Lit React ~ Analysis & reactions on works of fiction.

19 Aug 2011

(Short Story) The Operation by: Roger Martin Du Gard

(Reaction) Doctor's call by: Antonio Conejos

The Operation is a good example of a short story whose tension is reflected in the setting and is heightened in the use of the point of view. The stifling heat of the room where they operate, coupled with the rain and thunder outside, provide an appropriate backdrop to the life or death actions of the doctor. Moreover, that the story is told from the (third person) perspective of the doctor provides insight into the difficulty of the operation as well as the self-assurance of Antoine.

This heightened self confidence is perhaps the true preoccupation of Du Gard's short story. The serious injuries of Dedette are merely the pretense by way of which the reader is invited to examine the character of this doctor suddenly thrust into the spotlight.

From the beginning Antoine is painted in broad strokes as a man who disdains temerity, He seldom took thought without at the same time beginning to take action... The avoidance of mistakes counted less with him that bold decision and prompt activity. It is not that he thinks he can do no wrong but that rather doing nothing is wrong enough.

There is no doubt too as to who is in charge of saving the child. The young doctor (who is never named, further indication of his subordination to Antoine) and Rachel all take their cues from Antoine. He was, Like a general in charge of a campaign, he allotted each thing in its place.

This ebullient confidence ferments into dizzying congratulations as the operation seems to turn out successfully, 'I'm a wonderful fellow!'... some dark force he did not analyze buoyed up his faith; never had he felt so sure of himself. Antoine refers to himself as wonderful at least twice in this story.

If the doctor thinks much too highly of himself he may be forgiven (somewhat) as this confidence is a result of the self realization that his common day to day life is rarely so glorified, ...there came to him that sense of buoyancy, of boundless confidence, of vital energies tautened to breaking-point, and crowning all, a proud awareness of being lifted high above his workday self. Ironically then Antoine's confidence arises not from the experience of past successes but rather from the humble realization that outside of this emergency situation he is still an unremarkable doctor.

This humility manifests itself only once again in the story, when Antoine catches himself from feeling too much pride when the other doctor calls him sir. He waves off the praise and admits (as much to himself as to his colleague), I'm only a learner, a novice - like you. Like so many others. Like everyone. Groping our way. We do our best - and that's all there is to it.

It is in this uncharacteristic self abasement that the reader is able to infer why Antoine became a doctor in the first place. It was not to strut around with the confidence that he alone could save; but rather it was simply a desire to do his best.

Ultimately The Operation is a study in character - how success is forged in ambitious and cocky young men. The dramatic procedure undertaken on Dedette, in parallel with the amorous air between Antoine and Rachel, underline the headiness and brashness of life. This is reflected in the story's last line, which is given to Rachel, A night like that works you up.... In this last line the story links the battle for life in last night's operation with the enjoyment of life in the glow of the morning. In each phase (night and day) the central figure is the doctor - young, confident, also teeming with the brashness of life.


Whether through a less than diligent narrator or a less than insightful reader (ie. me) it is unclear how the young accident victim, Dedette, is related (if at all) to M. Jules Chasle. The old woman who forbids that the girl be taken to the hospital is identified as M. Chasle's mother. That this old woman has the final say in Dedette's treatment would indicate that she too is related to the victim. The doctor even speculates that the old woman is the girl's grandmother. Yet that would make the girl the daughter of M. Chasle, an odd conclusion since Dedette is wont to call M. Chasle M. Jules.

This ambiguity in the relationships of the characters left me struggling with Du Gard's short story. Even Antoine, in a breather after the operation, remarks on how the characters know each other, Can't make head or tail of it! While the relationships are explained towards the end of the story this explanation comes much too late.

Moreover the main character comes off as insufferably self assured, even more confidently cocky than is currently in vogue in the medical profession.

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