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Dave Astor

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Making Appointments With (Fictional) Doctors

Posted: 01/10/2013 11:30 am

How do you see a doctor without a long stay in the waiting room? Read about one in a work of literature!

A fictional M.D. will not reduce your fever, but she or he might reduce your boredom. That's because many medical protagonists -- whether general practitioners or something else -- are quite interesting. They're often not liberal arts types, but, heck, non-liberal arts types can be compelling characters, too.

Also of interest is seeing how fictional physicians interact with fictional patients, and how these doctors manage their fictional personal lives while working long hours. Plus we can't help comparing literature's doctors to our own doctors. Are these made-up medical people as compassionate and dedicated, or as egotistic and mercenary, or as competent or not-so-competent as the real-life medical people we visit?

Sometimes, good and bad doctors are in the same book. Two (secondary) characters in John Grisham's page-turning legal thriller The Client are Dr. Simon Greenway, a psychiatrist who tries to help Ricky Sway after the boy is traumatized at the sight of a suicide; and the brutish ex-husband of admirable attorney Reggie Love. Thankfully, the ob-gyn former hubby isn't in the book in real time; he's described as part of Reggie's backstory.

Among no-longer-living writers, few created more doctor characters than the great Anton Chekhov -- a doctor himself. Indeed, the Russian wordsmith penned so many short stories featuring physicians that there's a 2003-published collection titled Chekhov's Doctors!

During Chekhov's heyday, Emile Zola wrote Doctor Pascal (1893). Not one of his better-known works, but it has the distinction of being the 20th and final novel in the French author's amazing Rougon-Macquart series -- which includes classics such as Germinal and The Drinking Den. Pascal Rougon irks his mother by researching his often-problematic family tree, which includes ancestors known to us from Zola's previous R-M books.

Staying in 19th-century France, we have country doctor Charles Bovary from Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary. Charles is a rather dull sort, but the same can't be said for his dissatisfied, straying wife Emma.

Then there's Victor Frankenstein in Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, although Victor is more scientist than medical doctor as he brings a human-like creature to life. There's also the "mad scientist" title character who creates animal-human hybrids in H.G. Wells' The Island of Dr. Moreau. Marcus Welby he's not.

Moving to the 20th century and L.M. Montgomery's Anne of Green Gables, we have Anne Shirley meeting future husband Gilbert Blythe -- who eventually becomes a well-respected doctor in that novel's sequels.

In Erich Maria Remarque's Arch of Triumph, skillful German surgeon Ravic surreptitiously performs medical operations while in Paris as an anti-Nazi refugee, and gets involved in a very compelling romance (with Joan Madou) that may have been partly based on Remarque's real-life relationship with actress Marlene Dietrich.

Then there's the All Souls' Rising book about the Haitian revolution and Toussaint L'Ouverture that also includes the character of Antoine Hebert, a French physician more open-minded than most of the other white people in Madison Smartt Bell's historical novel.

There's also Flowers for Algernon, in which neurosurgeon/psychiatrist Dr. Strauss is involved in an operation that turns the mentally challenged Charlie Gordon into a highly intellectual man. But will the effect be permanent or temporary? (Thanks to Rumzee, Wacokid36, M4dwoman, gypsynomad and henriette and hube for recommending Daniel Keyes' superb novel -- and the Charly movie it inspired -- in comments under a recent post I wrote about characters with disabilities.)

Among the many other novels with major or secondary doctor characters are George Eliot's Middlemarch, Sinclair Lewis' Arrowsmith, Boris Pasternak's Doctor Zhivago, Albert Camus' The Plague, Robert Louis Stevenson's Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, Agatha Christie's And Then There Were None, Bram Stoker's Dracula, Edward Bellamy's Looking Backward and Stephen King's The Dead Zone. Plus there's Dr. Watson in Arthur Conan Doyle's iconic Sherlock Holmes stories.

What are your favorite works of literature with doctor characters?

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Dave Astor's memoir -- Comic (and Column) Confessional (Xenos Press, 2012) -- includes a preface by Heloise and back-cover endorsements by Arianna Huffington, "The Far Side" cartoonist Gary Larson and others. Those three also appear in the partly humorous book, along with other famous columnists and cartoonists and people such as Hillary Clinton, Walter Cronkite, Coretta Scott King and Martha Stewart. If you'd like to buy a personally inscribed copy (for less than the Amazon price), contact Dave at dastor@earthlink.net.

 
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