Madame Bovary, partie 1

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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.


  • I'm looking at a different translation (Mildred Marmur, Signet Classics). Here's what I see.

    "We were studying when the headmaster came in..."
    "Those of us... we all stood up..."
    "We began to recite our lessons..."

    All on page 1. A little later: "None of us now can remember anything about him." Which is, yes, hilarious and outrageous. Except: the speaker in these lines is first person, all right, but first person plural, always plural. There is no "he (the narrator)". Just "they."

    Say that "we" and "us" were everywhere replaced by "the schoolboys." What would change? I'm suggesting that Flaubert is trickily breaking a convention - that the "we" is not really the or even a narrator, at least not for more than a few lines.

  • I found this (the question of that narrator)interesting, too...and I like your analysis. I'm going to pay more attention to clothes from now on...I'm reading MB, and Flaubert, for the first time, and all these new perspectives are so valuable.

    {p.s. I'm absolutely enchanted by your blog's title!}

  • Amateur Reader: Yes, good observation - in the original French it's a combination of "nous" (we) and "on" (the vague "one" that features VERY prominently throughout the whole book). There is no "je." Still, I think the implication IS different than if "we" were replaced by "the schoolboys," because it introduces a question of subjectivity and knowledge. Why introduce a "nous" if you're just going to abandon it? It would have been easy enough to write the book in the third person from the get-go. Those two pages of (albeit collective) subjective narration imply that we should be wondering how the narrator/schoolboy/mob knows everything he/they claim(s) to later on.

    Audrey: Thanks for the nice words on the blog title! And glad you're enjoying the readalong - I have yet to check out everyone's posts, but am very much looking forward to it.

  • One more step. The narrator, M. Omniscient, is one of those schoolboys. When he uses the "we," he is actually writing in limited third person, limiting his point of view to the schoolboys. They can't remember anything about Charles. The fact that the actual narrator was one of them is incidental, or a joke, or something else. But the narrator and the "we" are separable.

    The schoolboy mob is not writing Madame Bovary! The "we" is dropped when the schoolboys leave the story.

    How does the narrator know everything he claims to know? Can there be more than one possible answer to that question? (Answer: fiction).

  • Amateur Reader: Right, fiction: but fiction within the context of the world presented, or just fiction for us reading the book? To me the presence of M. Omniscient points to the idea that Flaubert wants us to take the whole Madame Bovary story as meta-fiction. I see what you're saying about limited third-person, but I have a hard time believing the narrator is COMPLETELY separable from "we," or why would Flaubert have chosen to include the "we" at all? I suppose one explanation is that one of the schoolboys was actually Flaubert himself (as in, the scene with the hat actually happened in his childhood), and that the slippage from "we" to third-person is the real-life author starting to compose the novel that follows.

    The fact that the actual narrator was one of them is incidental, or a joke, or something else.

    I don't think it's incidental, but I can certainly believe it's a joke. Most intriguing is the "something else"...

  • I think the issue of narration is fascinating. My guess right now is that the personal narration serves to make us feel like we live in the setting with the main characters--but that we have no real connection and only observe them from afar. And the distant observer somehow feels like an objective observer. (I feel sure there is another spot or two with this kind of narration, but now I can't find one.)

    Have you noticed that Emma has no voice of her own in the early pages? I think her first words are in the middle of page 38--and are important enough that I suspect Flaubert was quite deliberately saving her voice.

  • Right, not completely separable. Imagine the "we" as camera placement. The camera is in the midst of the schoolboys when Charles enters the classrooms. We see Charles, but also the backs of the heads in front of us. The reader / viewer is one of the schoolboys, too. At some point the camera starts moving around, changing the point of view.

    The "we" seems to signal a certain kind of narrator-as-actual observer, but I think it is actually cleverly signalling that the reader needs to keep track of not the "who" but the "where" - where is the narrator, the camera, at any given moment? Flaubert's camera, his "where," can be inside a character's thoughts, behind a character's eyes. Or in a corner, or up in the sky, or among "us".

    I'm looking at the "movement" of that party scene. Man, oh man. Out, in, side to side, circling like the waltz. Fantastic.

    Too much fun. I could go on all day, but should not, and will not. Looking forward to more on this book, Emily.

  • Lifetime Reader: I was thinking about a similar thing, that by starting the novel with an "us," Flaubert wanted to make clear that the readers of the book were implicated, too, in the society he's about to invoke. Any one of us readers could be one of those schoolboys (putting aside gender differences for the moment). I like your observation about Emma's first words, too - "Dear God! Why did I ever marry?" could be the subtitle for this novel. :-)

    Amateur Reader: Ooh, I like your cinematic metaphor for the way the narration works. That makes a lot of sense to me—and whether he's positing an actual first-person narrator or just adjusting camera placement, or doing both, Flaubert is definitely trying to get the reader's attention and telling them to pay attention to the narration - where is it coming from? should we believe it? which perspective are we being offered at the moment?

  • Like your theories of unreliable narration here Emily and agree that it serves a larger purpose in establishing all as unreliable. Also appreciate the connection you make between Charles's youthful self-obsessions and his future wife's similar characteristics. And we see it in other places too like in the good doctor's father. Will look out more closely now but tend to agree that is all symptomatic of general societal ills as you suggest.

    Also love that you focus on the clothes here. One of the last lines of my post today was this - "Or the very interesting way in which physical descriptions are different when describing a person's physical characteristics versus their acquired accoutrement." Who they are versus who they wish to appear to be. Can't wait for more on the clothes.

  • I went back this morning when I was writing my review to try to determine what happened to the narrator. I wonder if he comes back. I think the "narrator" seems amused somehow. Flaubert - I have no clue. I do, though, wonder the purpose. It's jarring, certainly.

  • Frances: I'm likewise eager to hear YOUR thoughts on differences between innate physical descriptions and artificial "clothed" ones, as that wasn't quite my angle when I was looking out for clothing descriptions. There are some great ones later on in the book, though, and some great references to clothing-as-metaphor. I'm finding this novel so rich in aspects for interpretation!

    Jenn: I think the narrator and Flaubert are both amused...and also disgusted. Amused disgust is definitely a key mood to the novel. But maybe the narrator is a little more deadpan than Flaubert himself? So that he can describe all these vulgar objects without ever SAYING they're vulgar? It's interesting.

  • Such an interesting discussion I'm having with you over at 'my place'.

    Your mention of the hat, and it's hideousness, makes me think of how hard his parents (mother) were trying to make him fit in. All facades are hideous in their own way, aren't they?

    I'm turning about this idea over and over in my mind: "he's writing about the misdirection and petty tragedy of society at large, not just about some crazy woman" Yes, I largely agree.

    But, I'm thinking about a paper I wrote twenty years ago in my Russian lit class on Anna Karenina. I remember titling it "The Plight of The Russian Noble Woman" and the almost scathing remarks my professor left about how Anna was not indicative of the Russian woman of her time. So. Does that apply to Emma, too? Can we say that she's a singular case, or that she represents society? I'm not trying to be argumentative, really, I'm searching for an answer which satisfies me.

  • Emily, I left a comment here, but I'm not sure where it went. If it doesn't show up, I'll try again. I'm having an interesting discussion with you.

  • Belleza: I can't speak to your professor's argument re: Anna Karenina, but to me they seem quite different in that Karenina is to some degree self-aware about what she's doing - at least some of her motivation comes from resentment about being expected to overlook her husband's infidelities while remaining faithful herself. In other words, she's a critic of the system, to some extent, whereas Emma is just regurgitating what she's absorbed through novels and convent life; she's a representative of the system rather than an opponent. This is just the way the two books strike me, but for my money Tolstoy is doing a specific character study (which of course also has elements of social commentary), whereas Flaubert is making some big statements about the bourgeois class as a whole (which of course also has elements of individual character study). His derision about bourgeois philistinism and lack of original thought isn't limited to Emma, but is shared by pretty much every single middle-class character in the book, including Charles, Homais, Rodolphe and Léon.

    Honestly, I think Flaubert intends all these characters to be indicative of the bourgeois class. How satisfying do I personally find that assumption? Not totally satisfying, for sure.

  • Much geeky joy re: your mention of unreliable narrators and other characters here, Emily, as well as that line about ugliness, depth, and "the face of an imbecile"! Two things in part one from Flaubert (misdirection and meanness, probably in league with one another)that intrigue to me to no end at this point. Also love the give and take between you and Amateur Reader in the comments thread on the cinematic POV. Wonderful stuff! Care to share how passionate you are about the rest of the novel now that you're finished with it?

  • It was so sad to find out that the hat was new! The cake was very much the same as the hat--all the layers were so different.
    I was wondering about the "we" and the disappearance of it. Your thoughts and the comments that follow have shed some light on the topic, although it sounds like the jury's still out.

  • That is quite the hat. If Charles had more chutzpah he'd be able to carry it off and even make it the fashion. But then we wouldn't have the story as we know it. I read this ages ago so the details are fuzzy, but I enjoyed your post. It makes me want to read it again!

  • I agree with the idea that the narrator at the beginning, the 'we' refers to the collective body of schoolboys. This whole piece almost reads like autobiography, but without a subject.

    Then the enigmatic narrator disappears, steps away, and we are left with what seems an omniscient narrator. Yet our omniscient narrator occasionally becomes present, giving us access at times to Charles and Emma in a the form of free indirect discourse.

    When I read your post and ponder, I begin to see where Nabokov and you find the roots of Modernism in Madame Bovary. There is so much more going on here than meets the eye, even on a third reading.

  • The clothing descriptions are just wonderful! I used one in my post to compare two translations. The initial narrator seems like he intends the reader to feel a part of the group of schoolboys. I will pay more attention the the narration as I continue.

  • Richard: Ha, I'm still working that out for myself, actually - I will say, I was surprised to have such an emotionally invested reaction to the end, after both knowing the broad outline of the plot, and spending so much of the rest of the book more intellectually than emotionally engaged. Also left feeling like I might disagree with Flaubert pretty fundamentally on a few points. But the novel remains fascinating throughout; I'm really looking forward to the next two weeks of posts. :-)

    Shelley: I know, the newness of the hat is kind of crushing, isn't it? I'd definitely say the jury's still out on the narration question, although it's certainly fun to discuss it!

  • Stefanie: I know, right? Charles: a sartorial pioneer of the "fashionably ugly" concept. But yes, if Charles had any panache the novel would be much different overall...

    Anthony: I really must read this Nabokov essay everyone's talking about, especially if it agrees with me! (Just kidding.) Seriously, I do think Flaubert presages the Modernists, both in the bitter irony of his attitude and in his attention to flexible, unreliable points of view.

  • Where does the "unreliability" come from? What information do we have that the author does not? How can a third person narrator who has access to his character's thoughts be unreliable?

    I mean, do you have an example where the narrator says X, but the reader, using other information from the novel, can say, ah ha, the truth is Y?

    I'm thinking of Pale Fire as a baseline, where the narrator is insane. He reveals information that contradicts things he says without knowing that he's doing it. Maybe you mean something else.

    Disagreeing with Flaubert is a sign of sanity. The Nabokov essay might agree with you, but based on what you've said here, you won't agree with it. "Flaubert's novel deals with the delicate calculus of human fate, not with the arithmetic of social conditioning." You should see his exam questions.

  • JoAnn: I'm really enjoying the clothes. :-) Also enjoying peoples' translation comparisons, so thanks for adding to that pool.

    Amateur Reader: It's obviously a much more subtle example than Pale Fire, no question. But yes, there's the discrepancy between what the narrator says about his/their inability to remember details about Charles, and the fact that he obviously does remember details about him. According to your analysis, this might be a tacit admission that the narrator is inventing those details—fictionalizing them—but Flaubert is at least drawing our attention to the line between the "truth" (the schoolboys' memory of Charles at school) and "fiction" (the details provided, the ongoing omniscient narration after this scene).

    The narrator also uses one of Flaubert's italicized and therefore bourgeois/conventional/hated phrases in the first paragraph, which I think one could argue is evidence of unreliability in itself as far as Flaubert is concerned. I mean, obviously there is someone standing apart from the narrator as he tells about the new boy, who is ridiculing the narrator's use of that term. Meaning that we as readers are invited to ridicule the narrator as well - hardly a position from which to build trust.

    So too, I've been thinking about the narrator's unreliability in terms of his contempt for Charles, although that might be overreaching. (But hey, it can still be there even if Flaubert didn't intend it, right Pierre Menard?) As Frances said, Flaubert's own level of viciousness sometimes gives the impression that he's just as snobbish and petty as his own characters; the Lydia Davis intro discusses how he hated the bourgeois while still identifying as one of them. My thought is that drawing our attention to the petty schoolboys' taunts in the beginning of the novel is a way of acknowledging the narrator's own snobbishness, of stressing that none of us are above poor/clichéd behavior, all of us are worthy of ridicule.

    Re: Nabokov, that's interesting. I do disagree with that statement. I mean, I think the novel is about both of those things. Why include all the stuff about convent life and romance novels, if not to examine socialization? Why treat the working-class characters so differently from the middle-class ones? I'll try to track down the essay.

  • New boy is italicized in French? And this is a regular thing through the book, signifying a trite phrase? My translation doesn't do that. How interesting. Does Lydia Davis keep that?

    But isn't the phrase used by the schoolboys? That whole paragraph is spent with them. Why aren't they responsible for the trite phrase?

    I don't think Flaubert is admitting or drawing attention to the fictiveness of the book. I'm just saying that there is no other way that the story can be told the way it is, with access to multiple points of view, including the thoughts of many people, private scenes, nearly simultaneous views from up close and a distance. Fiction is our only choice. Unless the story is told by a telepathic schoolboy hive mind, which would be awesome.

    Your arguments all seems to be based on the We = The Narrator idea, which I just don't see. If We > The Narrator, if We is just one of many voices we overhear, your first two paragraphs don't work any more. I'll take another look.

    I don't think "Pierre Menard" has anything to do with authorial intent. No, I'm wrong - it actually assumes the central importance of authorial intent - Cervantes meant X, while Menard, using the same words, meant Y. The reader's intent, now that may be an issue.

    Of course Flaubert, the real Flaubert, is as snobbish as his characters. Much more so! But he's snobbish about different things (the right things, the genuinely valuable things), reliably so. Kitsch vs art and so on. The issue with the attitude towards Charles (or Emma) sounds like ambivalence, not unreliability. A major strain of MB criticism has been about Flaubert's ambivalence towards Emma.

  • AR: Telepathic schoolboy with hive mind is, I think, the new definitive interpretation of Madame Bovary. :-)

    Yes, I admit I'm attached to the narrator as "we"; I'm not yet totally convinced to interpret first-person-plural as straight up third-person-omniscient. Can't help thinking that if Flaubert had intended an unadorned third-person narration, he wouldn't have thrown that kinky "nous" into the mix. "Only one of the many voices we overhear" would be more convincing to me if there were any other place in the novel that slipped out of ordinary third-person omniscient; the fact that this passage is unique in that way seems significant. It seems to imply that Flaubert was trying to indicate something different about THIS voice in particular. There's no collage effect in the novel among narrative voices; the viewpoint is slippery and moves from very close to far away from different characters, but there's no other place where a "we" or "us" appears to disrupt the smooth third-person surface.

    As far as there being no way to tell the story other than third-person-omniscient, if you back up far enough there will always be a subjective author, won't there? We can back up all the way to Flaubert or we can just back up to the schoolboy narrator who starts telling the story in the first pages. These two scenarios seem equally odd to me:

    • A third-person omniscient narrator becomes briefly identified with a single schoolboy or a group of schoolboys, then spends the rest of the book at various distances from the novels' other characters; or
    • A first-person narrator remembers an incident in his school days, and uses it to concoct a speculative fiction (told in the third person) about what happened to his old acquaintance Charles Bovary after they both left school.

    I've never seen either one before: never seen a third-person narrator who talks about "we" for only two pages, nor a metafiction that goes on so long with such a tiny frame and is never exposed as such.

    Re: the italicizing, yes, it's an ongoing thing throughout the novel, and Davis keeps it. She comments:

    With this emphasis he is drawing attention to the language that was commonly, and unthinkingly, used to express shared ideas that were also unquestioned. Some, such as new boy, are relatively innocuous; others may reveal a malevolent prejudice, such as the comment made by Madame Tuvache, the mayor's wife, to her maid (reported as indirect speech), when she learns that Emma has taken a walk alone with Léon: Madame Bovary was compromising herself.

    She also says he does it with similar phrases in his correspondence, which is pretty fascinating - he's like Proust's Swann with his tendency to put verbal "quotation marks" around phrases he wants to "give the impression" of not taking "seriously."

  • AR: PS - When you say "genuinely valuable things," are those italics Flaubert-esque? (If so, WELL PLAYED.)

  • I will never again read a translation that does not include the italics. That is just too big of an omission. Grotesque.

    You've got a couple of my points backwards. It's not "no way to tell the story but third person omniscient" but "no way to get third person omnisicient but through telling a story," meaning there is no "realistic" excuse or convention for knowing everyone's thoughts.

    Second, I see the HTML got me. Where I have "greater than", I meant "not equal to". I definitely do not "interpret first-person-plural as straight up third-person-omniscient." I interpret "We" as one of many limited third person voices in the novel.

    "She would look at it, open it, and even sniff the lining. A blend of verbena and tobacco. To whom did it belong? To the viscount. Perhaps it was a gift from his mistress." (I.IX.)

    We've shifted from omniscient to limited, from the author's language to Emma's - that's her speculation in that last line, not Flaubert's. This is what I mean by many points of view, many voices. The novel is constantly "shifting out of ordinary third person omniscient" - that's one of its greatest, most far-reaching innovations, the one that makes it an ancestor of stream-of-consciousness techniques.

    I don't mind that one of those voices was identified as "We." It is something different, yes, which is why I find the camera analogy useful - "we" helps the reader plunge in, positions his view of Charles right away. The reader is not with Charles when we meet him, but rather observing him from over here. If F. started with "The schoolboys were studying," the reader would begin by "seeing" or looking at the schoolboys, not at Charles.

    I think I am actually just repeating what Anthony says concisely above. If I won't shut up, blame him, please - "the subsequent discussion in Comments is fascinating".

    No, I will shut up about "We" after this comment. Does anybody think it gets us anywhere later in the book? Meaning, does it help me interpret the agricultural fair or the tryst in the carriage or what have you? Or are we really just talking about the first couple of pages? Which is fine - pick any two pages of MB and we'll find something interesting.

  • Did I botch the HTML again? I meant the October 15 post here:

    As for that PS, yes I defensively mock Flaubert at every opportunity, hoping to repress my own worst Flaubert-like tendencies.

  • Anthony: Damn you! (Again, just kidding. What I really mean is "Thanks!")

    AR: I've got yer HTML. :-)

    I'm beginning to think it's all a matter of which diversions from the third-person norm we privilege, which jar us out of our complacency or strike us as odd - perhaps, in turn, this is a function of which of Flaubert's experiments have been "mainstreamed" by other authors, and which haven't. To me, "Perhaps it was a gift from his mistress" doesn't jar me out of my third-person rut, because Flaubert could just as easily have written "Perhaps it was a gift from his mistress, she thought" - the "she thought" is clearly implied. The transition from first-plural to third is a lot more jarring to me, but maybe that's totally subjective, as it seems to strike you that Flaubert could just as easily have substituted "the schoolboys" for "we" with not much change of effect. I'm now thinking about why flashing red lights go off in my head with that "we," but not with a scene like the one after Emma and Rodolphe meet, where we transition smoothly from limited-to-her to limited-to-him. No good answers yet.

    To answer your question about what work it would do to establish a "character" for novel's narrator, it would mean there is more distance between Flaubert and his story. It would leave more space for him to acknowledge (and subtly criticize) the snobbishness in the third-person narration, even as the third-person narration is criticizing the snobbishness of the characters. In the wedding scene, for example, the narrator is plainly dripping with revulsion at the wedding cake, just as he was at Charles's hat, and Flaubert obviously shares this revulsion, but in pointing out the "narrator's" own bourgeois origins, he could be signaling his readers to take this revulsion with a grain of salt: the narrator (and author) are not virgin Artistes unsullied by the vulgarity of the bourgeoisie, but come from its midst, and have something to prove in distancing themselves from it. Perhaps I am giving Flaubert far too much credit in thinking he would want to draw attention to this.

  • No, that's very reasonable, and promising. Something to watch for on my next visit to the novel.

  • Wow, am I ever late to the party.

    I totally buy the narration as camera placement.

    I could be mistaken, but I think the sense of "person" (nous vs on) could be a lot more subtle in French, and maybe more importance is being acribed to it in translation than ought to be. I listen to French speakers slip between nous and on all the time -- I can't discern a pattern and they can't explain why one is more correct. The switch in narration seems to me a nice way to circle in toward the titular focus.

  • Isabella: Oh, the difference I was making wasn't between "on" and "nous," but between "on/nous" and "il/elle/c'était" etc. I process "on" as often just a slightly vaguer version of "nous," at least in modern French, though I don't know how old that tradition is...

  • what a great post! I look forward to more of your thoughts and insights into this marvelous book!

  • You almost (almost!) make me want to read the book again. I taught a Flaubert short story this semester because tackling Madame Bovary in that class felt like too much, but the story just wasn't as good ("A Simple Heart"). I think it was a decent way to introduce the students to Flaubert, though, without spending at least a couple weeks on him.

  • Great post!!! Enjoyed the French and English and all the comments. I do wantbto read it again--in the new Lydia davis translation.

  • Late to the party is not even the word for it at this point, but these comments were a great read as I too had been totally jarred by this "we" of the first pages, by this strange frame that seems to get totally dropped. After you guys have wrangled it so nicely, I think I will agree with Emily's last remark on the subject:

    I'm beginning to think it's all a matter of which diversions from the third-person norm we privilege, which jar us out of our complacency or strike us as odd - perhaps, in turn, this is a function of which of Flaubert's experiments have been "mainstreamed" by other authors, and which haven't.

    For the most part Flaubert's free indirect discourse is now old hat, and is noticeable only if you are looking for that sort of thing. But the version with "nous" is still pretty weird. And still, even assuming he thought he was doing the same thing, isn't it weird that it only seems to happen once, in a novel chock full of free indirect discourse?

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
    link to more disgust bibliography