The unnamed narrator of “The Use of Force,” a doctor, is called to the Olsons’ home to examine a sick child. The mother lets the doctor in, explaining apologetically that the child is in the kitchen, a warm room in their otherwise damp house. The child, a girl, sits on her father’s lap, and the parents are nervous and reserved. The child herself is quite still, watching the doctor emotionlessly. The doctor notes that she is a remarkably pretty child and generally robust, despite her current feverish state.

The father reports that the child has had a fever for three days and has not responded to home remedies. Illnesses have been going around, so the parents are worried. The doctor asks whether the child has had a sore throat, but both parents report that she says her throat doesn’t hurt, and the child doesn’t respond when the mother asks her directly. The mother had tried to look at the girl’s throat but didn’t see anything. Since some children at the girl’s school have recently contracted diphtheria, a contagious and potentially fatal illness, the doctor must examine the child’s throat. He tries to persuade her to let him look, but she refuses. Meaning well, the mother assures the child that the doctor “won’t hurt” her. The doctor hides his irritation and slowly moves nearer to the girl, but as soon as she can reach him, she tries to scratch his eyes, knocking his glasses off.

When the embarrassed parents scold their daughter, repeating that the doctor is a “nice man,” his temper breaks. The situation is serious, he says, and the child hasn’t grasped that diphtheria can be fatal. He addresses the girl directly, telling her that if she won’t open her mouth, the adults will open it against her will. She breathes harder but still refuses, and “the battle” between her and the doctor begins. He disingenuously tells the parents that he won’t force the child to let him examine her throat if they will accept responsibility for the consequences. The implication that, if they don’t help the doctor examine the girl’s throat, they will put her at great risk induces the mother to escalate her language. She threatens the daughter with hospitalization, but the doctor already knows that the parents have lost to their strong-willed daughter, whose fear of the doctor is growing stronger.

The father tries to keep his daughter still, torn between fear that she has diphtheria and worry about hurting her by holding her so firmly, and the mother is reduced to frantic gestures of concern. When the doctor, now angry at the child, tells the father to hold the girl’s wrists together, she suddenly screams as if in fear for her life. The mother can hardly bear the scene, but the terrified father has become determined to hold the girl as the doctor forces a wooden tongue depressor into the girl’s mouth. She craftily allows him to insert it just far enough that she can bite down hard, breaking it into pieces that cut her tongue. The doctor knows that he should stop the examination, but he instead tells the embarrassed mother to get a sturdy spoon. He is “beyond reason” in his need to see the girl’s throat and justifies his actions by saying that they are for her own good, as well as that of the community.

The doctor uses the silver spoon the mother gives him to force open the girl’s bleeding mouth and, as she gags against the forceful examination, sees the membrane that diphtheria causes in her throat. She has refused to admit to the sore throat for three days. The doctor assumes that the girl knew what she was hiding and that she has intentionally lied to her parents to avoid this diagnosis. Sobbing in rage, the child tries to escape her father’s arms to attack the doctor.