Summary and Analysis
Chapter 5 leaps back in time to give a snapshot of Aloysius Stevens, the doctor who tried to convince Cora to be sterilized in the previous chapter, during his medical school days. Stevens was a medical student in Boston and worked the night shift at the school’s anatomy house. In this role, he collaborated with a team of grave robbers to supply his school with cadavers. The team went out in the middle of the night to dig up bodies and returned them to the anatomy house, where they were used to train future doctors such as Stevens.
Stevens did not snatch bodies just for the money; he also did not consider grave robbing unethical. He believed that there was a kind of nobility in taking useless bodies and giving them another opportunity to contribute to society.
Far more than the chapter on Ajarry or the chapter on Ridgeway, this brief chapter on Dr. Stevens seems completely unrelated to Cora’s story. For one thing, Stevens appears only briefly in Cora’s South Carolina narrative, and his conversation with her is about sterilization, not body snatching. Why does the novel need to jump back in time to give irrelevant information about a minor character?
Although Stevens’ background does not change Cora’s journey at all, it has everything to do with the novel’s broader themes. Like Cora and Ridgeway, Stevens is a character who lives at the intersection of an ethical paradox. On the one hand, Stevens’ education as a doctor is supposed to be about extending and improving the quality of life, goals that seem inherently noble. But training for this role requires actively engaging with dead bodies, even hoping for people to die so that their bodies can contribute to his education.
According to his society, Stevens’ grave robbing is a crime but not the most serious of crimes. Stevens himself chooses to understand grave robbing as a noble calling in order to ease his own conscience. Instead of allowing people’s deaths to be the end of their contributions to the world, Stevens’ grave robbing for the sake of medical education “gave these people a second chance to contribute.” Perhaps robbing graves isn’t an ideal ethical choice, but within the system Stevens lives in, it is the best thing he can do under the circumstances.
Stevens’ ethical decisions will be even more complex when he gets to South Carolina. There he is part of a system that allows him to provide health care for African Americans but also expects him to encourage sterilization (and to force it on some). Is Stevens evil for the role he plays in medical violence toward the free black population in South Carolina? Or is he simply a cog in the machine of an evil system, facing multiple unethical options as he did during his medical school days in Boston?