Study Guide

Cutting for Stone Compassion and Forgiveness

By Abraham Verghese

Compassion and Forgiveness

She rinsed out the bucket and put it back within his reach. She mopped up the mess on the floor with a towel, then she rinsed the towel out and hung it up to dry. She brought water to his side. She withdrew, wondering how many days it had been since he'd eaten anything. (1.1.20)

When Sister Mary Joseph Praise first meets Dr. Thomas Stone, he's in really bad shape. Most people would run for their lives once they smelled the state of his ship cabin (think your worst flu on steroids), but Sister Mary Joseph Praise is such a compassionate person that she only thinks of how she can help.

"You did more than any human being could do," she said and took his hand in both of hers and held it. She looked into his eyes. "God be with you and bless you." (1.1.62)

Dr. Stone is worried that Sister Mary Joseph Praise will be unhappy with him because he is unable to save her friend, but she forgives him. That forgiveness is what he can't give himself years later when he's unable to save Sister Mary Joseph Praise herself. It will be many decades before he finds a letter that shows that she forgave him for getting her pregnant.

Every maternal instinct in Matron came alive, and she kept vigil. She was there when the young nun woke up in the night, terrified, delirious, clinging to Matron once she knew she was in a safe place. "Child, child, what happened to you? It is all right. You are safe now." With such soothing words, Matron comforted her, but it was a week before the young nun slept alone and another week before the color returned to her face. (1.1.80)

In Cutting for Stone, there is a strong connection between motherhood and compassion, even when we're not talking about technical mother-and-child relationships. Sister Mary Joseph Praise is far from her home, and Matron has no children of her own, but her "maternal instinct" perks up, and she treats Sister Mary with the compassion of a mother. Hey, she's called Matron, after all.

At the time of our birth the probationer was not yet eighteen, with a tendency to confuse penmanship and keeping a neat medical record (and thereby pleasing Matron) with the actual care of patients. (1.2.12)

The idea of compassion in medical care is an important one in Cutting for Stone. The probationer is probably the person who is most responsible for Sister Mary Joseph Praise's death, since she was more worried about following rules than about seeing what was in front of her and feeling any compassion.

There was a question the chief examiner had posed to him when he appeared for the Royal College of Surgeons viva voce after passing his written examinations in Edinburgh: "What first-aid treatment in shock is administered by ear?" His answer "Words of comfort!" had won the day. (1.2.37)

This is the lesson that the probationer needed to have learned before she ignored Sister Mary Joseph Praise's pain. She doesn't understand that being a nurse doesn't mean being inhuman. Dr. Stone seems to have learned the lesson on paper, but we're not sure he has figured out how to apply it.

As angry as she'd been with him, the depth of his grief and his shame moved her. (1.10.38)

Hema is the person in the novel who shows the greatest extremes of emotion. She is so furious with Dr. Stone that she could kill him, but at the same time, she's able to put herself in his shoes and feel compassion, forgiving him for the pain he's caused because he's experiencing so much pain himself.

Even the probationer began to show the first inkling of Sound Nursing Sense. Instead of struggling to appear to be something she was not, she wept for Sister, who was the only nurse who really understood her. For the first time the probationer saw the children not as "fetuses" or "neonates" but instead as motherless children, like herself, to be pitied. Her tears poured out. (1.10.67)

Finally, the probationer starts to understand what everyone has been calling "sound nursing sense." She thinks it's something she can gain by memorizing the words in her textbooks, but really she needs to feel it in her bones. For some good students, that's the hardest lesson of all.

"My journey, my pain, my operation…," the Colonel went on, "God was showing me the suffering of my people. It was a message. How we treat the least of our brethren, how we treat the peasant suffering with volvulus, that's the measure of this country. Not our fighter planes or tanks, or how big the Emperor's palace happens to be. I think God put you in my path." (2.14.33)

Colonel Mebratu will go on to lead a coup against the emperor in an attempt to free his people from the injustice and poverty they experience under his rule. An important factor in making the decision to fight is the compassion he feels for his fellow Ethiopians, who live in terrible conditions.

"When you look around Addis and see children barefoot and shivering in the rain, when you see the lepers begging for their next morsel, does any of that Monophysitic nonsense matter the least bit?"

Matron leaned her head on the windowpane.

"God will judge us [...] by what we did to relieve the suffering of our fellow human beings." (2.14.54-56)

Monophysitic is a term that refers to someone who believes that Jesus was totally divine. It's opposed to the idea that Jesus had two natures, divine and human. What's the big deal, you ask? Well, Matron asks the same thing. Some people are more worried about philosophical debates than about basic needs being met, and Matron wants to teach them some compassion.

"I'll confess, Mr. Harris, that as I get older, my prayers aren't about forgiveness. My prayers are for money to do His work." (2.14.79)

It's interesting that Matron associates prayers for forgiveness with her youth. We might think that the older people get, the more they've done that requires forgiveness, but it seems Matron has come to believe that God is more compassionate than she thought, so she spends her time trying to be compassionate, too.