The literary style of Flaubert is on supreme display in his classic 19th century novel, Madame Bovary — here are some of my favorite moves and annotations from my third read of this remarkable book.
The novel takes place in Yonville, France circa 19th century. It is a backwater tableau of ennui, infidelity, and venal customs and traditions. There are agricultural fairs, visiting dignitaries and horse-drawn exits and entrances. Chief among its citizens, Emma Bovary, the titular protagonist of Gustave Flaubert’s classic Madame Bovary. Emma lives in Yonville with her dotard of a husband, Charles, who serves as the town’s doctor and the novel’s primary dupe. They have a daughter, Berthe. It is a glum existence for Emma, the original desperate housewife. She cheats not once, but twice on her fog of a husband, first with Leon and then Rodolphe, before returning to Leon. Her infidelities are fueled by manic misuse of the family funds and her near constant miscalculations. Her biggest blunder is being so romantic to think those to whom she owned would not come calling for their due. With all this dread, it would be hard to call this novel anything but god-awful real, and ultimately very desolate. If not for the superior literary style of Flaubert, this might be a story too maudlin and depressing to relay.
Our first sense of Emma’s ennui comes early in this lovely passage where she compares the life she wants with the one she has: “In the city, amid the din of the streets, the buzz of theaters, and the lights of the ballrooms, they were leaving lives in which the heart expands, the senses bloom. But her own life was cold as an attic with a north-facing window, and boredom, that silent spider, was spinning its web in the darkness in every corner of her heart (p. 38). What is particularly winning here is the way Flaubert turns an abstract emotion or emotional state — boredom — into a tiny creature skittering around in her soul, in her heart, spinning its restrictions. Every time I read this novel it is the first of many wows of Flaubert’s imagination.
The darkness in her heart (a desire to be what she was not, to forget her meagre beginnings), continues even when Emma is surrounded by gaiety. She’s in a ballroom and a dance, a cotillion is soon to start. The lamps are growing dim, and Emma notices at the window “countrypeople” looking in. It sparks a memory in her of the family farm. “She saw the farm again, the muddy pond, her father in a smock under the apple trees, and she saw herself as she used to be, skimming cream with her fingers from the pans of milk in the milk house. But under the dazzling splendors of the present hour, her past life, so distinct until now, was vanishing altogether, and she almost doubted that she had ever lived it.”
As she continues her life as a doctor’s wife in Yonville, her desire rages unabated (p. 57). Her husband stares at her “wide-eyed,” as she rails against perversities and “immortal things,” to the point that she doubts she can get herself out of it, that the misery might last forever. “Would she never find a way out?” Emma asks herself. Seemingly incessantly. She would curse God’s injustice, to “lean her head against the walls and cry; she would (thinking)… outrageous pleasures, and all the wild emotions, unknown… She grew pale and had palpitations of the heart.” It was at this juncture that I wonder if she’s a manic depressive, bipolar. Later in the novel, Flaubert writes, “She was entering something marvelous in which all was passion, ecstasy, delirium; a blue-tinged immensity surrounded her, heights of feeling sparkled under her thoughts, and ordinary life appeared only in the distance, far below, in shadows, in the spaces between those peaks” (p. 142). Or, “Lying became a need, a mania, a pleasure, to the point that if she said she had gone down the right side of the street yesterday, one could be sure she had gone down the left” (p. 240).
For these wild keening, her mania was contrasted with the darkness she often felt. “The next day was, for Emma, a dismal one. Everything seemed enveloped in a black atmosphere that hovered in distinctly over the exterior of things, and sorrow rushed into her soul, moaning softly like the winter wind in the abandoned manor houses. It was the sort of reveries you sink into over something that will never return again, the lassitude that overcomes you with each thing that his finished, the pain your fear when any habitual motion is topped, when a prolonged vibration abruptly ceases” (p. 107).
It was a mess in her mind (p. 108). “In the torpor of her consciousness, she even misunderstood her feelings of repugnance for her husband to be yearnings for her lover, the scorching of hatred for the rekindling of affection; but since the storm continued to rage and her passion burned itself to ashes, and since no help came and no sun appeared, night closed in completely around her, and she remained lost in a terrible, piercing cold.”
Flaubert’s literary style was not solely draped upon dear Emma, but was also threaded throughout this remarkable novel. Take this for example, “What a dreadful catastrophe,” cried the pharmacist, (and it could have been left there, but Flaubert gives the reader a little morsel with the following) who was always prepared with expressions to fit every imaginable circumstance. And, here, we see the characteristic Flaubert detail in this passage: “The animals were there, their noses turned to the rope, their unequal hindquarters forming a ragged line. Drowsy pigs were borrowing in the earth with their snouts; calves were bawling; sheep were bleating; cows, one leg folded in, spread their bellies over the grass and, slowly chewing their cuds, blind their heavy eyelids under the flies that buzzed around them.” (pp. 118-119), and its goes on for another half page—all this detail impossible for the human eye to see and perceive, but included by the author.
While some suggest Madame Bovary is an indictment of French society, and it surely is, but it’s also an examination of morality (which one could argue is borne of its society). Here’s an exchange:
“But still, said Emma, we have to pay some attention to society’s opinions and abide by its morality.
Ah! In fact there are two moralities, he (Rodolphe) replied. The petty one, the conventional one, the one devised by men, that keeps changing and bellows so loudly, making a commotion down here amongst us, in a perfectly pedestrian way…” (p. 126)
But in the end, Flaubert admits he too, like all who attempt to capture experience, consciousness, feelings in words, grapples with the ineffable. Through Rodolphe, “…one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed mediocre affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not something overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or out ideas, or our sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, when we long to move the stars to pity.”
A graduate school professor I admired once said Madame Bovary was a feminist novel, and I have no reason to doubt her assessment, but after several reads of the novel I cannot myself give it the same designation – Emma is caught in a society that does not necessarily respect her and she fights for agency and romance in her own life; and having just typed this line, I can see how the novel might be construed as feminist, however, my own proclivity is that her rather negative downward spiral would hardly be a case study for anything laudable; for me, it’s a tragedy.