Regular readers may be unsurprised to learn that, barely a hundred pages into Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, it is the clothes that have struck me most forcibly thus far. I wrote a few months ago about the attention paid to clothing by Honoré de Balzac in his Père Goriot, but Flaubert elevates the humble vêtements almost to characters in their own right. Take this delightfully revolting description, early in the novel, of a hat worn by young Charles Bovary at school (all translations courtesy of Lydia Davis):
C'était une de ces coiffures d'ordre composite, où l'on retrouve les éléments du bonnet à poil, du chapska, du chapeau rond, de la casquette de loutre et du bonnet de coton, une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d'expression comme le visage d'un imbécile. Ovoïde et renflée de baleines, elle commençait par trois boudins circulaires; puis s'alternaient, separés par une bande rouge, des losanges de velours et de poils de lapin; venait ensuite une façon de sac qui terminait par un polygone cartonné, couvert d'une broderie en soutache compliquée, et d'où pendait, au bout d'un long cordon trop mince, un petit croisillon de fils d'or, en manière de gland. Elle était neuve; la visière brillait.
It was one of those head coverings of a composite order, in which one can recognize components of a busby, a lancer's cap, a bowler, an otter-skin cap, and a cotton nightcap, one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile. Ovoid and stiffened with whalebones, it began with three circular sausages; then followed alternately, separated by a red band, lozenges of velvet and rabbit fur; next came a kind of bag terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon, covered with an embroidery in complicated braid, from which hung, at the end of a long, excessively slender cord, a little crosspiece of gold threads, by by of a tassel. It was new; the visor shone.
This does indeed sound like a hideous hat. The line comparing the depths of expression in its mute ugliness to the face of an imbecile, comes closer than anything else I can think of to expressing a character inherent in a piece of clothing itself. But this passage is doing so much work besides. It demonstrates, of course, young Charles Bovary's status as a country yokel without much sense of how things are done; not only that, but he (or his mother) apparently chose this godawful hat in particular—it's brand new, not a hand-me-down, indicating that not only is Charles uneducated, but he's also lacking in any native aesthetic taste. Is there also some significance in the hat's hodge-podge nature? That in trying to be everything to everybody—a nightcap AND a bowler AND a busby—it fails spectacularly at all its aims? I'm not sure yet, but it's something to keep in mind.
In addition to that, however, this passage is also part of the strange, perfunctory-seeming frame narrative that begins Madame Bovary, a device that intrigues me almost as much as Flaubert's take on clothing. As the novel opens, we have a first-person narrator telling us about his first sight of Charles Bovary: he (the narrator) was in school, and Bovary was led in as a new boy, painfully awkward and countrified, and was made fun of by the narrator and his schoolmates, and even by their teacher. The narrator then tells us a bit about Charles's parents, and returns a page or so later to claim that
Il serait maintenant impossible à aucun de nous de se rien rappeler de lui. C'était un garçon de tempérament modéré, qui jouait aux récréations, travaillait à l'étude, écoutant en classe, dormant bien au dortoir, mangeant bien au réféctoire.
It would be impossible by now for any of us to recall a thing about him. He was a boy of even temperament, who played at recess, worked in study hall, listening in class, sleeping well in the dormitory, eating well in the dining hall.
And then the first-person narrator disappears from the text, not to return in Part 1; the rest of this section becomes, in essence, a third-person narration of Charles Bovary's life after leaving school, and of Emma Bovary's free-floating angst.
Isn't this a strange introduction? For one thing, the narrator obviously can remember things about Bovary—not just a few generalizations about how dull he was, but every single detail of the hat he wore on his first day of school all those years ago. The narrator also, apparently, knows details of Charles's actions and feelings during his years in medical school, during his oppressive first marriage, and surrounding his courtship of, and early marriage to, Emma Rouault. Charles's old school acquaintance is also privy to the inner workings of Emma Bovary's romantic daydreams and crushing boredom with country life. How does he know these things? Will he re-enter the story later on? And why does Flaubert have him claim that "it would be impossible...for any of us to recall a thing about" Bovary, when he obviously recalls a great deal?
One of my working theories (I have never read this before and am setting myself up to be wrong) is that Flaubert wants ALL his characters to be unreliable, either in how they perceive reality or in how they recount it, or both—he's writing about the misdirection and petty tragedy of society at large, not just about some crazy woman who wants more than she has. From that angle it makes sense to introduce an unreliable first-person narrator who, at least as a boy, showed himself to be cruel and snobbish, concerned with petty appearances just like Emma Bovary. His obsessive attention to the gaucheness of Charles's hat, followed by his hasty assertion that "it would be impossible" to remember anything about the boy, points to just these attributes. (It seems significant to me that he doesn't say "I can't remember," but "it would be impossible" to remember: an indirect construction that allows him to keep remembering, as long as he hypocritically agrees that, more generally it "isn't done.")
So: is Flaubert giving us a glimpse of an unreliable narrator, just in time to forget that we ever had a narrator in the first place? It would fit with the obsession, throughout the rest of this section, with glimpses, seductively incomplete entrevoirs, and their connection with disappointed hopes. Charles "avait entrevu dans le mariage l'avènement d'une condition meilleure" ["had foreseen in marriage the advent of a better situation"], but was disappointed in his first wife; Emma glimpses in her music-class ballads "the enticing phantasmagoria of real feelings," but can never quite reach them. In a Proustian moment, a newly besotted Charles reconstructs the phrases Emma has uttered,
tâchant de se les rappeler, d'en compléter le sense, afin de se faire la portion d'existence qu'elle avait vécue dans le temps où il ne la connaissait pas encore.
trying to recall them, to complete their meaning, in order to re-create for himself the portion of her life that she had lived during the time when he did not yet know her.
But the Emma he can almost glimpse through this imaginative exercise always fails to appear. (This attempt also seems uncharacteristically poetic and imaginative of old Charles, but perhaps love stimulates his latent creativity.) Similarly, Emma is taunted by a glimpse into the shadowy portrait galleries and lavish waltzes of the marquis before being whisked back to her mundane country existence.
So, going forward I'll be on the lookout for things glimpsed, evidence of the phantom first-person narrator, and, of course, clothing deployed in interesting ways. And whatever else strikes my fancy.
Thanks to the lovely Frances for hosting this Madame Bovary readalong. Her post will be updated to feature a round-up of other entries, and she'll be hosting two more weeks of thoughts on Flaubert's classic novel.