Dr. Breen’s Practice – William Dean Howells
This work of Mr. Howells is similar in lightness of material and delicacy of workman ship to “A Fearful Responsibility” and other minor productions of his deft hand which hold a unique and ill-defined position between the novel and the short story. It is brief; it is free from the mysteries of a plot; it is perfectly simple in plan; and the characters are not elaborated, but rather sketched with a few strong touches, so quick and free that we hardly appreciate the excellence of the art until we close the book and find how its principal personages haunt the memory. In its motive, however, “Dr. Breen’s Practice” rises distinctly above the tales with which the ordinary reader will be likely to compare it, and approaches the intellectual level of “The Undiscovered Country.” Like that master- work, it deals with a serious phase of mental experience, somewhat out of the common, and yet not so remote from our daily life as to seem unreal; and it analyzes perplexity and passion, a little melancholy and a little grotesque, with a mingling of sympathy and gentle humor that is wholly inimitable. Doctor Breen is a young lady – a young lady with no extravagant ideas about what is called the cause of woman, but with a certain morbid, self-questioning sense of duty, under the strain of which she has devoted herself to a career she does not love. “At the end of the ends she was a Puritan; belated, misdated, if the reader will, and cast upon good works for the consolation which the Puritans formerly found in a creed. Riches and ease were sinful to her, and somehow to be atoned for; and she had no real love for anything that was not of an immediate humane and spiritual effect. ” Miss Breen breaks down forever under her first patient, discovering what the reader has seen from the start, that she lacks the mental and spiritual aptitude for her self-imposed task. There is a deep pathos in this sudden and utter defeat, relieved a little but not obscured by an elusive flavor of comedy which pervades the narrative. It does not impress us long; for Mr. Howells does poetical justice to his heroine at the end, and winds up the little tale of trouble with a charming and dainty eclaircissement. Grace Breen is one of the most lovable of his creations. She carries our hearts as surely as the Lady of the Aroostook; and not less admirably than that exquisite heroine does she illustrate the keen insight into feminine character, and the poetic perception of feminine ways which delight us in all Mr. Howells’s stories.
Dr. Breen’s Practice.
Excerpt from the text:
Near the verge of a bold promontory stands the hotel, and looks southeastward over a sweep of sea unbroken to the horizon. Behind it stretches the vast forest, which after two hundred years has resumed the sterile coast wrested from it by the first Pilgrims, and has begun to efface the evidences of the inroad made in recent years by the bold speculator for whom Jocelyn’s is named. The young birches and spruces are breast high in the drives and avenues at Jocelyn’s; the low blackberry vines and the sweet fern cover the carefully-graded sidewalks, and obscure the divisions of the lots; the children of the boarders have found squawberries in the public square on the spot where the band-stand was to have been. The notion of a sea-side resort at this point was courageously conceived, and to a certain extent it was generously realized. Except for its remoteness from the railroad, a drawback which future enterprise might be expected to remedy in some way, the place has many natural advantages. The broad plateau is cooled by a breeze from the vast forests behind it, which comes laden with health and freshness from the young pines; the sea at its feet is warmed by the Gulf Stream to a temperature delicious for bathing. There are certainly mosquitoes from the woods; but there are mosquitoes everywhere, and the report that people have been driven away by them is manifestly untrue, for whoever comes to Jocelyn’s remains. The beach at the foot of the bluff is almost a mile at its curve, and it is so smooth and hard that it glistens like polished marble when newly washed by the tide. It is true that you reach it from the top by a flight of eighty steps, but it was intended to have an elevator, like those near the Whirlpool at Niagara. In the mean time it is easy enough to go down, and the ladies go down every day, taking their novels or their needle-work with them. They have various notions of a bath: some conceive that it is bathing to sit in the edge of the water, and emit shrieks as the surge sweeps against them; others run boldly in, and after a moment of poignant hesitation jump up and down half-a-dozen times, and run out; yet others imagine it better to remain immersed to the chin for a given space, looking toward the shore with lips tightly shut and the breath held. But after the bath they are all of one mind; they lay their shawls on the warm sand, and, spreading out their hair to dry, they doze in the sun, in such coils and masses as the unconscious figure lends itself to. When they rise from their beds, they sit in the shelter of the cliff and knit or sew, while one of them reads aloud, and another stands watch to announce the coming of the seals, which frequent a reef near the shore in great numbers. It has been said at rival points on the coast that the ladies linger there in despair of ever being able to remount to the hotel. A young man who clambered along the shore from one of those points reported finding day after day the same young lady stretched out on the same shawl, drying the same yellow hair, who had apparently never gone upstairs since the season began. But the recurrence of this phenomenon in this spot at the very moment when the young man came by might have been accounted for upon other theories. Jocelyn’s was so secluded that she could not have expected any one to find her there twice, and if she had expected this she would not have permitted it. Probably he saw a different young lady each time.
Many of the same boarders come year after year, and these tremble at the suggestion of a change for the better in Jocelyn’s. The landlord has always believed that Jocelyn’s would come up, some day, when times got better. He believes that the narrow-gauge railroad from New Leyden—arrested on paper at the disastrous moment when the fortunes of Jocelyn’s felt the general crash—will be pushed through yet; and every summer he promises that next summer they are going to have a steam-launch running twice a day from Leyden Harbor. But at present his house is visited once a day by a barge, as the New England coast-folks call the vehicle in which they convey city boarders to and from the station, and the old frequenters of the place hope that the station will never be nearer Jocelyn’s than at present. Some of them are rich enough to afford a sojourn at more fashionable resorts; but most of them are not, though they are often people of polite tastes and of aesthetic employments. They talk with slight of the large watering-places, and probably they would not like them, though it is really economy that inspires their passion for Jocelyn’s with most of them, and they know of the splendid weariness of Newport mostly by hearsay. New arrivals are not favored, but there are not often new arrivals at Jocelyn’s. The chief business of the barge is to bring fresh meat for the table and the gaunt bag which contains the mail; for in the first flush of the enterprise the place was made a post-office, and the landlord is postmaster; he has the help of the lady-boarders in his official duties.
Scattered about among the young birches there are several of those pine frames known as shells, within easy walk of the hotel, where their inmates board. They are picturesque interiors, and are on informal terms with the public as to many domestic details. The lady of the house, doing her back hair at her dressing-room glass, is divided from her husband, smoking at the parlor fire-place, only by a partition of unlathed studding. The arrest of development in these shells is characteristic of everything about the place. None of the improvements invented since the hard times began have been added to Jocelyn’s; lawntennis is still unknown there; but there is a croquet-ground before the hotel, where the short, tough grass is kept in tolerable order. The wickets are pretty rusty, and it is usually the children who play; but toward the close of a certain, afternoon a young lady was pushing the balls about there. She seemed to be going over a game just played, and trying to trace the cause of her failure. She made bad shots, and laughed at her blunders. Another young lady drooped languidly on a bench at the side of the croquet-ground, and followed her movements with indifference.
“I don’t see how you did it, Louise,” panted the player; “it’s astonishing how you beat me.”
The lady on the bench made as if to answer, but ended by coughing hoarsely.
“Oh, dear child!” cried the first, dropping her mallet, and running to her. “You ought to have put on your shawl!” She lifted the knit shawl lying beside her on the bench, and laid it across the other’s shoulders, and drew it close about her neck.
“Oh, don’t!” said the other. “It chokes me to be bundled up so tight.” She shrugged the shawl down to her shoulders with a pretty petulance. “If my chest’s protected, that’s all that’s necessary.” But she made no motion to drape the outline which her neatly-fitted dress displayed, and she did not move from her place, or look up at her anxious friend.
“Oh, but don’t sit here, Louise,” the latter pleaded, lingering near her. “I was wrong to let you sit down at all after you had got heated.”
“Well, Grace, I had to,” said she who was called Louise. “I was so tired out. I’m not going to take more cold. I can always tell when I am. I’ll put on the shawl in half a minute; or else I’ll go in.”
“I’m sure there’s nothing to keep me out. That’s the worst of these lonely places: my mind preys upon itself. That’s what Dr. Nixon always said: he said it was no use in air so long as my mind preyed upon itself. He said that I ought to divert my mind all I could, and keep it from preying upon itself; that it was worth all the medicine in the world.”
“That’s perfectly true.”
“Then you ought n’t to keep reminding me all the time that I’m sick. That’s what starts my mind to preying upon itself; and when it gets going once I can’t stop it. I ought to treat myself just like a well person; that’s what the doctor said.”
The other stood looking at the speaker in frowning perplexity. She was a serious-faced girl, and now when she frowned her black brows met sternly above her gray eyes. But she controlled any impulse she had to severity, and asked gently, “Shall I send Bella to you?”
“Oh, no! I can’t make society out of a child the whole time. I’ll just sit here till the barge comes in. I suppose it will be as empty as a gourd, as usual.” She added, with a sick and weary negligence, “I don’t even know where Bella is. She’s run off, somewhere.”
“It’s quite time she should be looked up, for tea. I’ll wander out that way and look for her.” She indicated the wilderness generally.
“Thanks,” said Louise. She now gratefully drew her shawl up over her shoulders, and faced about on the bench so as to command an easy view of the arriving barge. The other met it on her way to the place in the woods where the children usually played, and found it as empty as her friend had foreboded. But the driver stopped his horses, and leaned out of the side of the wagon with a little package in his hand. He read the superscription, and then glanced consciously at the girl. “You’re Miss Breen, ain’t you?”
“Yes,” she said, with lady-like sweetness and a sort of business-like alertness.
“Well,” suggested the driver, “this is for Miss Grace Breen, M. D.”
“For me, thank you,” said the young lady. “I’m Dr. Breen.” She put out her hand for the little package from the homoeopathic pharmacy in Boston; and the driver yielded it with a blush that reddened him to his hair. “Well,” he said slowly, staring at the handsome girl, who did not visibly share his embarrassment, “they told me you was the one; but I could n’t seem to get it through me. I thought it must be the old lady.”
“My mother is Mrs. Breen,” the young lady briefly explained, and walked rapidly away, leaving the driver stuck in the heavy sand of Sea-Glimpse Avenue.
“Why, get up!” he shouted to his horses. “Goin’ to stay here all day?” He craned his neck round the side of the wagon for a sight of her. “Well, dumm ‘f I don’t wish I was sick! Steps along,” he mused, watching the swirl and ripple of her skirt, “like—I dunno what.”
With her face turned from him Dr. Breen blushed, too; she was not yet so used to her quality of physician that she could coldly bear the confusion to which her being a doctor put men. She laughed a little to herself at the helplessness of the driver, confronted probably for the first time with a graduate of the New York homoeopathic school; but she believed that she had reasons for taking herself seriously in every way, and she had not entered upon this career without definite purposes. When she was not yet out of her teens, she had an unhappy love affair, which was always darkly referred to as a disappointment by people who knew of it at the time. Though the particulars of the case do not directly concern this story, it may be stated that the recreant lover afterwards married her dearest girl-friend, whom he had first met in her company. It was cruel enough, and the hurt went deep; but it neither crushed nor hardened her. It benumbed her for a time; she sank out of sight; but when she returned to the knowledge of the world she showed no mark of the blow except what was thought a strange eccentricity in a girl such as she had been. The world which had known her—it was that of an inland New England city—heard of her definitely after several years as a student of medicine in New York. Those who had more of her intimacy understood that she had chosen this work with the intention of giving her life to it, in the spirit in which other women enter convents, or go out to heathen lands; but probably this conception had its exaggerations. What was certain was that she was rich enough to have no need of her profession as a means of support, and that its study had cost her more than the usual suffering that it brings to persons of sensitive nerves. Some details were almost insuperably repugnant; but in schooling herself to them she believed that she was preparing to encounter anything in the application of her science.