Professionalism vs. Empathy: Conflicts Shaping my Claim

In the final week of summer, I have made enormous progress in my research on communication and exchange in the doctor-patient relationship of William Carlos Williams’s medical narratives . Within the past two weeks, I have re-read and done further analysis on all of his short stories, and also read a few key pieces of scholarship—specifically Brian Bremen’s William Carlos Williams and the Diagnosis of Culture and T. Hugh Crawford’s Modernism, Medicine, and William Carlos Williams—on William’s writing that have illuminated and connected to some of the key themes and trends in such stories. By drawing on my own ideas and observations of Williams’s work and bringing in inspiration and ideas from accompanying criticism, I believed that I have finally come up with a solid claim to argue in my thesis!

As I said above, the pieces I have recently studied have lead me to notice a few major trends in Williams’s works and have aided me in looking for relationships between them. In Williams’s stories and poems about doctors and patients, some of the most commonly explored themes are empathy, observation, professionalism, emotion, science, and authority. A lot of these ideas fall into interacting dialectics: empathy vs. observation, emotion vs. observation, empathy vs. professionalism, science vs. emotion, empathy vs. authority, and so forth. I think that such conflicts (which all appear to be stemming from the basic issue of empathy and emotion conflicting with professionalism and authority in treatment/diagnosis) create tension and dynamics that shape the doctor-patient interaction!

I plan to continue my research and reading with these conflicts in mind, as I shape my argument around the main idea that such conflicts often serve as the latent subject of Williams’s stories and poems, and as such, create a dynamic tension that drives Williams’s writings.

It is such a thrill to have come to a revelation about my research, and to finally feel like I have a solid argument and claim in mind to give direction to my writing. I look forward to my continued research and seeing how my ideas continue to grow and evolve.



  1. I really appreciate the paradigms you’ve forged out of Williams’ themes – I find they ring true in much of his poetry as well. I like that you focus on his short stories, though – I’m not as familiar with them as I am with his poetry, but there will inherently be an added level of explanation and exposition that will be revealing. So much of his poetry relies on the power of omission – what is left out usually explains a lot more than what is said. Do you find this also to be true in his short stories?

  2. ecparcell says:

    Hi there! Your research sounds amazing – there is such a long tradition of physician-writers, and there is so much to be drawn from their work. The idea of empathy versus professionalism is so insightful – I am so excited to continue reading more about your thesis! Are there any patterns in how the conflict and tension in physician-patient interactions you described changed over the course of Williams’ career?

  3. csdeforest says:

    Hey Sarah! The conflicts you bring up remind me of a Health Psychology class I took last year: we talked a lot about the doctor-patient interaction and the role of empathy and compassion in the medical profession. It’s cool to see this same topic come up in your English honors thesis- yay interdisciplinarity! You’ve inspired me to read more of William Carlos Williams’ poetry (more than “The Red Wheelbarrow” that we all read in high school, anyway); as a poet and physician he must have quite the unique perspective on the doctor-patient relationship, something that we all depend upon at some point in our lives. Good luck with your future research on this fascinating topic!

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