“The Good Doctor” is set in northeast Nebraska, near the small towns of Atkinson, Tilden, and Ewing. The Buckholdt family lives in a “white fifties prefab, sagged on one side” with “empty prairie stretching miles in every direction.” The first thing Dr. Briggs notices on the property is “the skeleton of a Chevy Nova, grass to the windows.” In this remote area, stuck in chronic poverty, this wreck of a car suggests a place from which there is no transportation or escape. Even the car’s name literally means “no go.” Then too the heat is over one hundred degrees, “the horizon molten in air heated thick as the fumes of gasoline.” Art may provide “perfect” images of “lush landscapes,” but these pictures are fanciful creations, unlike anything Mrs. Buckholdt has ever seen in her Nebraska-bound life. She reports to Dr. Briggs that she took her son, Jason, to Chicago to the museums, to St. Louis to buy a violin, and she told him stories about taking a ship across the ocean to visit Athens and Rome, but one may get the sense that Jason, by the time he was fourteen or fifteen, realized there was no hope for departure. His death in a borrowed truck that hits a wall of an overpass perfectly conveys his felt urgency to escape and the wall that prevented (or provided) it.
An allusion is a reference to some work of art or historical event or person that lies beyond the present work; the effectiveness of an allusion depends on its being recognized by the reader. The allusion has significance of its own that is relevant to the present text; the connection between the present text and the allusion relies on the shared knowledge of the author and the reader. If something is mentioned in a work of literature, it is generally worthwhile to investigate the reference and ask oneself why this allusion was made and not another. One can assume the allusion is relevant to the text at hand. During the interview with Dr. Briggs, Mrs. Buckholdt focuses on a print by Pieter Brueghel which hangs behind the doctor on the living room wall. She states that it is a copy of The Fight between Carnival and Lent , which Brueghel painted in 1559. Elsewhere during their talk, Mrs. Buckholdt mentions the artist Géricault and his paintings of Arcadia, “those huge, lush landscapes of his.” Mrs. Buckholdt says the painting by Brueghel was Jason’s favorite, so it provides in a sense an index to his character or to what held his attention.
This painting depicts a village scene that is in every sense unlike the Buckholdt property. Whereas the Buckholdts are isolated on the prairie, the villagers in Brueghel’s painting are all out in the town square interacting with one another. Great diversity is depicted: people reveling, others praying; some overindulging, others gaunt with fasting. Good and evil, abstinence of Lent and celebration of carnival, all mix together among these lively, engaged peasants. To step into Brueghel’s scene would be to invite total sensation and stimulation. Addicted to methamphetamine, Jason existed in a hyper state of over-stimulation, unable to sleep or to focus. In a place practically devoid of stimulation, he rubbed himself raw. The Brueghel painting helps readers understand the imagined world Jason longed for. In a similar way, Mrs. Buckholdt’s love of Géricault’s landscapes conveys her longing for a world very unlike the one she inhabits, green, mountainous, moist. She loved studying art history in college because standing in front of those paintings allowed her imaginatively to escape the limitations of her life in Nebraska.
One form of irony is the discrepancy between what is expected and what actually happens. The difference between what one anticipates, between what ordinarily happens, and what in this case unfolds draws the reader’s attention to a central topic or problem in the story. In some ways, the interview in “The Good Doctor” reverses what conventionally happens during a psychological evaluation. It is conventional for the doctor to ask the questions, and the patient to answer them. The doctor is in charge; as the professional helper, the doctor has choices and can suggest and administer treatment. By contrast, the patient is understood to be the one with the problem, the one who is vulnerable and needy. However, in this story, in some ways, the opposite is true. The doctor is in his patient’s home, on her turf so to speak. Dr. Briggs is younger than his patient, and he seems less assertive or dominant than she appears. Instead of answering his questions, she asks her own, and when he objects politely, she is able to draw him into speaking about himself, something he knows is unprofessional and inappropriate.
He comments that she has missed several appointments; she asks him if he is childless. He asks her if she was depressed after her son died; she asks him where he grew up. Dr. Briggs attempts to establish control, tries to bring her back to the subject, her psychological condition and need for medication, but she counters with another question about his past, his background, his intention to marry. It is surprising to see the repeated ways in which she takes control of the interview when one would expect the psychiatrist to have control of it. Indeed, when he asserts, “it’s important for me to get a handle on your situation so we can try to help you,” she apologizes yet again poses a question: “Of course. I apologize. I just like having a sense of who I’m talking with. You’re from the East I take it.”
Mrs. Buckholdt, the patient, the one who has had a traumatic experience and may, as Dr. Briggs theorizes, suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, is the one who comes across as organized, “self-possessed,” and in surprisingly good physical health, whereas Dr. Briggs has a headache from drinking too much alcohol the previous night, is unprepared for this interview, and, as readers learn elsewhere, he is unable to sustain a romantic relationship longer than six months. These reversals in what might be ordinarily expected direct the reader to consider both the doctor and the patient in different terms. The doctor’s youth and inexperience are emphasized, and Mrs. Buckholdt’s strength and ability to persevere suggest she needs less professional support than Dr. Briggs assumes. In all, she is able to describe what happened to her and to assert that she can manage, without talking to him again and without the prescriptions, if he does not refill them. That she refuses his offer of further treatment causes Dr. Briggs to panic. Thus, irony is used to show the ineptness in the professional to address the problems of his patient. It also reveals that the patient may in some ways be stronger than the doctor.
Ira Mark Milne – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 24, Adam Haslett, Published by Gale Group, 2006