One day it was learned that a doctor in Rouen had published a remarkable new surgical procedure for curing clubfoot. Emma and Homais urged Charles to carry out the new operation on Hippolyte, the crippled servant at the inn. Emma hoped in this way to advance Bovary in his career and thus satisfy her desire to be a good wife; she had many daydreams about the wealth and increased prestige to which his success would entitle them. Homais expected to gain personal repute from his own part in the operation and to bring more business to Yonville (and himself) as word of the cure spread. Neither Homais nor Emma was particularly concerned with the safety of the operation or the well-being of Hippolyte.
Bovary was dubious about the new technique and was unwilling to cooperate, but, under the combined pressure of Emma and Homais, finally gave in. Moreover, nearly everyone in the town, including the mayor, was a staunch advocate of the new operation, for they had all been convinced by Homais of its advantage to them. Their ceaseless prodding continued until Bovary was ready to proceed. Hippolyte was terrified and confused by the whole idea, but he was a simple youth and was induced to volunteer his body for the sake of Yonville and Science.
The operation was carried out by Homais and Charles in the local inn. At first it seemed a success, but Hippolyte soon became ill and suffered terrible pain. It was discovered that his leg was infested with gangrene. Bovary was very upset and unable to act; so a consultant was called in from another town. The doctor sternly admonished Bovary for his foolish treatment and amputated the patient's leg. Homais, meanwhile, disclaimed any responsibility, and Emma was disgusted by what she interpreted as a further demonstration of Charles' stupid incompetence. In fact, however, the fault was not entirely Bovary's although no one recognized this. Some of the blame also belonged to the specialist who had published an untested and undependable "cure."
Bovary and Emma were both depressed by this incident, although for different reasons. He was ashamed of what he had done and felt that he had been irresponsible. She reproached herself for ever having had faith in him and decided that she was now absolved of any responsibility to her husband. Her passion for Rodolphe flared up again, and she saw him that night for the first time in many days. Charles, in his simplicity, assumed that Emma's depression had been caused by sympathy for him and was gratified by her demonstration of devotion.
This chapter interrupts the progress of the love affair. At the end of the last chapter, Emma had begun to repent of her love for Rodolphe. Now she turns to Charles, and when Homais suggests the operation, she encourages it, thinking that if Charles were famous she could respect him. Through it all, Homais and Emma never give any thought to Charles or to Hippolyte, but instead see in the operation how they could personally benefit from the fame. We know, and later in retrospect Emma realizes, that Charles is not capable of such an operation, and it is only through the goading of Emma and Homais that he ever consents. The operation having failed, Emma now repents of her past virtue. In other words, Charles' ineptitude and stupidity now give her full justification to carry out her affair with no tinge of recrimination. Thus this interlude functions to again convince Emma of Charles' ignorance and to justify her infidelity.
The description of the operation, the gangrene with its smell, the interest of the crowd, and the suffering of Hippolyte are all masterfully rendered. And the absurdity of Homais' letter, composed immediately after the operation, should be compared with the equally absurd letter describing the agricultural show in Chapter 8.