Butcher: A novel

Image of Butcher: A novel
Release Date: 
May 21, 2024
Reviewed by: 

"masterful. . . . Oates' writing is so deft and the world she creates so vivid, one keeps turning the pages, all the way to the deeply unsettling ending."

Joyce Carol Oates is masterful in this horrific portrait of a 19th century doctor who treats his patients more as subjects for experiments than as people to cure. The biography is presented as being compiled by the doctor's son, drawn from his father's own biographical writings along with chapters from people who knew him. This allows for "diverse voices," different points of view presenting a range of characteristics and events, all of which shed a glaring light on Dr. Silas Aloysius Weir, the director of the New Jersey State Asylum for Female Lunatics.

The son himself, Jonathan, insists he's presenting the raw truth, including "excerpts from the best-selling memoir of Silas Weir's most renowned former patient, Brigit Agnes Kinealy . . . Thus, a document of inestimable value in the troubled history of Gyno-Psychiatry in which, all too rarely, the objects of the science, i.e., females, were allowed to have a voice."

Oates is definitely giving oppressed and silenced women a loud, clear cry in this subtle, complicated story. But nothing is quite how it seems, even Jonathan's seemingly "objective" motives. Strand upon subtle strand is woven together in a story that's part dystopian fable, part family drama, part feminist reckoning.

Oates' book is supposedly based on "authentic historical documents," but sadly there is no backmatter to shed light on what these papers could be. Nor does there seem to have been a real Dr. Weir, though a Dr. Silas Weir Mitchell may have provided the inspiration for the character. Dr. Mitchell was a specialist in neurology in the second half of the 19th century, so the timeframe matches, as do his "cures" in the way his patients often found them more torturous than healing. Virginia Woolf was one of the real doctor's patients and she mocked his treatments in Mrs. Dalloway. However, the reader is left to guess at the actual inspiration or historical basis.

Still, it's clear that Oates has done copious research, and the story unfolds in language and tone that fits the period perfectly. The state of medical treatments, both for physical and mental ailments, seems based on contemporary norms, and the deep-rooted misogyny feels all too accurate. Early on in Dr. Weir's medical career, a fellow apprentice describes Weir's attitude toward women:

"In addition to ordinary unease, Weir seems to have felt, like many men & boys of his time, a particular repugnance for female 'private parts'; an undeniable attraction, in the way that one is attracted to the forbidden & obscene, but over all, a visceral dislike, mounting to outright disgust."

Besides sexism, there is the inevitable sense of class superiority, described by the same peer:

"In time, as it will be revealed in his autobiography, Silas Weir would have little difficulty treating females of the lower classes, in particular indentured servants & Irish immigrants whom he considered 'animalistic'; but he was struck dumb in the presence of women of 'good family.'"

Weir himself, feeling rejected as a worthy suitor, describes such wealthy women as fickle and cruel: "The female, the preying mantis. Beneath their finery, & beneath the corsetry, what devils!"

It is, Oates suggests, this rage and contempt aimed at women that infects Weir's attitude toward treating them. The good doctor himself feels that he is helping such unfortunates, guided by "patience, kindness, & Christian fortitude." The reader, unfortunately, will see very little of such virtues, despite how loudly and frequently Weir claims them.

Weir isn't all evil, however. Oates is too good a writer for that, far too nuanced. She allows that there is a scientific curiosity and method to the doctor's work, a hunger to make a lasting mark on the world by discovering radical new treatments to age-old problems. And in fact, the doctor works through his revulsion toward women's genitalia to devise a successful operating procedure for the too-common problem of fistulas after childbirth. And in studying women deemed hopelessly mad, he searches for physical causes, considering "that 'madness' was in fact 'illness'—that is mental illness. Not some sort of curse or punishment, or affliction like Original Sin."

Through it all, however, the doctor's arrogance and narcissism run like a river, allowing him both to work hard to heal and to see his women patients as mere bodies to experiment on. It's a complaint that some might see as still happening among surgeons, a kind of god complex:

"I could see now, as no mortal man had ever seen before, what had been shrouded in darkness & mystery, the female vagina in all its complexity.

“As Columbus had gazed upon the New World in wonderment, as Copernicus & Galileo had gazed upon the Heavens, so Silas Aloysius Weir, M.D., gazed into the dark enigma of the female. . . ."

While the first part of the book is mostly from Weir's point of view, the second half is taken up with excerpts from "An Orphan's True Story Told by Herself," written by a young woman who is an indentured servant at the asylum. Brigit Agnes Kinealy is herself treated for a fistula by the doctor and recognizes the gratitude she owes him for that. But she still seems him as "a butcher of girls & woman." She calls this a "contradiction," one "it is not possible to explain." And yet somehow her pages do exactly that, describing a healer who also does great harm.

This is not a book for the faint of heart. Weir's treatments are bloody and savage, and Oates describes them with sickening immediacy. Her words accuse not only the doctor, but the entire society, of deeply ingrained misogyny. But she also gives her women characters power, not only through Brigit's voice, but through her actions. It takes a writer of great skill to pull of the feat of keeping a reader engaged through so much brutality. Oates' writing is so deft and the world she creates so vivid, one keeps turning the pages, all the way to the deeply unsettling ending.