The Discus Thrower
Richard Selzer
Richard Selzer
 Sex Male
 National Origin United States of
 Era Late 20th Century
 Born 1928
 Awards National Magazine Award,
American Medical Writer's Award
Richard Selzer quotas
Each is like a river that leaves behind its
name and shape, the whole course of its
path, to vanish into the vast sea of God.
 I contemplate the body, dead and
diseased as well as alive and healthy.
 Surgery is the red flower that blooms
among the leaves and thorns that are the
rest of medicine.
You do not die all at once. Some tissues
live on for minutes, even hours, giving
still their little cellular shrieks, molecular
echoes of the agony of the whole corpus.
 The heart is pure theater throbbing in its
cage palpably as any nightingale.
The Discus Thrower
 Discobolus (Discus
 460-450 B.C. Marble
copy of
 bronze original. 5
feet high
Myron chose a moment of rest between two periods of
movement for a statue that combines implied action
with classical formalism. It seems the perfect formula
for the depiction of a beautiful athletic body. It must
have been as popular in ancient times as it is today if
one is to judge by the number of copies that have
come down to us; those in the National Museum in
Rome and the Vatican being but two. The backward
swing of the discus has reached its furthest point and
the unwinding of the body has not commenced. As
consequence a poise is
achieved; the utmost straining of the muscles is yet to
perfect athletic form
Doctor and patient
Describe a terminally ill patient you
 How do you think the relationship
between doctor and patient?
Terminally ill patient
This text is a piece of narration. The narrator,
as a doctor, had a unique habit of “spying on”
his patients for the sake of better medical
treatment. He met with a particular patient with
a strange habit of throwing the plate. This
caused a conflict between the man and the
head nurse. Finally the patient died, and the
doctor discovered that the man starved himself
to death when he paid attention to the
repeatedly washed place where the scrambled
eggs dropped to the floor.
The story begins with the doctor-narrator
unobtrusively observing an older man lying in
a hospital bed. The patient is blind and has
amputations of both legs. (We are given no
medical details that cannot be observed in the
room.) The narrator tends to the man's
amputation wounds and answers a few simple
questions. The man requests a pair of shoes.
Back in the corridor, a nurse tells the
doctor that the patient refuses his food,
throwing his china plate against the wall
of his room. The narrator hears the man
and a nurse argue briefly about food and
then, by himself, watches as the patient
carefully and powerfully throws another
dish against the wall. The next day the
doctor discovers that the patient has died.
Structural Analysis of the Text
This passage can be divided into three parts.
 Part One (Paragraph 1): Spying on Patients—
a Habit of Mine
 This part serves as an introduction to the
background of the story. The narrator tells
about one of his unique habits of “spying on”
the patient and justifies himself for the sake of
better medical treatment.
Part Two (Paragraphs 2-13)
Encounters with a Particular Patient
This part talks about the narrator’s contact with
the “discus thrower”. The miserable condition
of the patient is compared to a bonsai, as he
resembles it in several ways. His confinement
caused by blindness is like the restricted
growth domain of a bonsai: the domain
permitted by a pot. He is legless in the way the
roots and braches of the miniature trees are
pruned. The reason for his “discus throwing” is
that his plight throws him into despair and he
hopes for nothing, only waiting for death.
Part Three (Paragraphs 14-15)
The Death of the Patient
 This part tells about how the man is
found dead and the doctor discovered
the secret that the man starved himself
to death as is suggested at the end of
the text by the doctor’s attention to the
repeatedly washed place where the
scrambled eggs dropped to the floor.
Part one
1) what is unique about the narrator as a
 As a doctor he spies on his patient.
 2) What does the author mean by asking
the question “ought not a doctor…?
 He believes that a doctor is entitled to
spy on his patient for the sake of medical
3 ) Why does the narrator say “it is not all
that furtive?”
 Because he wants to justify his action:
he does not actually spy but rather
observes his patient.
Language Points and Difficult
Sentences Comprehension
stance: 1 an opinion that is stated publicly
(stand) stance on /stance against
What is your stance on environmental issues?
a strong stance against abortion
take/adopt a stance The President has
adopted a tough stance on terrorism.
2 a position in which you stand, especially
when playing a sport
a fighting stance
he might the more fully assemble evidence?
 …he might gather evidence more fully than
without spying?
 The structure “the more fully” is the elliptical
form of “all the more fully”. In English the
structure “all/ so much/ none + the + the
comparative degree of adjectives or adverbs”
is used without “than…” following it to express
emphasis. Sometimes all can be omitted.
1) She was waiting for the spring. She
felt the younger for it.
 2) I walked around for two hours
yesterday, and the doctor said I was
none the worse for it.
3) I know there’s danger ahead, but I am
all the more set on driving forward.
attempting to avoid notice or attention;
secretive, sneaky, stealthy
 1) I saw him cast a furtive glance at the
woman at the table to his right.
 2) There was something furtive about his
behavior and I immediately felt
Part two
1. Why does the man seem deeply
 His skin is brown not because of the
suntan but because of his approaching
death, ie. He was in the last stage of his
Tanned: having a darker skin colour
because you have been in the sun
 He had a tough tanned face and clear
 Crop: to cut someone's hair short
 Stella had had her hair closely cropped .
 if a problem crops up, it happens or
appears suddenly and in an unexpected
Tanned and close-cropped
Rusted and tanned, brown
Vile repose : the smell of death
Vile: 1.extremely unpleasant or bad
 (horrible)This coffee tastes really vile ./a
vile smell /She has a vile temper .
 2 evil or immoral a vile act of betrayal
 Repose: a state of calm or comfortable
 in repose
 His face looked less hard in repose.
It is rusted, rather, in the last stage of
containing the vile repose within.
Rather, his skin gets dark brown
because he was approaching the last
stage of his life, that is, he was dying.
Here “vile repose” is a metaphor, and it
means “death”.
And the blue eyes are frosted, looking
inward like the windows of a
snowbound cottage.
 And (under scrutiny/thorough
examination) the blue eyes are not clear
but covered with a gray frost-like layer,
without looking outside at the external
world like the windows of a snowsurrounded cottage.
Prune (amputations)
1.prune something
to cut off some of the branches of a tree or
bush to make it grow better
The roses need pruning.
2.especially British English to make something
smaller by removing parts that you do not
need or want
The company is pruning staff in order to
reduce costs. The original version of the text
has been pruned quite a bit.
to be so big that other things are made to
seem very small
 The cathedral is dwarfed by the
surrounding skyscrapers.
 a person who is a dwarf has not
continued to grow to the normal height
because of a medical condition. Many
people think that this use is offensive.
Yao dwarfs all the people.
2. Why does the narrator compare the patient
to a bonsai?
 A bonsai is an ornamental tree or shrub grown
in a pot and artificially prevented from reaching
its normal size. The patient resembles a
bonsai in several ways. His confinement
caused by blindness is like the restricted
growth domain of a bonsai: the domain
permitted by a pot. He is legless in the way the
roots and branches of the miniature tree are
he cups his right thigh in both hands.
…he holds his right thigh with his hands
curved like a dish.
cup: support or hold something with the hands
that are curved like a dish
e.g. 1) He cupped his chin in the palm of his
2) David knelt, cupped his hands and
splashed river water onto his face.
Cache: a number of things that have
been hidden, especially weapons, or the
place where they have been hidden
 cache of
 a cache of explosives
swing: move something from one side to
the other
 e.g. 1) A large pendulum swung back
and forth inside the big clock.
2) The truck driver swung himself up
into the driver’s seat.
3) His mood swings between elation
and despair.
Why is the patient’s ward empty of all
 Because there is none of the usual
possessions like get-well cards, flowers etc..
Which shows that he is forsaken by his friends
and family. As stated in the following part, he is
intolerable. And there aren’t possessions such
as shoes, either, for he is legless and blind,
and thus is confined to bed.
When the doctor asks how he feels, he
respond with a question “feel?” What
does this show?
 This shows he is numb in emotion. His
plight throws him into despair and he
hopes for nothing, waiting for death. This
is also confirmed by the fact that he
wants to know nothing but time.
What does the patient mean when he
says “yes, down?”
 This is his response to the doctor’s
remark, “Down you go.” what the doctor
means is that the man is going down
with the bed, yet the patient means that
he is going down towards death.
Stump:1. the bottom part of a tree that is
left in the ground after the rest of it has
been cut down
 an old tree stump
 2. the short part of someone's leg, arm
etc that remains after the rest of it has
been cut off
Scab: 1 a hard layer of dried blood that
forms over a cut or wound while it is
getting better
 2 an insulting word for someone who
works while the other people in the same
factory, office etc are on strike
1not producing a chemical reaction when
combined with other substances
inert gases
2 literary not moving, or not having the
strength or power to move
He lay, inert, in his bed.
3 not willing to do anything
The government was perceived to be inert and
Why does the man ask for a pair of
 The man knows he is legless and has no
need for a pair of shoes. Yet he still asks
for a pair of shoes when the doctor offers
him help. This shows that at the bottom
of his heart the man aspires after
freedom; only a pair of shoes can give
him freedom.
Why is the head nurse waiting for the
 Because she is waiting for the doctor to
suggest measures to deal with the
patient, who throws the food plate
against the wall every time it is brought
to him.
What’s the head nurse’s attitude toward
the patient? What’s the doctor’s?
 Irritated by his behavior, the nurse is
impatient and disgusted with him.
 The doctor does not agree to take
immediate measures. He wants to make
sure of the fact described by the nurse.
Rim: the outside edge of something
 rim of the rim of a glass
 plates with a gold band around the rim
 2 gold-rimmed/red-rimmed etc
 Dome: 1 a round roof on a building
 2a shape or building like a ball cut in half
probe: physically explore or examine
(something) with the hands or an
instrument; investigate
 e.g. 1) They probed in/into the mud with
a special drill, looking for a shipwreck.
2) Detectives questioned him for
hours, probing for any inconsistencies in
his story.
heft: lift or hold (something) in order to
test its weight
 e.g. I hefted a suitcase.
 Why does the patient lift the cover and
probe the eggs before throwing the plate?
This seems to show that what is
important to him is not the crack of the
plate against the wall. Otherwise he
would have thrown the plate with the lid,
or throw the lid before the plate. What he
is interested in seems to be the
scrambled eggs. This is confirmed by the
fact that he ordered the scramble eggs
every day and it is after hearing the wet
sound of the scrambled eggs that he
starts to laugh.
Why does he laugh?
For one thing the laughter suggests his
vision of hope of his ultimate
emancipation. Maybe the scrambled egg
is his favorite food, yet he is determined
not to eat them because he feels
hopeless in this world. He wants to put
an end to his life but he desires to die a
dignified death. The discus throwing
strengthen his resolve.
For another thing his laughter is also a
sign of defiance of the unfair fate and the
unfriendly hospital workers.
 Why does the narrator say the laughter
could cure cancer?
Because every time the man throws the
plate he feels a triumph over his ego that
urges him to eat and live. His laughter is
joyous from the bottom of his heart and
expresses a sense of complete release,
and therefore it could give a promising
future to him if he were a patient of
Why do the eyes of the head nurse
 Because she frowns on the patient’s
 “Who are you?” not recognize?
 He distrusts the doctor, he does not
believe that he doctor can him anyway. It
is , rather, a signal dismissal.
I see that we are to be accomplices.
 I see that I have to help the aide feed the
 make one’s rounds: make one’s usual
visits, esp. of inspection
 e.g. The production manage makes his
rounds to check whether everything goes
This portrait of a difficult and only semicommunicative patient is more a sketch
than a story, but it poses interesting
challenges: What to think of this man,
how to understand him, and how to treat
Clearly the man's enigmatic speech and
actions are saying something, and Selzer
suggests that few are listening. The story
offers no answers, but it suggests that the kind
of empathy the narrator develops through
watching the patient (but does not express) is
a good start. The patient's provocative
behavior and the story's openness make it a
good point of departure for a discussion of
reading difficult or inscrutable patients.
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