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Saturday, 6 October 2012

Flaubert and the 'Medical' Model of Disability

In preparation for a research paper I am giving at the University of Kent as part of their 'Cultural Pathologies' seminar, I have been thinking about how nineteenth-century French literature depicts disability. The nineteenth century is well-known for its enthusiasm for scientific and medical progress. It would therefore seem logical that its writers would favour the  'medical' model of disability. This model is similar to the 'tragedy approach'. Both these models of disability still exist today. (See this post for an example of the 'tragedy' approach.)  The 'medical model' sees disability as something inherently negative which must be cured, or, better yet, eliminated entirely. The most extreme version of this model led to the eugenics of Nazi Germany.

The club foot episode in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary can be read as an example of the 'medical' approach to disability. In the name of progress and patriotism, Homais and Emma convince Charles to cure Hippolyte's club foot using a new and complicated procedure. Hippolyte, who is perfectly happy with his foot the way it is, takes quite a lot of persuading. Like many disabled people, he does not see himself as in any way disadvantaged or inconvenienced by his difference and cannot really understand why the able-bodied are so eager to convince him otherwise.

When he eventually acquiesces, the operation seems to go perfectly, leaving Charles, and, more importantly, Emma to bask in the glory of his triumph. Unfortunately, however, Charles is not quite as talented as his wife would have him (and herself) believe. Hippolyte's leg soon becomes gangrenous and is eventually amputated by renowned surgeon Canivet.

The failure of Charles's attempt to cure Hippolyte is a wonderful illustration of the dangers of the 'medical' model. Homais and Emma believe in perfection, beauty and normality. Anything that deviates from any of these absolutes must be somehow lacking or inferior: a patient in need of a cure, a victim in need of pity. But their interference nearly costs Hippolyte his life. Why, rages Canivet, try and fix something that isn't even broken? Why mess with a perfectly happy and healthy man for no reason other than a misguided believe in progress for its own sake? Why indeed.

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