Adultery in "The Hypochondriac"

Barry J. Fishman '89

"The Hypochondriac" is the story of both a doctor and a troublesome patient and the same doctor and his troubled marriage. The first plot is an uncharacteristic one for Swift, but the subplot is familiar.

The appearance of the hypochondriac "M" coincides with the Doctor's realization that his wife Barbara is pregnant. The problem is that Barbara is unsure if the baby is the Doctor's or her lover's. The Doctor is aware of the entire situation, and seems quite accommodating. After the birth of the child, however, the Doctor says, "I wish it had been my child." His wife replied, "It would have been worse if it was your child." (p.71) The conflict is thus brought out into the open. The folk image of a child as a "visitor" is reinforced by the hypochondriac who is for the doctor an unwelcome visitor, an intrusion into the regular workings of his life with no acceptable explanation.

M appears regularly in the doctor's office, and soon the physician becomes quite angry with the apparently healthy young man and orders him out. One day the doctor receives a phone call from a young woman in M's apartment building saying that M is deathly ill. Disbelieving the truth of the report, the doctor puts off a house visit until the very end of the day. The end of the day is too late, and M has already been taken to the hospital, where he died of an unknown disorder.

Explanations of the many mysteries in this short story lie in the philosophy spelled out in "Hoffmeier's Antelope." If the Doctor had not known about his wife's lover, would he have suffered at all as a result of his wife's pregnancy? If M's illness were real and not imaginary throughout most of the story, would the Doctor have been able to save his life? The juxtaposition of the known and the unknown are what causes the pain and eventual breakdown in the Doctor's life. The notion of this "dangerous knowledge" runs throughout Swift's writing affecting all of his characters' relationships.

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