Kafka configures gender roles in both familiar and unexpected ways. His characters, despite certain conformities with the stereotypes of his age, are in flux…Gender boundaries in Kafka’s writings of all periods are indistinct…For Kafka one is not born male or female, to paraphrase Simone de Beauvoir, one becomes one or the other or sometimes a mixture of the two. (emphasis added, Lorenz 169)
Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” embodies the central concerns of the above apposite observation. The short story provides a rich matrix of complex, contradictory and multivalent engagement with gender roles and stereotypes. The socially-sanctioned, established roles of masculinity and femininity are destabilized and Kafka posits multiple, unstratified, heterogeneous prototypes of manliness and masculinity. The plot of the story revolves around the eponymous country doctor, who is compelled by circumstances beyond his control, to visit a seriously ill patient, even when he sees his servant-girl about to be sexually abused by a horse-groom, whose horse he had borrowed to visit his patient. Typically of Kafka, the female presence in the short story is marginal. “The essential power struggles in Kafka’s texts are between the males. Nowhere in Kafka does the woman speak for herself. Because it is the male heroes who organize the text’s way of seeing, the angle of vision in Kafka’s texts is necessarily androcentric i.e., male centered” (Lazar and Gottesman 351). Rose the abused servant girl is neither given a considerable physical presence, nor an audible voice. The only voice accorded to her is the monosyllable “No” (Kafka 2), the revolted scream of resistance she lets out when the malevolent designs of the groom is made evident. After which one can no longer hear her voice, though her presence haunts the rest of the story, as it does the consciousness of the protagonist. The fate of Rose and the peripheral space it occupies in the body of the story conforms with the gender stereotype of female passive, insignificant Other. As Simone de Beauvoir says, “humanity is male, and man defines woman, not in herself, but in relation to himself…He is the Subject; he is the Absolute. She is the Other” (Beauvoir 19).
However, as one set of stereotype is adhered to, another set of stereotypes is defied in the story, calling into question, the prescribed socio-cultural gender roles. While the brutish groom conforms to the traditional image of man as an aggressive, justifiably libidinous, militant being, the doctor’s character runs counter to the socially-revered configuration of an ideal manhood. From the beginning, the doctor is denied the faculty of productive agency. Instead of being the source of action, he is the passive recipient of actions done to him. The introductory image of the doctor standing in the courtyard with a bag of medical instruments, getting “increasingly covered with snow” (Kafka 2), “hopeless” (2), “useless” (2)and “immobile” (2), while his servant-girl is “running around the village to see if she could borrow a horse”(2) serves as a forewarning of the doctor’s forthcoming lack of action, in the face of Rose’s inevitable violation. His reprimanding of the groom “You brute, do you want the whip?”(2) is momentary and impotent, and of no threat to the groom who assumes a commanding position, directing the doctor to “climb in” (2) the carriage. The doctor obediently climbs in the carriage “happily”(2). The groom then makes known his intention of staying back with Rosa and even though the doctor protests, he is carried away by the horses. Henceforth, the wishes of the doctor are of no consequence. Even in the house of the patient the doctor’s will is subordinated to the collective will of the patient’s family. The doctor is shown to be bereft of any manly agency or autonomy. He is lifted “out of the carriage” (2). His credentials as an able doctor are doubted by the family. The doctor fails to live up to the masculine role of the progenitor of a productive, fruitful act. His inability to correctly diagnose is a symbolic manifestation of his impotency, his effeminacy. This is further strengthened by the village people’s “gendering of two male characters as masculine and feminine respectively” (Lorenz 177). The doctor is “stripped of my clothes” (Kafka 4) and is taken by “the head and feet and dragging me into bed”(4) and is forced to lie beside the patient with the wound. He puts no effort to resist, “I let that happen to me as well”(4). The imposition of others’ will on the doctor, together with the heavy sexual connotations associated with the act, is a kind of symbolic rape that has an apposite parallel in the actual rape of Rose. The reversal of gender roles where the man is the passive victim of aggression and imposition both on the body and the will can be seen as the doctor’s act of atonement of his guilt. He is haunted by Rose’s violation and his own ineptitude. His inability to save and protect, the traditional roles ascribed to men, his servant girl, his dependent is a manifestation of his impotence and emasculation which is further foregrounded by his deliberately assuming an expressly effeminate role in the subsequent events of the story. Thus through the doctor, Kafka presents an aberrant picture of the ideal form of masculinity. He is not as John Ruskin says, “The man’s power is active, progressive, defensive. He is eminently the doer, the creator, the discoverer, the defender.” (Ruskin 90). The masculine virility and aggressiveness is not embodied by the protagonist, but the villain figure. He is the “epitome of male aggression. Strong, brutal, ignorant or defiant of the law, he represents a ‘goyish’ kind of masculinity.” (Lorenz 177) The brutish behavior of the groom finds resonance in Kafka’s other male characters like the student in The Trial, who imposes himself on the reluctant court usher’s wife.
Kafka in the story engages in a conflicting set of gender stereotypes. He rejects the rigid stratification of gender roles by delineating heterogeneous, conflicting models of gender stereotypes at play. While on one hand, the doctor posits a challenge to the accepted model of manliness, on the other hand his characterization conforms to the Gentile stereotyping of Jewish masculinity as effeminate and inconsequential.
“The idea that Jewish men differ from non-Jewish men by being delicate, meek, or effeminate in body and character runs deep in European history…a common belief [being] that Jewish men were deficient as men and possessed some womanly characteristics.” (Baader, Gillerman and Lerner 1)
Thus the doctor epitomizes “the unheroic, irresolute, and effeminate configuration of Jewish masculinity” (Lorenz 176) contrary to the brawny horse-handler who embodies “Gentile gender role expectations of male assertiveness” (176).
Kafka’s “A Country Doctor” thus flouts any attempt by the reader to come to an unambiguous understanding of his gender configurations. His presentation of gender models is variegated, fluid and porous and hence provides a rich space for interpretative contestations.
Baader, Benjamin Maria, Gillerman Sharon and Paul Lerner. Jewish Masculinities: German Jews, Gender, and History. Ed. Sharon Gillerman, Paul Lerner Benjamin Maria Baader. Bloomington, Indiana: Indiana University Press, 2012.
Beauvoir, Simone de. The Second Sex. Trans. Constance borde and Sheila Malovany-Chevallier. 1st. New York: Random House Inc., 2011.
Kafka, Frantz. 25 April 2014 <https://archive.org/details/ACountryDoctor>.
Lazar, Moshe and Ronaldo Gottesman. Discovering Literature. Ed. Hans P. Goth and Gabriel L. Rico. Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey: Prentice Hall Inc., 1993.
Lorenz, Dagmar C. G. The Cambridhe Gompanion to Kafka. Ed. Julian Preece. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Ruskin, John. Sesame and Lilies. New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1865.