Madame Bovary, partie 3

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Well, the Bovarys have met their end. I was quite surprised, after spending most of Parts 1 and 2 chuckling over Flaubert's catty jibes and underlining intellectually intriguing passages, at how emotionally invested I felt over Emma's and Charles's eventual demise. Lydia Davis, in her introduction to the new translation, discusses how Flaubert manages to keeping the irony which saturates his novel from undermining its emotional impact, and I certainly agree with her there. It's amazing that he manages to be such a bitter pill and simultaneously make me care about the fickle, petty philistines he has chosen for characters. And although I finished this novel feeling Flaubert to be a much angrier, less hopeful man, his ability to dissect psychological states and mix pathos with humor continued to remind me of Marcel Proust:

Une chose étrange, c'est que Bovary, tout en pensant à Emma continuellement, l'oubliait; et il se désespérait à sentir cette image lui échapper de la mémoire au milieu des efforts qu'il faisait pour la retenir. Chaque nuit pourtant, il la rêvait; c'était toujours le même rêve: il s'approchait d'elle; mais quand il venait à l'étreindre, elle tombait en pourriture dans ses bras.
One strange thing was that Bovary, though he thought about Emma continually, was forgetting her; and he despaired as he felt her image slip from his memory even in the midst of his efforts to hold on to it. Every night, however, he would dream about her; it was always the same dream: he would go up to her, but just when he was about to clasp her to him, she would rot away in his arms.

I feel presumptuous critiquing Lydia Davis, but I almost prefer to translate this "even in thinking about Emma continually." The French seems to imply, again in a very Proustian way, that the act of thinking about her is part of what causes Charles to forget his late wife—he wears thin his ability to access her memory voluntarily, and can only do so inadvertently, through nightmares. Indeed, Charles's dreams of Emma rotting away in his arms seem a potent encapsulation of Madame Bovary as a whole: so many characters here are chasing phantoms, whether of romance, respectability, change, or excitement, which either vanish or putrefy upon inspection. In tracking Flaubert's use of the word "entrevoir" (to glimpse), which I noticed in my first post, one ends up with a veritable laundry list of these delusions: we have Emma luxuriating in her short-lived religious visions:

Elle entrevit, parmi les illusions de son espoir, un état de pureté flottant au-dessus de la terre, se confondant avec le ciel... / She could glimpse, among the illusions born of her hopes, a state of purity floating above the earth, merging with heaven...

There is Rodolphe, spewing Romantic clichés in order to win her over:

"C'est comme une voix qui crie: "Le voilà!" Vous sentez le besoin de faire à cette personne la confidence de votre vie, de lui donner tout, de lui sacrificier tout! On ne s'explique pas, on se devine. On s'est entrevu dans ses rêves." / It's like a voice crying, "Here it is!" You feel the need to confide your whole life to this person, to give her everything, to sacrifice everything for her! You don't have to explain anything; you sense each others' thoughts. You've seen each other in your dreams.

And the lovers' mutual delusions about the intensity of their connection:

Le froid de la nuit les faisait s'étreindre davantage; les soupirs de leaurs lèvres leau semblaient plus forts; leurs yeux, qu'ils entrevoyaient à peine, leur paraissaient plus grands... / The cold of the night made them clasp each other all the more tightly; the sighs on their lips seemed to them deeper; their eyes, which they could barely glimpse, seemed larger...

More generally, "le vulgaire" believe themselves to glimpse something unique and eccentric when in reality it's just another cliché:

Elle avait cette incohérence de choses communes et recherchées, où le vulgaire, d'habitude, croit entrevoir la révélation d'une existence excentrique, les désordres du sentiment, les tyrannies de l'art, et toujours un certain mépris des conventions sociales, ce qui le séduit ou l'exaspère. / It was that incoherent mix of the ordinary and the elegant that common people generally take for evidence of an eccentric lifestyle, chaotic passions, the tyrannical dictates of art, and always a certain contempt for social conventions, which either charms or exasperates them.

while the bourgeoisie are always a hair's-breadth away from imaginary confrontation with the horrific monsters of indecency:

En effet, quelqu'un avait envoyé à sa mère une longue lettre anonyme, pour la prévenir qu'il se perdait avec une femme mariée; et aussitôt la bonne dame, entrevoyant l'éternel épouvantail des families, c'est-à-dire la vague créature pernicieuse, la sirène, le monstre, qui habite fantastiquement les profondeurs de l'amour, écrivit à maître Dubocage... / Indeed, someone had sent his mother a long anonymous letter, warning her that he was ruining himself with a married woman, and right away the good lady, having visions of that eternal bogey of family life, that ill-defined, pernicious creature, that siren, that fantastic monster inhabiting the depths of love, wrote to Maître Dubocage...

The characters who don't suffer disaster, like Homais with his croix d'honneur, Léon with his new wife and Rodolphe with his château and his good night's sleep, are those who have either stopped imagining anything, or have yet to be disillusioned in their imaginings. Nowhere in the novel do we see a person who is able to create something original, or (with the possible exception of Emma's father) to craft a fulfilling life out of material that doesn't prove delusory.

To be honest, Madame Bovary left me wondering what, exactly, Flaubert saw as the role of art and imagination in human lives. His distaste for the vulgarity and philistinism of the bourgeoisie comes through very clearly, and it is undeniably amusing to watch him lampoon the middle-class self-importance that believes itself respectable and open-minded while being, in actuality, devoid of originality or (often) basic kindness. Yet what's the alternative? Within the novel there seems no way to avoid the ignominious fate of mediocrity and self-importance, but what does Madame Bovary imply about the world in general? Surely, given his famed obsessiveness over his craftsmanship, Flaubert did not regard his own attempts at novel-writing to be as ridiculous and deluded as Homais's propaganda journalism, or Rodolphe's manipulative "Dear Joan" letter?

Perhaps Madame Bovary, like T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land, is a work that contains its antidote within its own form. The claim that modern people are all mediocre and unable to transcend tired clichés, or appreciate art from a perspective deeper than simple identification with a romantic lead, is pretty thoroughly undermined by the Flaubert's own revolutionary narrative style and painstaking craftsmanship. In a similar way, I have a hard time feeling too concerned about the mediocrity of the typist and her "young man carbuncular" while Eliot is evoking them in such memorable verse. Yet where The Waste Land leaves me feeling exhilarated (if maybe slightly disappointed by the turn to Eastern spirituality in its final lines), I leave Flaubert's novel feeling exhausted, and a little angry. Yes, his prose is fantastic, and yes, the Modern Novel owes much to this work. But for a book that seems to be arguing so vitriolically against clichés, conventionality and kitsch, where is the evidence of a preferable alternative? I'm not looking for "good" characters and "bad" characters, or any kind of moral judgment—merely some gesture toward the possibility of creating something original, of combining imagination with a fulfilling life.

Don't get me wrong: I do not require sunshine and lollipops to love a novel. Among my favorite books of all time are Mrs. Dalloway, The Unnamable, and Journey to the End of the Night. But somehow, Madame Bovary strikes me as more alienating than anything I've lately read. I think it's because of the universality of bourgeois mediocrity in the world Flaubert evokes: despite his touted realism, and despite the psychological insight into the individual characters, it strikes me a UNrealistic to suppose that an entire life intersects with not one original soul, or that every moment of human happiness hinges on some pathetic delusion. At the same time, Flaubert avoids a dip into complete nihilism—which, if dark, would at least be bracing, would at least give the reader permission to discover her own source of meaning in the world—by seeming to argue that an objectively preferable mode of life could exist, even if no one in his world is living it.

Last night David and I watched the film Brokeback Mountain. There is a scene in which the archetypal American shut-down loner Ennis Del Mar affixes mass-produced metal street numbers to the mailbox outside his trailer, then steps back to contemplate the effect. And in that instant, despite the tragedy of the film, I felt such relief. There is value in human creativity, even if many would judge the results to be unoriginal, or kitsch, or beneath our notice. Yes, there is the possibility of using romantic delusions to lower ourselves into isolation, like Emma Bovary; and yes, there is also the option of using our creativity to manipulate others out of convenience or pettiness, like Rodolphe or Homais. There is even the option of living, like Charles, convinced that one's invented notion of other peoples' characters is true. But there is also the fact that small moments of artfulness can reach out to connect with other imperfect yet valuable people, like Ennis making sure his mailbox numbers are straight because his daughter is about to pay him a visit. Such moments are present, if rare, in Madame Bovary—Homais watering Charles's plants leaps to mind—but Flaubert never stops scoffing at his characters even as he occasionally recognizes their humanity. By the end, no amount of insightful psychology and lovely language could stop me from craving something a bit more open-hearted.


  • I feel presumptuous critiquing Lydia Davis, but I almost prefer to translate this "even in thinking about Emma continually." The French seems to imply, again in a very Proustian way, that the act of thinking about her is part of what causes Charles to forget his late wife

    Yes, I would have to agree with you here. It also seems to have an almost doubling of the imperfect aspect—he would be forgetting her as he would be thinking about her, to make it explicit if awkward.

    Also, your second to last paragraph...was going to quote from that too until I realized I would just have to quote the whole thing. I don't think I was as angry about it as you sound, but I did find it a bit annoying that Flaubert seemed to be doing this. Kind of made me say "bah!" on some level to the novel as a whole, even though I thought it was in many ways brilliant.

  • You almost have me convinced about Flaubert's fatal flaw, Emily, and yet for me he's so tonally spot on about the depths of his characters' anguish and so innovative in his writing techniques that I guess I just don't feel as strongly as you about the importance of the alleged shortcoming. Could I relate to something more open-hearted, though? Of course! Slight disagreement aside, I have to say that I think this is one of your most memorable posts. You cover quite a lot of ground here, argue your points extremely well, even quote quite a lot of passages I also had flagged in my text! The one about Charles' dream in particular was quite haunting to me--one of the many reasons I suspect Flaubert might have identified with his characters' pain more than he might have let on. By the way, I realize I could totally be projecting about Flaubert, so take me with more than the usual grain of salt today, my friend!

  • Fantastic post Emily! I have so enjoyed all of your Madame Bovary posts. Do you find Lydia Davis's translation to be overall really good?

  • Your translation, "even in thinking about Emma continually" works for me, so haunting, the idea that he "wears thin his ability to access her memory."

    I enjoy your comparison of Madame Bovary and The Waste Land, and agree that somehow the latter leaves more space for redemption (after the thunder, we anticipate the rain to come). But I can't quite read Madame Bovary as bleakly. Flaubert is surely lampooning a provincial bourgeoisie, Paris looms in the background as a source of escape from the narrow, smug small town mentality. I can believe that small town life, in the France of 150 years ago, was almost as gauche and painful as Flaubert satirises.

    Ultimately, despite the silence and despair at the heart of the book, I can't accept Madame Bovary as tragedy. Emma's nature means her downfall is inevitable, her character never changes, her moral weakness, in fiction, can lead only to destruction. I see the story more as a satirical, dark farce.

  • So interesting! I agree with the bone you pick regarding Davis' translation--yours is better and seems more suited to the text.

    I don't know, though, that all the characters are devoid of soul or creativity. Rodolphe, for all that he's a cad, knows exactly what he wants and how to get it. Unlike Emma, whose dreams have no basis in reality, Rodolphe is quite clear of what's possible and what isn't. I also think that the way Flaubert details Emma's death, and then Charles', and Berthe's life going forward, is a condemnation of Emma's flights of fancy, but it also served to contrast against, say, Homais, who certainly suffered from delusions of grandeur and yet was able to find satisfaction in his life, unlike Emma.

  • Nicole: I'm actually quite relieved that people are agreeing with me on the translation issue. And glad to know you relate to my reservations about Flaubert's world, even if it didn't bother you quite as much. :-)

    Richard: I'm biased about what I wrote on, too, so we're probably both personally invested in the things that appealed to us or made us angry in this book! That said, thanks for the nice words on the post. I think that I would be as enthusiastic as you about Flaubert's style and pathos if he didn't poke a pre-existing sore spot in my, I don't know, philosophy of aesthetics.

  • Stefanie: Thanks! And YES on the Davis translation - I didn't even realize how good the snippets of it I read were, until I started comparing them to other translations of the same passages; Davis is MUCH more faithful to Flaubert's text.

    Anthony: I was on the verge of being able to share your more lighthearted view of Madame Bovary most of the way through the reading, but toward the end I guess I just lost patience. Part of the problem is that, as a life-long city-dweller myself, I have a hard time with the notion that the kind of bigoted narrowness and self-interest that Flaubert is lampooning is unique to the bourgeois provincial. Urban and suburban folks have our own set of clichés and prejudices just like small-town people; we're no better or more creative on the whole. My partner and I just went to a country fair when we were in rural New Hampshire, and there were lots of art projects that would have classed as "kitsch" (there were also a few spectacular and original quilts) - but I don't want to scoff at anyone's 4-H project or carved wolf statue just because it's not going to take the NYC art world by storm. It was part of a process that brought people closer together or gave someone a sense of accomplishment, you know?

  • Amy: Yes, I agree that Rodolphe has a clear idea of "what he wants" and how to get it - he's the most self-aware and also worldly character in the book, I think, and I have to admit he's probably the one I most enjoyed spending time with. He's also the most craftsmanly character, and thinks about how his artfulness (of, for example, the Dear Joan letter) will affect his audience. But does all that make him soulful? I don't so much think so. Both he and Homais are SELF-satisfied, but they don't seem to satisfy the least in my opinion. :-)

  • Ah, but would the narrator ever be satisfied? Perhaps he and Homais are cleverly finding their own ways to be soulful, bypassing the narrator's lofty ideals altogether. ;-)

  • Amy: Yeah, undoubtedly not. A big reason I got sick of the narrator. :-P

  • Reading Frances' comments, I think many of us could agree that, 'goodness is too much absent' in Madame Bovary (a Saint-Beuve quotation from Kundera's The Curtain), which I have been discussing elsewhere. There is a despair to MB that negates possibility, if you accept the story as tragedy, which I cannot.

    I understand and admire your country fair scenario, and would not take away from the act of creation, admirable on many levels. Emotionally, I struggle (kitsch is kitsch), but that is perhaps metropolitan condescension, awful though it is to admit. Your nobility of spirit is an inspiration. Provincial small-mindedness is something else entirely; twenty-two years in London and six years in the provinces convince me of that.

    Your post is first rate, as have been all your Madame Bovary posts. I've enjoyed them and the subsequent discussion. It is what inclined me to this thing we do in the first place (book-blogging, lit blogging, whatever).

  • Anthony: Perhaps I'm being naive in rejecting Flaubert's provincial vs. cosmopolitan distinction - maybe if I had lived in a small town for any length of time, I'd be right on board with his claim that city-dwellers are more broadminded/creative/original/etc. I've just encountered so many hipsters/yuppies/urban activists/corporate drones, who spout off their own sets of clichéd buzzwords exactly like Léon and Emma, that I have my doubts. (Although all these people, I believe, also have their creative side.) Anyway, thanks so much for the nice words about my posts; I strongly agree that it's been a great readalong.

  • I am not so sure that it is necessary for Flaubert to provide an alternative to the bourgeois objects of his disdain. Don't we as readers provide that alternative ourselves as we wade through the unrelenting harshness? Haven't we all imagined other possibilities for Emma and company? Something tells me that to provide alternatives would have been perceived by Flaubert as a departure from his realist goals - romanticized revisions, indulgences in what could have been.

    Bu then again, I seem to be reading with the same emotionally charged energy as Richard when it comes to this one. Sooooo...

    Thank you so much for the great posts and driving such wonderful conversation here. I think that we all owe you on this one. xo

  • What you say about Charles and the translation really struck me, particularly as I had expected the book to end shortly after Emma's demise. For it to continue, I really paid attention to Charles. The quote you mention was heartbreaking to me because Charles never really knew Emma, least of all after her death, even discovering her alter ego. There was something unknowable about Emma, and he, least of all, though he loved her, was able to transcend that.

    Also, I loved this: But there is also the fact that small moments of artfulness can reach out to connect with other imperfect yet valuable people, like Ennis making sure his mailbox numbers are straight because his daughter is about to pay him a visit." It's so true, and those small moments make a life.

  • Perhaps the role of art and imagination is Emma? She creates/imagines romance, and wholly abandons herself to it, flouting social conventions (maybe not of appearances, but certainly of behaviour) -- in this maybe she is the artist. I still find her to be sympathetic, and even admirable in pursuing her own reality. Even thought it all crumbles down around her, ending in nothing, her "art" is pointless, it's all driven by some kind of deep-seated Necessity, some ineffable, soulful urge.

  • Emily, j'ai malheureusement trop oublié "Madame Bovary" pour donner mon avis sur tes commentaires, passionnants d'ailleurs et qui me donnent vraiment envie de relire le roman. Je veux simplement te dire que je suis d'accord avec Anthony (si je le comprends bien!):
    Il y a d'une part les préjugés qui sont universels; tu rencontres les mêmes dans toutes les villes, tous les pays (et là, ce n'est pas un effet de la mondialisation! je l'avais remarqué en voyageant dans les années 60). Mais il y a aussi l'étroitesse d'esprit, l'atmosphère étouffante des petites villes de province en France; je devrais dire "il y avait" car c'est moins le cas maintenant depuis que les gens bougent beaucoup pour leur travail. Mais c'était encore le cas il y a 30-40ans. La bourgeoisie locale, bien installée depuis des générations et des générations, était très fermée (à Rouen c'étaient les familles d'armateurs, à Lyon c'étaient les familles de soyeux, les autres villes je connais moins); les "émigrés" des autres villes n'étaient jamais reçus (ça arrive encore chez les personnes de + de 80ans, ma tante m'en parlait encore il y a 8 jours), et je ne te parle pas des rumeurs et des "qu'en dira t'on"! c'était l'horreur et on en a beaucoup souffert.
    Félicitations pour tes études de livres. Je me serais moins ennuyée pendant les cours de français avec toi!

  • Frances: Don't we as readers provide that alternative ourselves as we wade through the unrelenting harshness? We might - or we might just shallowly identify with Emma and think to ourselves "That's just my experience! My life is also boring and unrewarding; why, oh why?" :-) I wonder if it drove Flaubert nuts to be able to limit his readers...I agree he probably would have seen the presentation of an alternative as a cop-out, but I happen to disagree with him. In any case, I too am writing from a place of emotion, so I'll just say - thanks so much for organizing this, and for the nice words on my posts, friend!

    Jenn: I too was surprised that the novel contained so much falling action after Emma's death. It's interesting that we begin and (almost) end the book with Charles, but Emma so thoroughly monopolizes the middle section - that's probably what it felt like to Charles, too, sadly enough. (Thanks for the nice words on the Ennis section, too!)

  • Isabella: Yes, I struggled with that possibility throughout the novel, too - yet Flaubert also seems to be saying, as Amateur Reader pointed out, that what Emma is doing is transforming both reality and Art into kitsch...she has the necessary passion, but not the required intellect/training to make that leap from kitsch to art, maybe. Hmm. On the sympathy front, I found all the characters pretty much equally unsympathetic, although nobody was COMPLETELY without humanity.

    MC: Ah, je suis très heureuse de lire tes pensées sur l'atmosphère des provinces françaises, particulièrement parce que tu peux aborder la différence entre les provinces d'aujourd'hui et les d'il y a 30 ans. Peut-être suis-je biaisée à cause de ma jeunesse - je n'ai vu que les provinces des États-Unis des années 1990s et 2000s, où les gens ne sont pas très différents que les citadins. Merci beaucoup! (Et je te dois des emails! Je t'écrirai bientôt!).

    [For those who don't read French: Marie Christine is weighing in with Anthony on the city vs. provinces question - at least it was still the case 30-40 years ago, she says, that the kind of narrow, suffocating atmosphere Flaubert evokes was still prevalent in the French provinces, and unique to them. Thanks for the insight, Marie Christine! I'm probably projecting my youth and American-ness by my skepticism about this difference.]

  • je ne pense pas qu'aux USA tu aies une opposition Capitale/ Province comme en France. Les Parisiens considéraient les "Provinciaux" avec beaucoup de mépris: une société coincée, fermée, arriérée. Pour s'en sortir, "arriver" il fallait "monter à la capitale" (cf Rastignac: je voudrais avoir le temps de relire tout Balzac!)
    C'est un véritable plaisir de lire les commentaires des uns et des autres, très enrichissants.

  • Thank you, Emily, for your wonderful reading of Flaubert's Masterpiece.
    I suggest you re-read it 'somewhen' in French..
    It's so much better in the Original, it's quite unbelievable.
    Yours faithfully, The Excerpt Reader. Mrs ;)

  • "but Flaubert never stops scoffing at his characters even as he occasionally recognizes their humanity."

    I like your choice of 'scoffing': it does feel that way, doesn't it. And I agree that the tone takes a toll over the course of the novel.

  • I'm also a big fan of Flaubert. I enjoyed reading his masterpiece

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    link to Wolves 2011 reading list
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