Joe Cardin acts like a gentleman. Outwardly, he is both loyal to his fiancée and supportive of her endeavors. He is eager to find resolution and willing to sacrifice himself to be a good man—the best man his love has ever known. Yet he is no superman: while he may actively attempt to portray himself as perfectly proper, he is still doubtful. While he may place himself above those in the community who ostracize Martha and Karen, he still thinks some of the same thoughts.
Clearly, Joe does want to help the two cope with their status in the community, yet the question remains whether Joe offers his assistance for their benefit or for his own. His gut reactions give him away. When Mrs.Tilford first introduces Joe to the idea that Martha and Karen’s relationship is less than natural, his first reaction is not only disbelief, but also shock: For a moment stands staring at her incredulously. Then, he walks across the room, stares out of the window, and finally turns to Mrs.Tilford. (66) Joe can do little but stare as he attempts to process what has just transpired.
Although in these few seconds he initially rejects Mrs.Tilford’s claim—an idea so very unheard of—Joe does not immediately voice his dismissal. Instead, he waits a moment, moving across the room, away from not only Mrs.Tilford but also Karen and Martha. This pause gives an impression of uncertainty: perhaps the doctor uses this time to become absolutely sure of his loyalty or to conceal his possible acceptance of Mrs.Tilford’s claims. Even Joe’s inquiry with Mary may be read as more than just a selfless act to save two women.
Had something “unnatural” been occurring between Martha and Karen while the engagement was still on, Joe would have been made a fool—less of a man. Assuming for a moment, then, that Joe does doubt the innocence of the relationship, Joe’s encounter with Mary, while still serving as an attempt to disprove the rumor, becomes an effort to save his own reputation. One speech Joe makes later seems to emphasize this point: I’ll show you off all over the place—to Dr.Engelhardt, and the nurse t the desk, and to the fat gal in the cake shop. (83) Joe is incredibly eager to display the “pretty girl who belongs to [him],” perhaps only to show Karen as being his own, and not Martha’s. Again, Joe tries to save face in the eyes of others.
In this light, many of Joe’s actions can be interpreted as an attempt to maintain his position as a gentleman and a respectable person. Throughout the play, the doctor performs some particular deeds which at first seem quite honorable: he alone remains by Martha and Karen during the entire ordeal and even gives up his practice and home to make life for the ladies less difficult. But these actions too can be viewed as less than admirable—as an attempt to show his loyalty and devotion and to show that he is, in fact, a “good man.” Yet such interpretations rely on the assumption that Joe does indeed doubt Karen and Martha. Such an assumption must be justified, and, in fact, is justified within the play. For instance, Joe “almost imperceptibly… pulls back” when Karen tries to kiss him (82). Such an action, completely instinctual and based solely on his true unconscious impulse, plainly shows his distrust and possible disgust with his fiancée.
A few lines later, however, when Karen questions him and once reason has had an opportunity to analyze the situation, Joe laughs and kisses her to maintain his air of loyalty. Yet to see Joe’s true intentions, the reader must rely on the first movement, the honest movement. A variety of other examples of Joe’s true thoughts present themselves throughout this same scene. A few pages later, Joe again unconsciously expresses his doubt and distrust once again: What you’ve done, you’ve done—and that’s that. (84) These words seem a flat-out accusation. And again, when questioned, Joe withdraws the comment.
This pattern of impulse and withdrawal—unconsciously stating true feelings and then attempting to retract them in order to hide the actual thoughts—is a definite justification. This, along with Joe’s change of heart about having a baby and Karen’s recollection of his face in court—“ashamed—and sad at being ashamed” (85)—so plainly show the contradiction between Joe’s external actions and his internal thoughts that Karen herself picks up on it. Thus, it becomes relatively easy to assign a variety of motives to Joe’s actions that reveal him to be less than the perfect man. When finally given the chance to state his true feelings, Joe once again attempts to hide, but then stops himself and quickly gives in: I have nothing to ask. Nothing— (Quickly) All right. Is it—was it ever— (85) This action, in effect, ends his relationship with Karen altogether. Once he reveals himself, once his loyalty and respectability have been shown false, the two cannot continue together. Joe finds himself less than he had hoped, and Karen finds herself alone. In the end, Joe’s attempts to make himself better than he truly is fail entirely and cost him much of what he was trying to maintain. But in the end, he shows the true Dr. Joe Cardin.
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