Law and Conversation

May 16, 2011

Medical malpractice in Madame Bovary

Earlier I posted about miserable marriages in literature and noted The Guardian’s recent reference to Gustave Flaubert‘s nineteenth century French classic, “Madame Bovary.”

Most think of “Madame Bovary” as a novel about marriage and adultery. It is, but did you know that there’s also a horrible case of medical malpractice within its covers?

The Guardian’s article dismisses Charles Bovary as “boring,” which I won’t argue about.  But he’s also a good man who loves his wife and daughter and does his best to make a living for them. A physician, he unwisely allows a frenemy to talk him into performing an operation on a village youth, who was born with a clubfoot. He hopes the operation will help the youth to walk normally and gain him recognition and renown as a brilliant surgeon.

It’s easy for the reader to see where Flaubert is going with this subplot: Bovary, who’s not very bright, is incompetent to perform the operation and botches it. As a result, the youth who formerly walked with a limp develops gangrene, has to have his entire leg amputated, and can no longer work. In an age before public welfare and before legal remedies for medical malpractice, we can only imagine the young man’s fate.

As a lawyer who knows many excellent and caring physicians and has enormous respect for the medical profession, I become very discouraged when I encounter distrust or antipathy on the part of some of the dedicated members of that profession–not to mention some in other occupations–toward those in my own. What can we do, I wonder, about this unfortunate state of affairs?

I’ve posted before on writers who are lawyers or who were trained in the law, as Flaubert was.  But there are also many doctors who are marvelous writers as well as some great doctor characters in literature. (Interestingly, Flaubert’s father was a doctor.)  Please check back later this week when I’ll have some reading suggestions regarding doctors in literature.

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