Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857)

Before her marriage she had thought that she had love within her grasp. But
since the happiness which she had expected this love to bring her hadn’t come,
she supposed she must have been mistaken. And Emma tried to imagine just what
was meant, in life, by the words “bliss,” “passion,” and “rapture.” Words that
had seemed so beautiful to her in books.

Once again, I find a tragic French novel to be hilarious. This time, however, I think the author might’ve intended it that way, at least a little.

When I read Manon Lescaut a few months ago, I found des Grieux quite unbelievable in his naïveté and somewhat pathetic in his willingness to find excuses for Manon’s faithless ways. I read Madame Bovary for a different Coursera class – this one, philosophy, specifically “The Modern and Post-Modern” taught by Michael Roth of Wesleyan – but had the same urge to giggle throughout. Not, however, over Charles Bovary’s unawareness of his wife’s carryings-on, but of the juxtaposition of high romance and boring banality. What’s more, Flaubert planned it this way: “This will be the first time, I think, that a book makes fun of its leading lady and its leading man,” he wrote in an 1852 letter to his mistress. Academia calls it irony; I call it hilarious.

It is, of course, one of the most analyzed books around, and Lydia Davis’ recent translation caused a new stir of interest. I’m not going to attempt any scholarship; I’ll just make note of what those with far more smarts than I have to say, and mention my own reaction. I have two sources of analysis, besides the book itself: A.S. Byatt’s July 2002 article published in The Guardian (which includes some of Flaubert’s comments on the writing of the book), and an hour of lectures (on amateur video) by the now-familiar Prof. Arnold Weinstein.

Wasn’t it a man’s role, though, to know everything? Shouldn’t he be expert at
all kinds of things, able to initiate you into the intensities of passion,
the refinements of life, all the mysteries? This man could teach you nothing.
He knew nothing, he wished for nothing. He took it for granted that she was
content, and she resented his settled calm, his serene dullness, the very
happiness she herself brought him.

Emma Bovary is, as Prof. Weinstein underlines, a woman misled by books. A farmer’s daughter educated in a convent, she’s grown up with this romantic vision of the world in which marriage leads to bliss and love is ecstasy. It’s complicated by her taste for the finer things, a taste intensified by a brush with “the good life” early in her marriage. She spends the rest of her short life desperately searching for this bliss, this elegance, heedless of the cost; when the bills come due, literally and figuratively, she takes the romanticized cure: suicide. This is the cost of romanticism unbridled by reality.

The scenes where romance and reality are intertwined are frequent and memorable. Emma and her various romantic targets are constantly being separated, interfered with, interrupted by, the mundane business of ordinary life. This may be unavoidable; Flaubert admits in another letter: “There are in me, literally speaking, two distinct persons: one who is infatuated with bombast, lyricism, eagle flights, sonorities of phrase and lofty ideas; and another who digs and burrows into the truth as deeply as he can, who likes to treat a humble fact as respectfully as a big one, who would like to make you feel almost physically the things he reproduces.” He gets this onto the page time and time again. In Part II, Chapter 3, Emma has run into Leon on her way to visit her child at the wet nurse’s house, and is rather eager to get back to him, not out of any grand passion or any concrete idea but merely to hold onto his arm; the wet nurse keeps interrupting, preventing their leaving with requests for soap, coffee, and – most likely her goal all the while – brandy, driving Emma into greater and greater impatience. In Chapter 6, she tries to talk to the priest about her growing unhappiness, but he’s paying attention to a group of students and begins to instruct her on the troubles of poverty, certainly a greater concern than a housewife’s boredom, but not of much help to her at that moment.

But the two ultimate examples of this juxtaposition technique take place at the Agricultural Fair, and later, in Rouen. At the Fair, Rodolphe woos Emma, declares his intentions to seduce her and begin an adulterous affair, against a backdrop of an agricultural auction and the awarding of prizes. The scene, a brief clip I’ll show here (italics and indents added for clarity), is a complete scream:

He took her hand, and this time she did not withdraw it.
                       “First prize for all-round farming!” cried the chairman.
“Just this morning, for example, when I came to your house . . .”
                       “To Monsieur Bizet, of Quincampoix.”
“Did I have any idea that I’d be coming with you to the show?”
                       “Seventy francs!”
“A hundred times I was on the point of leaving, and yet I followed you and
stayed with you . . .”
                       “For the best manures.”
“. . . as I’d stay with you tonight, tomorrow, every day, all my life!”
                       “To Monsieur Caron, of Argueil, a gold medal!”
“Never have I been so utterly charmed by anyone . . .”
                       “To Monsieur Bain, of Givry-Saint-Martin!”
“. . . so that I’ll carry the memory of you with me . . .”
                       “For a merino ram . . .”
“Whereas you’ll forget me, I’ll vanish like a shadow.”
                       “To Monsieur Belot, of Notre-Dame . . .”
“No, though! Tell me it isn’t so! Tell me I’ll have a place in your thoughts,
in your life!”
                       “Hogs, a tie! To Messieurs Leherisse and Cullembourg, sixty francs!”
Rodolphe squeezed her hand, and he felt it all warm and trembling in his, like
a captive dove that longs to fly away. But then, whether in an effort to free
it, or in response to his pressure, she moved her fingers.

The fact is: love and hogs coexist; passion and manure are sometimes useful and sometimes distasteful, but they nonetheless are and they are in the same world. The bathos in this scene may show the cheapness of romantic claptrap, but it also shows reality. And don’t forget: Emma’s later undoing is not her infidelities, but in her disregard of reality, particularly financial reality (a disregard encouraged by the greedy and scheming Lheureux), in favor of romance.

In Part III, the same type of scene is played out, with Leon now pursuing Emma and the verger of the Cathedral at Rouen the constant intrusion. This blends into the cab scene, in which the coach driver becomes the point-of-view character, instructed by occasional cries from the back of the coach: “Straight on!” “Drive on!” It’s a great stylistic choice, to show passion’s consummation without showing it at all:

At a certain moment in the early afternoon, when the sun was blazing down most fiercely on the old silver-plated lamps, a bare hand appeared from under the little yellow cloth curtains and threw out some torn scraps of paper. The wind caught them and scattered them, and they alighted at a distance, like white butterflies, on a field of flowering red clover.
Then, about six o’clock, the carriage stopped in a side street near the Place Beauvoisine. A woman alighted from it and walked off, her veil down, without a backward glance.

That’s exquisite writing. I wish I read French well enough to appreciate the original; here is where the rhythm of the language would be most important.

This split-screen technique continues through Emma’s demise. Her little girl is brought to her on her death bed, and the scene is reminiscent of New Year’s; as the blind beggar sings, Emma dies; Homais and the priest debate religion and science while making funeral arrangements. Then we have the potatoes, which are only mentioned twice in the novel, yet still echo the theme. I must say, Flaubert isn’t afraid to go there, and when he goes there, he really goes there.

I’m a bit disturbed by yet another depiction of a shallow, flighty woman undone by her own love of pleasure, but here, the blame gets laid at the foot of romantic literature; it is in those stories she learned her map of the world, and she merely tried to negotiate what she thought was a reasonable path, and discovered too late she’d sold a bill of goods. Nothing could have measured up to her expectations.

No matter, she wasn’t happy, and never had been. Why was life so
unsatisfactory? Why did everything she leaned on crumble instantly to dust?
But why, if somewhere there existed a strong and handsome being . . . a man of
valor, sublime in passion and refinement, with a poet’s heart and an angel’s
shape, a man like a lyre with strings of bronze, intoning elegiac epithalamiums
to the heavens, why mightn’t she have the luck to meet him? Ah, fine chance!
Besides, nothing was worth looking for. Everything was a lie! Every smile
concealed a yawn of boredom. Every joy, a curse, every pleasure, its own
surfeit. And the sweetest kisses left on one’s lips but a vain longing for
fuller delight.

She’s looking for something that doesn’t exist: objective happiness, literally an object or a man who will make her happy. Prof. Weinstein points out in his lecture: It’s not just romance books, it’s the marketplace that has created her appetite, as it even more deliberately creates ours today; corporations spend a great deal on marketing to be sure we develop a “need” for their product.

Emma suicides by “eating” poison, a phrasing I found odd (shouldn’t it be “taking?”) but that serves a thematic purpose: finally, an appetite she can satisfy. Then, the most tragic and poignant moment in the book, the moment that for me is the point of it all: Charles realizes she’s deathly ill, and asks, “What did you eat?” “And in his eyes she read a love such as she had never known.” If she could have lived her life in the throes of suicide, she might have been happy.

Emma Bovary is said to be inspired by Flaubert’s fascination with two “fallen women”: Delphine Delamare, the unattractive but sexually provocative wife of an unsuccessful small-town doctor, a woman who had “expensive tastes, a gullible adoring husband, a procession of lovers, and a secret festering pile of debts”; and Louise Pradier, whose marriage to the star sculptor of the day was destroyed by her promiscuity and financial irresponsibility. A lot of that going around mid-19th century France.

One more real-life tie-in: Flaubert received from his own mistress, Louise Colet, a cigarette case bearing the words “Amor nel cor”; Rodolphe uses a seal bearing exactly that phrase to prepare his kiss-off note to Emma. It just so happens Louise was married to artist Hippolyte Colet – and the name of the stableboy Charles maims with inept surgery is also named Hippolyte. Writers settle scores in many ways, sometimes unfairly.

One of the (many) hallmarks of the work is the use of free indirect discourse, a sort of blending of character and narrator to the point where it’s uncertain where one stops and the other begins. Jane Austen first used this type of narration, but only sparingly; Flaubert developed it into an art form, one we somewhat take for granted now. Pericles Lewis of Yale gives a particularly interesting footnote to this: Flaubert was brought to trial for “outrage to public morals and religion” after publication, and the prosecutor claimed Flaubert, not Emma, was speaking in favor of adultery in the “I have a lover!” scene. It may be the first time in history a literary technique has been considered legal evidence.

[Rodolphe] Why preach against the passions? Aren’t they the only beautiful thing in
this world, the source of heroism, enthusiasm, poetry, music, the arts,
everything?”
“But still,” said Emma, “we have to be guided a little by society’s opinions.
We have to follow its standards of morality.”
“Ah! But there are two moralities,” he replied. “The petty one, the
conventional one, the one invented by man, the one that keeps changing and
screaming its head off, that one’s noisy and vulgar, like that crowd of fools
you see out there. But the other one, the eternal one . . . Ah! This one’s
all around us and above us, like the landscape that surrounds us and the blue
sky that gives us light.”

So what does all this have to do with philosophy? I have no idea; that’s why I’m taking the class. Flaubert follows Hegel/Marx on the syllabus (I’m reading in advance again), and the lecture, which will go up next week, is titled “Modernism: Art for Art’s Sake.” I guess I’ll find out. I keep taking philosophy and history classes: I’ve always found that, no matter how well I think grasp the material, when I run up against it from a different angle, I don’t recognize it. Most of the academic analysis I’ve found talks about Romanticism vs Modernism, and the book contains a few discussions on these points and a number of others – arts, sciences, passion, morality, religion – but no one in this book, and thus no viewpoint, comes out looking good; the characters are various combinations of foolish, cruel, greedy, and bumbling. I wonder if that could be Flaubert’s point.

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2 responses to “Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (1857)

  1. Pingback: Project Runway: Enough | A Just Recompense

  2. Pingback: BASS 2014: Karen Russell, “Madame Bovary’s Greyhound” from Zoetrope, #17:2 | A Just Recompense

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