Madame Bovary

January 14, 2021

I’ve just finished “Madame Bovary.”  Some of it was slow going, specifically the passages of excessive detail about physical objects and surroundings.  But after finishing the novel, I read in Soledad Fox’s “Flaubert and Don Quijote” that Flaubert used all this detail to satirize the “realist” genre:  that’s why he describes the wedding cake, for example, in such monstrous detail that it’s impossible to visualize the thing.

But the detail is not always satirical; as Fox and many others have noted, Flaubert was aiming for a style that was more realistic than the sentimental romances that were popular in his time, and that Emma Bovary reads.

Proust describes physical things in rich detail too – and actually “Madame Bovary” is the first novel that has reminded me of “Swann’s Way” – but in Proust it was always interesting, maybe because it was the characters themselves who were observing all these detailed things in their surroundings and were entranced or moved in some way.  Detail of physical terrain was very interesting in “The Lord of the Rings” because the characters themselves were traveling through it, negotiating it, blocked by it; the topographical detail in that book surely serves to “ground” the story and distinguish it from easy fantasy, making it more realistic; but the topography is a central part of the story.  Detail for detail’s sake – or rather for the sake of realism alone – is less interesting for me, if that is what Flaubert was aiming at with his detail-heavy style.  But a re-reading may help. 

For me the novel really came alive halfway through, with the amputation of Hippolyte’s leg.  The scene that follows is equally memorable, with Emma and Charles at the same table, each furiously thinking and feeling, and each barely aware of the other person.

While I was reading “Don Quixote” last year, I read or heard somewhere that Madame Bovary, out of all the candidates for a female Don Quixote, has the best claim to such a title.  And I know from “Flaubert and Don Quijote” that Cervantes’ novel had a lifelong impact on the Frenchman.

After reading “Madame Bovary,” it seems to me that Flaubert imitates Cervantes more than Emma imitates Alonso Quijano. 

As best as I understand it, Cervantes invented a new form of writing, the novel, by tearing down and building back up the works of the time period – chivalric romances – in a new, ironic, realistic form; Flaubert similarly reinvented the sentimental novels of his time period, producing in “Madame Bovary” a template for the modern “realistic” novel (though Flaubert himself resisted being pegged as a “realist”).  I can see how Flaubert imitates Cervantes in that way.  But Emma is different from our Spanish knight.  As with Arabella in Charlotte Lennox’s “The Female Quixote”, there is no possibility that Emma’s “Quixotism” is an act; she is simply blind.  And there is nothing about Emma’s personality that soars above the commonplace; very little is even likable.  There is much that we can sympathize with or pity, but almost nothing that inspires.

Sympathetic characters are few in this novel.  Emma’s father is one.  Her husband is sympathetic, too, even if infuriatingly thick-headed and a professional bungler.  Of course, there’s Justin.  His scene at the grave is beautiful, almost to the point of being sentimental.

(Spoilers ahead.)

Léon begins as a sympathetic character, and he would have remained so had Emma never bumped into him again. 

Homais starts out merely colorful, and slowly descends, turning almost into the villain of the piece (there is no villain, though Rodolphe and Lheureux come close).  It was delicious to see him upbraided for his role in the botched operation.  And he has the inglorious honor of starring in the novel’s inglorious conclusion.

In that last paragraph, Flaubert rapidly lays on the lashes of realism, reporting, without even catching his breath, the deaths of Emma’s husband and mother-and-law, the crippling of her father, the sad fate of her daughter, and the ascendancy of Homais.

I felt there was not enough speech from Emma (and too much from Homais) in the novel.  Flaubert gives us none of her long letter with which she intended to dump Léon, which is a pity because Rodolphe had dumped her with a long letter which we see almost in its entirety.  As Emma is Rodolphe’s mistress, Léon is Emma’s; and it would have been exceedingly interesting to see Emma in the role of the upper hand.

Emma does “keep” Léon till the end of the book, slowly occupying his personality.  There is a moment in fact where she looks almost ready to step into a modern film noir, as a femme fatale egging on her weak lover (p. 264):

An infernal boldness looked out from her burning eyes, and their lids drew close together with a lascivious and encouraging look, so that the young man felt himself growing weak beneath the mute will of this woman who was urging him to a crime. Then he was afraid, and to avoid any explanation he smote his forehead, crying—

Emma is clearly a woman of some power; but it’s a power with sharp limits; and she is frustrating in her silence.  Almost as frustrating as Fanny Price.  But one senses also that there is less to say, in Emma, at least of the kind that can be said with words.

I had seen a short clip of Emma’s surely-famous line, “I have a lover”, in a recent adaptation.  In the book that line comes off far sadder, like something a child would say.  And not a happy one.

This passage is quite touching, the way her life-span is mapped (p. 151):

What an abundance of illusions! Nothing was left of them now. She had got rid of them all in her soul’s life, in all her successive conditions of life, maidenhood, her marriage, and her love—thus constantly losing them all her life through, like a traveller who leaves something of his wealth at every inn along his road.

Flaubert juxtaposes the poetic with what is commonplace/boring.  He lives with both, describes both, is faithful to both.  Emma, though, wants only to live in the poetic.  She is bored with the world as she finds it.  She grew bored of God in the convent; bored of her husband in the marriage; bored of her lovers in the affairs; always she needed passion to stay alive.

Flaubert’s writing can be difficult as I said above, but occasionally he lapses into soaring poetry.  When I came across these lines below (p. 167), I remembered having read them last summer in Carl Sagan’s “Contact”:

He had so often heard these things said that they did not strike him as original. Emma was like all his mistresses; and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, that has always the same forms and the same language. He did not distinguish, this man of so much experience, the difference of sentiment beneath the sameness of expression. Because lips libertine and venal had murmured such words to him, he believed but little in the candour of hers; exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.

There are many memorable passages in the novel, too many to talk about.  But this one struck me (page 44, from chapter 8):

A few men (some fifteen or so), of twenty-five to forty, scattered here and there among the dancers or talking at the doorways, distinguished themselves from the crowd by a certain air of breeding, whatever their differences in age, dress, or face.  Their clothes, better made, seemed of finer cloth, and their hair, brought forward in curls towards the temples, glossy with more delicate pomades. They had the complexion of wealth—that clear complexion that is heightened by the pallor of porcelain, the shimmer of satin, the veneer of old furniture, and that an ordered regimen of exquisite nurture maintains at its best. Their necks moved easily in their low cravats, their long whiskers fell over their turned-down collars, they wiped their lips upon handkerchiefs with embroidered initials that gave forth a subtle perfume. Those who were beginning to grow old had an air of youth, while there was something mature in the faces of the young. In their unconcerned looks was the calm of passions daily satiated, and through all their gentleness of manner pierced that peculiar brutality, the result of a command of half-easy things, in which force is exercised and vanity amused—the management of thoroughbred horses and the society of loose women.

It’s well-known how Flaubert got into trouble for the way his novel criticized the manners, values and mores of the French middle class.  It seems here that Flaubert is describing lions at rest. 

3 thoughts on “Madame Bovary

  1. Very interesting angle. I haven’t read Cervantes, so I’m missing part of your point here but I like how you picked out passages about Flaubert’s style. He was nuts about chosing the exact word and was a style tyrant. We know that every word was written purposefully.

  2. Thanks, Emma. And I’ll leave a link here to your own review of Madame Bovary:

    You talked in the comments there about the kind of censorship that Flaubert was facing. The book I mentioned above, Soledad Fox’s “Flaubert and Don Quixote,” if you haven’t read it and you’re interested, talks about how Cervantes was in a similar situation, writing in the climate of the Counter-Reformation, the Inquisition, and the expulsions of the Jews and Moors from Spain.

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