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Homais tells Emma that he's learned about a new method for curing clubfoot. He suggests that Charles learn the medical procedures and perform an operation on Hippolyte, the lame stable boy at the Lion d'Or. Emma is eager to do something to help her husband, and Homais convinces her that Charles' reputation will soar if the operation is successful.
Hippolyte is wary. All the townspeople-interested primarily in the renown such an operation would bring to Yonville-urge him to go through with it. He finally agrees to do so when he realizes that it will cost him nothing, but he feels somehow that it is a mistake. The operation seems a success, and for the first time, Charles has done something to make Emma proud of him. The night after the operation, they sit around talking about their future and the change in their lives once Charles becomes a "famous" doctor. As they prepare for bed, Homais arrives with an article he's written for the local paper, publicizing the "surgical experiment."
As you read the description of the operation, remember that Flaubert was the son of a surgeon and that he spent his childhood observing his father at work. Flaubert himself said that growing up in a hospital environment, surrounded by death and suffering, was a major influence on his attitudes about writing, especially about the ideas of objectivity and detachment. He had also been exposed to the malpractice of incompetent doctors and its ruinous results.
Emma's happiness with Charles, however, is shattered five days later. Hippolyte's foot has become a "shapeless mass" and eventually gangrene sets in. Charles attempts to ease the pain but without any success, so he finally calls in another physician, Dr. Canivet, who announces that Hippolyte's leg will have to be amputated. This old-fashioned doctor-a kind of domineering bully-criticizes the townspeople, especially Homais, for thinking that the operation could succeed.
Neither Emma nor Homais cares about what Charles or Hippolyte are feeling. Emma tricks herself into believing that her husband is capable of performing such an operation, and after he fails, she gives up even the pretense of trying to be faithful to him.
Charles is despondent. While Canivet performs the amputation, Charles remains at home and tries to determine what went wrong with the operation. For Emma, thinking only of herself, it's the final humiliation. How, she asks herself, could she ever imagine that someone like Charles might amount to anything? As Emma and Charles sit like strangers in front of the fireplace they hear the cries of the suffering stable boy. In his unhappiness, Charles begs Emma for a kiss, but she refuses him and rushes to her room. Later that night, she meets Rodolphe in the garden and throws herself into his arms.
NOTE: THE OPERATION
In this chapter, Flaubert's attention to realistic detail enhances your understanding of the amputation. The vocabulary includes words which describe the smell of gangrene, the physical deterioration of Hippolyte's leg, and the anguish of human suffering. The Romantics would have used lofty, poetic images to disguise the unpleasant details or not described it at all. The Realists and Naturalists, however, will tell the truth, regardless of its unpleasantness. Notice that the clubfoot scene delays the progress of the Emma-Rodolphe love affair. It is Flaubert's way of intensifying Emma's disdain for Charles and of strengthening her need for escape. This explains why, at the chapter's end, she flings herself into Rodolphe's arms and sets their relationship back in motion. With each new reason to despise Charles, Emma has one less reason to feel guilt about her affair. Though she is headed for disaster, she believes that happiness-with Rodolphe-lies just around the corner.