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Views & Reviews Between the Lines

Kinds of monsters

BMJ 2012; 345 doi: https://doi.org/10.1136/bmj.e6746 (Published 05 October 2012) Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6746
  1. Theodore Dalrymple, writer and retired doctor

When I was a small boy I picked every last bud from the red peony bushes in the garden and presented them to my father. “Look, Daddy,” I said. “Cherries.” I was beaten with a bamboo cane for my conscientiousness, but I have not held it against peonies.

I was reminded of this incident by the beginning of Stephen Crane’s novella The Monster, published in 1897. Crane (1871-1900) is mostly remembered for his novel about the US civil war, The Red Badge of Courage.

The Monster takes place in a small town called Whilomville. At the beginning of the story, Dr Trescott’s little boy, Jimmie, decapitates a peony while playing trains in the garden. Though the boy is terrified by what his father will say, Dr Trescott reacts less forcefully than did my father: but then, Jimmie removed only one bud, and accidentally, not deliberately.

One night Dr Trescott’s house burns down. Henry Johnson, a black servant, heroically rescues the doctor’s son from the fire, but in the process is badly burned. Dr Truscott nurses him back to life but unfortunately Henry’s face “has simply been burned away.” His neighbour, Judge Hagenthorpe, questions the doctor’s decision to nurse Henry back to life: “I am induced to say that you are performing a questionable charity in preserving this negro’s life. As near as I can understand, he will hereafter be a monster, a perfect monster, and probably with an affected brain. No man can observe you and not know this was a matter of conscience with you, but I am afraid, my friend, that it is one of the blunders of virtue.” The judge then implies that Trescott should let Henry die or even help him on his way.

The doctor, though, feels an inextinguishable debt of gratitude to Henry and, after Henry pulls through, pays for him to lodge with a black family. The head of the family exploits him by keeping him as a prisoner and trying to extract a higher rate from the doctor. Henry escapes and visits old friends, but succeeds only in frightening them with his terribly maimed appearance. One small girl, whose family are patients of the doctor, falls ill from the fright. Her parents blame Dr Truscott for her illness because he has saved the life of “the monster” who upset her.

The doctor takes Henry into his rebuilt home. From then on his practice declines. From having been the most sought after doctor in the town, he becomes the least. A delegation of prominent citizens asks him to put Henry into an institution, but the doctor refuses. The story ends with his wife crying over the teacups: none of the ladies of the town will attend her at-homes any more, and she has laid out the tea things in vain.

Crane is generally considered one of the first modern US literary realists, but of course he is also a symbolist, as all realists are. The symbolism lies in the choice of the aspect of reality that is portrayed. You don’t have to know much to know what is symbolised in The Monster.

Notes

Cite this as: BMJ 2012;345:e6746

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