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French Forum 26.3 (2001) 124-126

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Book Review

Medical Examinations:
Dissecting the Doctor in French Narrative Prose, 1857-1894

Mary Donaldson-Evans, Medical Examinations: Dissecting the Doctor in French Narrative Prose, 1857-1894. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2000. xiii + 240 pp.

The rise of realist writing has long been linked to the innovations in science and medicine in nineteenth-century France. In this informative [End Page 124] and intriguing study, Mary Donaldson-Evans revisits this relation, particularly that between medicine and the literature written in the second half of the century. Investigating texts that either incorporate medical discourse or that have doctors as characters, she takes a clear, hard look at the role that medicine plays in texts by Flaubert, the Goncourts, Zola, Huysmans, Maupassant, and Alphonse and Léon Daudet. Her focus on medical discourse unites very successfully these disparate authors and provides a new and unusual point of view on their works.

The introductory chapter moves from a general consideration of the odd nature of a profession that makes money from illness, to the nineteenth century in France and the growth of the prestige of science at that time. This chapter provides a useful and interesting overview of various aspects of the relation between medicine and literature: from the desire of authors to usurp the high esteem held by medical discourse by using it in their texts, to the ubiquity of medical terms used as metaphors for other aspects of life, to the reality of syphilis in the lives of some of these authors.

The main thrust of this book's argument is a convincing one: these complicated writers do not simply import medical themes and rhetoric in a slavish way but rather take an ambiguous, even contradictory stance towards medicine in their texts. On the one hand, writers adulate the medical practitioner. On the other hand, in these texts one finds oppositional practices, from subtle undermining to outright parody, that usurp the prestige of the doctor for appropriation by the literary author. Through fine, close readings of texts by these authors, Mary Donaldson-Evans teases out these oppositional strategies with delicacy and precision.

Of particular interest is her analysis of Madame Bovary, which centers on the blind beggar. First of all, she shows how this character acts as a representative collage of many of the other characters and their symbolic functions. Then, consulting medical dictionaries from the time as well as Flaubert's letters, she shows that the beggar not only suffers from symptoms of skin disease, but also manifests the tell-tale signs of syphilis as defined at the time. Thus the beggar's symbolism deepens to include that of love's pathology, which is of obvious importance in Emma's (and Flaubert's) life. Finally, given the nature of the blind beggar's symptoms, Homais's pledge to cure him resounds more hollowly and ridiculously than before. In his representation of the blind beggar, Flaubert uses medical discourse to undermine the authority not only of Homais but also of the medical profession in general. [End Page 125]

Also noteworthy is the chapter on Zola's L'Assommoir. This reading first explores the century's moralizing discourse on hygiene that indirectly attributed such varied problems as cholera and alcoholism to uncleanliness. Gervaise's profession as laundress was closely tied to the hygienist project. In a skillful reading of Gervaise's downfall, we learn, in a pleasing irony, that it is in fact Gervaise's very profession as a cleaner that exposes her to the contagious dirt that tranforms her life into one of filthy drunkenness.

The chapter on Alphonse Daudet's Le Nabab introduces a curious companion of anti-medical discourse: antisemitism. The link between the two is first established by the fact that the doctor in this text, Jenkins, is a foreigner who, through subtle associations, becomes identified with the Jew. This Irish doctor then is, on a symbolic level, responsible for the downfall of the society of the Second Empire and thus becomes a symbolic poisoner who destroys France. This...


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