of irrational forces than he, who spends most of his trip regretting that he has never noticed her, much less enjoyed her physically and spiritually. Now he realizes his negligence, but now it is too late because she has already been sacrificed to the groom. Her comment and their laughter at the sudden appearance of the horses reveal that these sensual and spiritual elements are present, but that they need to be brought out. On a literal level, this happens as they come out of the pigsty.
The closing picture of the fur coat trailing in the snow behind the doctor mirrors the helplessness of one who has been "betrayed." Traveling through endless wastes on his straying gig, the doctor is doomed to see the symbol of warmth and security without being able to reach it. Naked and cold and gone astray, the country doctor is the pitiful picture of disoriented mankind drifting over the treacherous landscape of its sick collective consciousness. And there is no end in sight because "he was used to that."
The question of the doctor's guilt provokes thoughts of uncertainty and ambiguity. As everywhere else in Kafka's work, the hero does not commit a crime or even a grave error. We are apt to get closer to the situation when we realize that he maneuvers himself, or permits himself to be maneuvered, into a state of mind which forces him to refrain from concrete decisions and commitments. In this sense, he becomes guilty of the classic existential sin — failing or refusing to become involved. By not taking his profession seriously and therefore lacking in responsibility, he forfeits his only chance of taking the decisive step from mere vegetating to conscious living. True, as a medical man he cannot be expected to save a patient whose sickness is, above all, of a spiritual nature. Yet he is guilty because he lacks the will to try his level best; he is afraid to act like a "world reformer" and pats himself on the shoulder for doing so much work for so little pay. Nor does he bother to view the wound as the result of the complex but undeniable interrelationship between physical and psychological factors of which Kafka himself was very much aware. Symptomatic of our age, the country doctor is the one-dimensional man who has lost a sense of participation, not only in the sphere of the sensual, but also in that of the spiritual.
Like the doctor himself, his "pack of patients" has stepped outside the law" and into chaos. From there, they cannot help, the point being that they have lost the capability of doing that long ago. Whoever breaks out of Kafka's "human circle" alienates himself to the point of death. Kafka is most clear in this story: the impossibility of curing our age is his subject.