Throughout the middle section of Madame Bovary, I've been thinking a lot about Flaubert's influence on one of my favorite writers, Marcel Proust. Apparently whole books have been written on the subject, so I'm not exactly breaking new ground here, but, it's always interesting to discover paths of influence for myself—to reflect on how an author made use of his or her sources, reinforcing or subverting them along the way. I noticed a few passages in Part One that struck me as "Proustian," but they started to pile on in Part 2: in Flaubert there is the same preoccupation with the twisting and turning inner workings of peoples' minds, with poking fun at petty snobbishness and self-importance (Binet posing with his saber at the Comices while his visor totally obscures his vision is a particularly comic moment), and with the general perversities of human nature, which prizes what it doesn't have and tires of what it does. One of my favorite passages from this section, for the reasons above and for the sheer quality of its writing, comes when our narrator is detailing the thoughts and feelings of Emma's lover Rodolphe upon hearing her protestations of undying love:
Il était tant de fois entendu dire ces choses, qu'elles n'avaient pour lui rien d'original. Emma ressemblait à toutes les maîtresses; et le charme de la nouveauté, peu à peu tombant comme un vêtement, laissait voir à nu l'éternelle monotonie de la passion, qui a toujours les mêmes formes et le même langage. Il ne distinguait pas, cet homme si plein de pratique, la dissemblance des sentiments sous la parité des expressions. Parce que des lèvres libertines ou vénales lui avaient murmuré des phrases pareilles, il ne croyait que faiblement à la candeur de celles-là; on en devait rabattre, pensait-il, les discours exagérés cachant les affections médiocres; comme si la plénitude de l'âme ne débordait pas quelquefois par les métaphores les plus vides, puisque personne, jamais, ne peut donner l'exacte mesure de ses besoins, ni de ses conceptions, ni de ses doleurs, et que la parole humaine est comme un chaudron fêlé où nous battons des mélodies à faire danser les ours, quand on voudrait attendrir les étoiles.
He had heard these things said to him so often that to him there was nothing original about them. Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language. He could not perceive—this man of such broad experience—the difference in feelings that might underlie similarities of expression. Because licentious or venal lips had murmured the same words to him, he had little faith in their truthfulness; one had to discount, he thought, exaggerated speeches that concealed mediocre affections; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest of metaphors, since none of us can ever express the exact measure of our needs, or our 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.
I love (predictably) the comparison here of novelty to a garment, gradually slipping away to reveal naked the "eternal monotony of passion" (fantastic phrase!). The narrator's claims about the gulf between human language and the meaning it attempts to represent remind me of both Proust and Simone de Beauvoir. Similar, too, is the context of the passage: as one lover becomes more attached and dependent, the other withdraws. The perversity of the situation, of Rodolphe's mistaken assumptions that a) all women are as callous and practiced in "love" as he is, and that b) all people invest a given set of words with identical feelings and meanings, strikes me as a relevant model for À la recherche de temps perdu. (As far as Proustian models, the next passage is also interesting: although Rodolphe is becoming bored with Emma and is unable to believe in her romanticism, he enjoys a kind of abandoned, voluptuous luxuriance, basking in her worshipful submissiveness in a way that anticipates the sadomasochistic relationships of Charlus and other characters from À la recherche....)
But there are also differences here: while Proust presents such perversity as simply part of human nature (I can't think of anyone in his novel who is free from this type of fickleness, except maybe Marcel's idealized grandmother; so that the servant Françoise and the Princesse de Guermantes are equally petty and perverse), Flaubert seems to be championing the idea that such thought patterns are a uniquely bourgeois disorder. The club-footed stable boy Hippolyte, for example, is portrayed as a simple-hearted victim of Emma's and Homais's vicarious aspirations to fame and fortune and Charles's cluelessness, being seemingly too busy with actual work to have developed any of his own. Ancient farm woman Catherine-Nicaise-Elisabeth Leroux, who is awarded a cash prize at the Comices, seems indeed almost non-lingual, she has worked so hard over fifty-four years at the same farm. The elder Madame Bovary is a snobbish harridan herself, and one suspects that her proposed cure-all—preventing her daughter-in-law from reading any more novels—would fail to transform Emma into a reasonable person, but one can't help feeling a bit of sympathy with her when she declares
Si elle était comme tant d'autres contrainte à gagner son pain, elle n'aurait pas ces vapeurs-là.
If she was obliged to earn her living, like so many others, she wouldn't be having these vapors...
In this sense, I don't completely agree with Lydia Davis's statement, in her introduction, that Flaubert found stupidity in "all of humanity"—or, at least, it seems to be exclusively the middle classes that are fickle philistine blowhards.
In the end I'm still unsure exactly where Flaubert locates the source of his characters' petty mediocrities. He does seem concerned with the effects of socialization; we see details of both Emma's and Charles's early training and education (in a convent and provincial schools/medical school respectively), and Emma at least seems to be, to some degree, a victim of the headily Romantic combination of her religious studies and the novels she reads. But it strikes me as inaccurate to claim that Madame Bovary is a criticism of "the danger of reading novels"; Emma's problem is less the novels themselves, and more that she has no training in creativity or critical thought. (By contrast, for a person capable of subjecting them to analysis, like, oh, FLAUBERT, reading novels is presumably no problem1.) Her imagination is (over)active but ploddingly unoriginal, and she has never learned to question the overblown Romantic notions she has consumed. Taking away Sir Walter Scott would, it seems to me, only invite her obsessive covetousness to fasten on some other idea or object, which she would "read" in an equally un-critical way. Because she has no analytic ability, she expects that attaining the surface signifiers of "happiness" or "love" that she has read about will result in the kind of ecstatic delirium of Romantic novels. Obviously, this assumption is wrong.
This lack of critical thinking, though, is certainly not limited to the novel-reading characters of Madame Bovary. In this passage, Charles fondly imagines the future of his daughter Berthe:
...la clientèle augmenterait; il y comptait, car il voulait que Berthe fût bien élevée, qu'elle eût des talents, qu'elle appris le piano. Ah! qu'elle serait jolie, plus tard, à quinze ans, quand, ressemblant à sa mère, elle porterait comme elle, dans l'été, de grand chapeaux de paille! on les prendrait de loin pour les deux soeurs. Il se la figurait travaillant le soir auprès d'eux, sous la lumière de la lampe; elle lui broderait des pantoufles; elle s'occuperait du ménage; elle emplirait toute la maison de sa gentillesse et de sa gaieté. Enfin, ils songeraient à son établissement: on lui trouverait quelque brave garçon ayant un état solide; il la rendrait heureuse; cela durerait toujours.
...his clientele would increase—he was counting on that, because he wanted Berthe to be well brought up, accomplished, learn to play the piano. Ah, how pretty she would be, later, when she was fifteen, when resembling her mother, she would, like her, wear large straw hats in summer! From a distance, people would take them for two sisters. He pictured her working in the evening near them, in the lamplight; she would embroider some slippers for him; she would look after the household; she would fill teh whole house with her sweetness and gaiety. Eventually, they would think of getting her settled: they would find her some decent boy with a solid profession; he would make her happy; it would last forever.
My theory about the novel's long introduction, in which Charles appears to be the main character, is that allowing the readers to spend more time with Charles's unremitting mediocrity gives us sympathy with Emma's frustrations later on, and in passages like this one Flaubert continues to remind us how limited and conventional Charles's imagination is. On the one hand, the reader pities him for his delusional devotion to his fickle wife, but on the other hand: this is the best he can imagine for his daughter? Wearing straw hats in the summer, learning the piano, and embroidering slippers for her father until she settles down with a nice young man forever and ever? He obviously cares for her deeply, and yet his dearest wish for her amounts basically to servitude. He is simply incapable of creating something new or better out of his own imagination, just as Emma is incapable of imagining a way of life not based on her convoitoises, and just as Rodolphe is incapable of imagining a love affair that transcends manipulative head games. The bourgeois class, Flaubert seems to say, is dangerous because their imaginations can absorb material from without, but not generate anything from within. One assumes, from their minimal presence in the book, that the working class have no time for any imagination at all.
I tend to side with Proust rather than Flaubert: I don't think this kind of perverse and petty un-originality is uniquely bourgeois, but spread across all layers of the social hierarchy, occurring to a greater or lesser extent in individuals. (Madame Bovary also seems to be missing the spate of artists (Elstir, Bergotte, Vinteuil) who pepper the pages of À la recherche... and, though not necessarily happier or less perverse than anyone else, do represent a true creative class making true art.) I do admire, though, both authors' skill at portraying (and lampooning) the inner workings of human perversity.
1On second (or fifth) thought, thought, as Flaubert did famously say that "Madame Bovary, c'est moi," maybe he didn't feel capable of reading novels himself; maybe he felt just as contaminated by faux-literary romanticism as his protagonist. I have a hard time wrapping my brain around this possibility: why would someone who recognizes his own inability to read novels cope with the problem by writing a novel? Nevertheless, it's something to think about.