The Kindness Factor


The following post is a guest posting that has been underway for quite some time. Marta approached me with this idea and offered to write it. She asked for my approval and feedback. I think Marta has identified an aspect of the show that is important and that I had not noticed was so significant until she delineated it.

Today (Nov. 13th) is World Kindness Day and we decided this was the ideal time to publish this post. The post has been divided into 3 parts so that reading it doesn’t become too onerous. We hope you enjoy reading it.

The Kindness Factor in the Doc Martin Show

 (A 3-Part Post by Marta D–Waxwings)

Part I

Why Kindness 

Three things in human life are important. The first is to be kind. The second is to be kind. And the third is to be kind. — Henry James  

In the 1944 Pulitzer Prize winning play Harvey (written by American playwright Mary Chase, about an imaginary 6’ 3” rabbit and the nature of reality) the affable and charming main character, Elwood P. Dowd, claims it is possible—like Einstein—to overcome time and space, and all normal reality. “In this world,” Elwood says, quoting his mother, “you must be oh so smart, or oh so kind. For years, I was smart. I recommend kind.” (He may have said pleasant, but kind was the meaning in the play.)

The kindness factor in the Doc Martin series interested me almost immediately. I found it ironic that there should be so much of it in a show whose main character is a grumpy, insulting, mostly unkind village GP whose exterior abrasiveness and constant fog of self-awareness—about himself and his negative impact on others—is exasperating.  While the kindness of others softens some of the Doc’s sharpness and makes him more bearable, that is not the only part it plays.

The pervasive presence of kindness throughout the series also contrasts dramatically with its antithesis—the shockingly cruel and truly unkind behavior of the main character’s parents—Margaret and Christopher Ellingham—whose influence on Martin’s sense of what is “normal” serves as subtext for so much of the show’s tension.  They have not only had a crucial role in shaping his anti-social behaviors, but his fear of intimacy as well, and his inability to co-exist and live easily within the “beloved community.”

The Doc is not an unkind person at heart, as his aunt Ruth assures him on the cliff scene, S6E8, in which she describes an affectionate, sensitive little boy, even at age 4. His choice to practice medicine also shows that he cares for people and wants to heal them; he is quick to fix everyone’s medical problems, though he is rude and irritated with his patients’ ignorance, neglect and limitations. He even does several real kindnesses for others in the show. It is the emotional expression of kindness—either coming in our going out—that the Doc has trouble with. He’s buried or suppressed his own once affectionate persona, and replaced it with a protective wall, and overlaid it with a gruff, closed exterior. These are but symptoms of a greater underlying problem within Martin.

On this blog site we’ve discussed in various ways (including a recent post on “Happiness Is….”) how Martin Ellingham’s childhood influenced his adult behavior and was probably an impediment to his ability to navigate love, intimacy and marriage. Looking at the kindness factor that weaves through the show is another way to explore how other influences may work positively on the adult Martin Ellingham, to help him, as Santa, a writer on this blog site, would say, become his “authentic” self.

In Part II, I list examples of the kindness we find in this show; in Part III, I explore the questions: What is the role of kindness in the series, and why does it matter? My conclusions are that the kindness factor is transformative and plays a critical part in Martin’s own struggle for understanding himself and the “world” (marriage, family, community), and it provides the necessary vehicle that will allow him to work toward, and accept, another way of being in the world that is much closer to his natural self.

Kindness Defined

The OED defines kindness as “the quality of being generous and considerate, sympathetic or charitable towards another.” The word is from 14th c. Middle English kyndnes meaning “nation; produce, an increase.”  In fact the word “kind” is one of the oldest in the English language dating back to the 10th c. Old English word gekynde, meaning “natural,” or something that is innate, as in, “it feels right.”

In Book Two of Aristotle’s Rhetoric, kindness is defined as being “helpfulness towards someone in need, not in return for anything, nor for the advantage of the helper himself, but for that of the person helped….” This assumes empathy, compassion, generosity, charity.  It expresses sympathetic concern for the sufferings of others—especially an ability to imagine “other” or another’s pain, distress, need.

Empathy and sympathy are at the root of this deeper understanding. An important aspect here is the idea that one who performs a kindness does not seek reward or reciprocity. The mystics pondering this would say that openness of the heart is required: to see deeply, beneath surfaces—that there are no degrees of separation between us, but that we are each other.  “Say I am you,” wrote Rumi.

For a small village in a harsh environment, with Portwenn’s challenging and dangerous maritime work, dependence upon one another is a given; to find expressions of kindness shot through the events in the village may not be so exceptional then, but to have so many of them woven throughout the series by its major characters is notable. And when these acts are magnified primarily in the personalities of three of the show’s main female characters—who are all supporters of Martin—we have to think this is probably not accidental, not random. It is through these women that Martin will find his confidence to risk throwing over his past and stepping into a new future.

The Three Women

With definitions in hand, we can turn and look now at the three women and examine their place in Martin’s life. Playing his opposite co-star in the show is Louisa Glasson—a very kind, open, generous and naturally compassionate woman who senses the needs, and feels the pains of Portwenn’s villagers, the economic desperation of her students’ parents, and the emotional and physical distresses of her friends. Her demeanor towards everyone is quite open, sympathetic, empathetic and helpful. She is also kind towards her own selfish, absent parents and amazingly, still wants to see good in them. It is Louisa to whom Martin is deeply attracted, and she anchors half the show.

In addition, Martin is also drawn to his two aunts—Joan and Ruth—who echo and buttress Louisa’s kindness, and who rank high or higher on the kindness scale. All three lovingly surround Martin and stand as counterpoints to his social and emotional maladroitness and his stunted or repressed ability to show affection, social kindness and love. It’s my belief that these women recognize his genuine goodness, and work to help him—each in their own way—to protect his vulnerability and challenge his self-awareness to grow and embrace a different world than the one he has known. Together they also represent the opposite of what Martin’s parents embody in the show.

It is probably worth noting the differences in the types of kindness each of the three women model because it takes all three varieties to act as transformative agents on Martin’s psyche:

  • Louisa is open and unreserved in her empathy, warmth and sensitivity towards others; she is universally available and willing to help someone out. She does not hesitate to do a kindness or to speak a kindness. When it comes to Martin her love and kindnesses towards him are unreserved. That generosity and style of kindness is a large part of what attracts Martin to her.
  • Joan’s kindnesses, while equally grounded in empathy, are more motherly, and protective; she has a keen sensitivity towards the sufferings of others; she is also approachable. When it comes to Martin her love is unconditional and so are her many thoughtful gestures of kindness and care towards him.
  • Unlike Louisa or Joan, Ruth is not an “open” person, is quite reserved, and is picky about who she does her kindnesses for. She does not reveal a lot of empathy, but is keenly sensitive, however, to most of those she comes in contact with, and she can be quite generous towards those she tries to help. She selects her acts of kindness carefully, almost as a duty, and goes all the way when she does, as when she goes after Margaret in the cafe.

Originally posted 2014-11-13 11:54:00.

3 thoughts on “The Kindness Factor

  1. Amy Cohen

    Isn’t Martin’s hemophobia also rooted in kindness? It’s when he was able to empathize with the patient and her family that he first experienced it. (Maybe this came up in Parts 2 and 3.)

  2. Post author

    I think you’re on to something. It’s probably an important point since he repeats the circumstances of the onset of his haemophobia several times, including during a session with Dr. Timoney. When something is repeated, we ought to recognize it as significant to the writers. Kindness could be a factor, but also that surgeons have to distance themselves from their patients or they probably couldn’t operate well. They drape the area both for sterile purposes as well as for creating a detached workspace. It takes a certain personality type to be a surgeon. The mechanics have to be more important than the interpersonal aspects.

    When Martin operates on Louisa, the emotional aspects had to be put in the background for that period. It’s not surprising that he has to emotionally decompress in the bathroom stall following the procedure. We’ve seen him become emotionally overwrought when it comes to Louisa before, especially during her pregnancy and then during the delivery. For a man who rarely expresses emotions, those occasions are particularly impressive.

  3. Amy Cohen

    I know others have commented elsewhere that the hemophobia is a control issue—that Martin doesn’t like being out of control. But I always have seen it as rooted in his inability to distance himself effectively from the people he cares for, despite all his gruffness and rudeness. Once he opened the floodgates of recognizing a patient as a human being (despite the draping, etc.), he seemed unable to retreat again behind those walls. When he does temporarily get control of the hemophobia, it is when he is shut off from Louisa and perhaps from all others as well. It returns once he realizes he can’t shut out Louisa (and thus can’t go to London really). That’s at least what my thoughts have been until I read comments here suggesting that its roots were in his need for control. Maybe those two things are intertwined, but I think the writers were, as you said, making a point with the story of the origins of the problem. It was about empathy, a trait he squelches as much as possible. He really is a kind and gentle man who hides inside a hard shell. I think that’s what Louisa sees. In fact, I think the wise people of Portwenn see it also once they know him.

    I’ve certainly known (and am related to) people like that—tough outside, mush inside.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *