Madame Bovary, partie 2

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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: 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.


Another big thanks to Frances for hosting this lovely Madame Bovary readalong. Hop on over to her post for a round-up of other entries, and join us next week for the third and final installment.


  • I've been caught up in exactly that idea that Flaubert might be castigating himself. Madame Bovary has a limited kind of imagination, where her imaginings are shaped by the books she reads. I almost feel like he is criticizing ME for reading his novel and imagining the dreams she had, the drama she created. I don't think he is letting himself off the hook at all. Isn't is fascinating to think that what additional imagining he might have been able to do is pretty much have any imagination at all be the ruination of a character?

  • You touch on a host of things here that I would have liked to have done myself (Rodolphe on human speech, the proposed proscription against Emma's reading, just how much Flaubert should have attacked the "bourgeois" vs. all of society, etc.), but I ran out of time in my own post b/c I was so giddy about some other things Flaubert did. Such an action-packed Part II, don't you think? I do have a slight disagreement with you and others re: calling Charles out for his "mediocrity," though: I think we all could be labeled as mediocre if looked at under Flaubert's microscope, and it's not as if there are a range of "exceptional" characters in Madame Bovary who make Charles look mediocre in comparison to their own intrinsically good qualities. Emma may be more ambitious and imaginative than her husband, for example, but she doesn't do much with those qualities other than judging him for not meeting her own standards. In other news, this book has gotten effin' juicy all of a sudden, Emily!

  • "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."

    Yes, to this, and I'd say Emma would agree to a large extent - except she thinks no one aside from herself is as ingenious or imaginative as she is. This is partly why she is so taken by everyone around her - her inability to identify these qualities in others.

  • Lifetime Reader: Fascinating, yes - other words that leap to mind include "sad" and "creepy." :-P Thanks for stopping by!

    Richard: Haha, glad to see you so psyched about part 2! I agree that everyone in the novel is mediocre, just mediocre in sightly different ways, which is actually the point I was trying to make by contrasting/comparing Emma and Charles (that human mediocrity isn't limited to the novel-readers in the book)...but I don't think I agree that we would all be labeled equally mediocre if subjected to the same level of detail as these characters. I'm having a very hard time relating to Flaubert's reality, actually, if he genuinely believes there's NO ALTERNATIVE to the lives he depicts—that there's no such thing as human originality, all humans are mindless sheep and all art is kitsch. It's true that there are no "good" characters to point to in the novel, and yet I assumed throughout my reading that the very act of labeling something "bourgeois" implies the existence of something ELSE that's not bourgeois, that the subtitle "Provincial Ways" implies ANOTHER mode of life less stilted and clichéd. I mean, given how obsessive Flaubert was about his style (for example), it seems hard to believe that he honestly felt his own novel to be on the same level of mediocrity as Homais's propaganda articles...?

  • Jenn: Yeah, I'm not sure if Emma even tries to make the imaginative leap to what other people are feeling/ least, I can't remember a point when she attempts it.

  • "I love (predictably) the comparison here of novelty to a garment, gradually slipping away to reveal naked the "eternal monotony of passion" (fantastic phrase!)."

    That is gorgeous. The other garment related pieces that I find myself enjoying are the ways in which the clothes people wear do not fit them or are beyond their abilities to manipulate. Like the ball from the first part when Emma is tangled in her dress. Or tripped up by her equestrian garb. She (and others) are what they wear, nothing else inside, but the identity they choose to wear does not always suit them. That identity piece again for me. And another means through which Flaubert rips them.

    The Proust thing is something I have been thinking about too, and I do see your point here. All are flawed in some way in Proust, they are often ridiculed, but they are also treated tenderly in many trying moments. Proust may have written as deliberately and edited as painstakingly as Flaubert but he had a heart.

    And what do you know about Flaubert's other writings? I do not know enough but keep reading that the novel was an exercise determined by his friends to escape his overblown romantic style. So maybe he does mock himself as well. Maybe he is Bovary on one level.

  • You said, "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....)" which is one of my favorite lines from your compare him to Proust, he makes me think of any self-induglent frat boy who is used to being so charming he can get whatever he wants regardless of consequences to anyone else's heart.

    I'm intrigued with Charles' mediocrity, too. While I agree with you about him not having any better plans for Berthe than piano lessons and slippers, he certainly had better plans for her than her mother did! He had a solid, although passive, substance that while plain, I still admire to a certain degree. He certainly had a stronger character than either Leon or Rodolphe!

  • "all art is kitsch" - where does that come from? Art is life for Flaubert, the world, everything. It's crucial that le mot be juste.

    All art is kitsch in the hands of Emma Bovary. That might be true. The Bible - no, that's in part 3.

    Maybe one other, related disagreement. The bourgeois do produce something - they produce the kitsch! The bestsellers and Salon paintings and chintzy furniture, the cheapened versions of real ideas.

  • I am so enjoying everyone's posts on Madame B. I have never made the connection between the book and Proust. A good excuse for me to read this one again sometime!

  • "Emma's problem is less the novels themselves, and more that she has no training in creativity or critical thought." I needed that statement to disassociate myself from Emma a bit!
    One of the things that does make me sympathetic towards Emma is what you mentioned in Charles' expectations of Berthe--the women are viewed and treated as ornaments to be decorated with not much going on inside. How do you rise above that kind of socialization? Can we expect any more of Emma, who I think could have been more substantial in different circumstances. Sometimes I just think she's frustrated, and her antics are her only outlet. But I may be reading into something that's not there.

  • The influence on Proust is evident, but so to my surprise is the obvious influence on Joyce, at least his Ulysses. I am completely sold on Flaubert as a Grandfather of modernist fiction, not the last gasp of Victorian Romance, as was my recollection.

    I must read Sentimental Education again, which I recall as a finer book, but I worry about how malformed my memories may have become over time.

  • I don't see Charles's mediocrity, or averageness, as a bad thing. I feel sorry for him; he's a good guy who loves his wife, who is ruined by her. Sad.

  • Wonderful ! And I agree with you about why Flaubert wanted us to spend time with Charles. I so enjoyed both of these posts.

  • I like what you've said about Emma's lack of critical thinking. Perhaps not having her mother available during those years prior to her marriage to Charles caused her to be stunted emotionally? It's as if she stalled out in her adolescence, and no one--certainly not her father, or Charles--was able to help her mature and learn the difference between real life and her fantasies.

  • Sorry for the long lag time on responding to comments, everyone!

    Frances: That's a great observation about people not being able to operate their garments correctly - almost like the garments are operating them. And I do agree that Proust has a lot more heart than Flaubert. He's melancholically poking fun rather than vitriolically ripping his characters apart. I know almost nothing about Flaubert's bio or his other work, and so much seems to hinge on that as far as how I perceive MB - to an unusual extent, I think.

    Bellezza: Well, the Baron Charlus (in Proust) IS basically a self-indulgent frat boy, albeit one with good taste and secret sexual proclivities! Re: the relative strength or weakness of Charles's character, it seems to me that all three main male characters basically just take the path of least resistance; none of them seem particularly "stronger" than the others to me. From all we see of Charles, he's living in just as much of a delusion as Emma or Leon; it's not that he feels tempted and resists, or understands Emma's faults and still tries to hold the family together (both of which I would agree indicate strength), but that he honestly believes, right up until the last moment, that he's living the conventional family dream and that everyone's happy. He's unable to SEE Emma, and from the passage above seems just as unable to see Berthe...he just imagines them as he wants them to be, and believes in it.

  • Amateur Reader: I know, my reply to Richard was so garbled. I needed to take a few days off from Madame Bovary; I was getting overwrought. :-) Your emphasis on the importance of audience for art is well-taken - something that's reduced to kitsch in Emma's hands could be "true" art if viewed by someone else with more critical skill. That said, I think what I was reacting to is that we get none of that in the novel itself - there are no "good" artists (the closest thing is Rodolphe with his letter), and even fewer skilled readers/consumers of art. Which leaves a sort of void where the meaning should be.

    Stefanie: I definitely prefer Proust, but the possible currents of influence are fascinating!

  • Shelley: I agree; it's sure true that nobody went out of their way to give Emma an education to counteract her overly romantic tendencies, or teach her how to think critically. And since Charles lives in such a fantasy world, he's ill-formed to notice as her inner life veers wildly off track.

    Anthony: Yes, I loved your parallel with Joyce's Ulysses and the Comices scene! It wouldn't have occurred to me, but it's very apt. I'm not sure I'll be running out to read more Flaubert very soon, but Sentimental Education is probably next on my eventual list...

  • Marie: I don't think his averageness would have been a problem with some other, less imaginative wife, but with Emma I think they're pretty much the perfect storm: she wants him to change and he never will; he imagines her to be some fantasy creature and doesn't notice that she's not. Bad scene...

    Cynthia: So glad you enjoyed them! I am struggling to write post #3. :-P

    Amy: Now that you mention it, her inability to tell fantasy from reality does reek of stalled development, doesn't it? It couldn't have helped that seemingly no one attempted to engage with her mentally during that time...

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