(An unhappily married woman pursues a lifelong quest for the fulfillment of her romantic desires, by any means necessary.)
When a novelist is said to rebel against romanticism, anyone with an imaginative, adventurous, passionate, chivalrous, or spiritual streak may be forgiven for wanting to give it a pass. Such a writer sounds staid and dry, shaking a finger at anything beautiful or enjoyable; or worse, morose—seeing the gray in everything and anxious to spend hundreds of pages sharing it with you. So who is this Flaubert, then? Flaubert with the beautiful descriptions, the engaging plot, the dramatic scenes, the fevered dialogue? With this great author’s help we should make a crucial distinction. Flaubert’s aim is leveled not at imagination or adventure or passion or chivalry or spirituality per se, but rather at the perverse attention romantics often pay to the emotional effects that these things have on us. Just as it is not money itself, despite frequent misquotes, but the love of money, that is said to be the root of all sorts of evil, likewise it is the worship of imagination’s fancy-tickling effects, rather than imagination itself, that novels like Madame Bovary seek to dethrone. Emma Bovary ruins her life because, in Flaubert’s words, she seeks emotions, not landscapes. She has a sentimental rather than artistic temperament, meaning she wants to gobble up beauty rather than appreciate it. The romanticism Flaubert criticizes is selfish, subjective, emotivist. It is that attitude which confuses sensual appeals of luxury with the joys of the heart. It is what says “Give me that” rather than “That is wonderful”. Even a true romantic, a healthy romantic– perhaps especially such a person– can doff the hat to Flaubert for this.
Madame Bovary does not find what she wants in romantic books, in the convent school, in country life, in marriage to Charles, in platonic friendship, in a wild love affair with a noble, in the Church, or in a life of urban pleasures and hotel trysts. The reason for this is that idealization of the kind she practices requires distance. She is only able to romanticize what she doesn’t know, or what is too distant in the past for her to remember rightly. When the thing comes closer, when she is experiencing it, she is always disillusioned. She worships the effect a new sensation has on her; but new sensations are fleeting and soon must be replaced by others. At this exposition Flaubert is a master. He is not haughty or preachy, but portrays people, settings, and events organically, sensitively, with a perceptive eye and aesthetic language.
Part I: Charles Bovary, the son of a domineering mother and a frustrated farmer who sees the world as having failed him, grows up a social misfit. His mother pushes him through medical school and presents him with a widow twice his age to be his wife. Eventually his parents confront this woman for fabricating her claim to wealth, and shortly afterwards she dies. One of Charles’ patients is Rouault, whose daughter has always captivated Charles’ attention. While he was married, Charles stopped visiting Rouault to placate his wife’s jealousy; but upon her death he finds consolation in that house, and eventually marries Emma with her father’s approval. The wedding day is a rollicking feast, and the couple live in serenity for a while. Charles is in love with her, and is enamored with every small pleasure of their marriage. Emma, however, becomes disenchanted, having spent her life searching for the passion and heights of emotion she had found in books and their pictures, and refusing to believe that this ordinary life was all that was meant by “happiness”. Then (in a delightfully descriptive chapter) a touch of wealth at the magnificent ball at La Vaubyessard stirs Emma into reverie. She is infatuated with the dancing, the marquise, and the lifestyle of the nobility. Each day she lives thereafter in her humdrum home contributes to her romantic spirit’s devastation, until Charles decides they should move away for fear that there is something in the air that is making her sick. They move from that town of Tostes to another, near Rouen, called Yonville. She is pregnant.
Part II: As the first part of the book introduces us to the central problem of Madame Bovary (her inability to fulfill her desire for romance and adventure), the second part walks us through her several attempts to solve this problem. In Yonville we meet the townspeople, including the freethinking, scientific, egotistical blabbermouth of a pharmacist Homais; the slimy businessman Lheureux; and the romantic young Léon, to whom Emma takes an immediate liking– indeed, their souls unite in a shared fascination with beauty and idealism. Meanwhile Charles, always interpreting love as an impersonal admiration rather than a relationship with Emma, sleeps or plays cards with others nearby. Emma all but ignores her baby girl Berthe except when she wishes to play hard to get with Léon, and for the rest of the novel her daughter plays very little part in her life or affections. Emma is seeking sensual gratification, and caring for children certainly does not fit that bill. She becomes closer with Léon as the days go by, and is tormented by her situation, even as he leaves her for the sake of their honor. She seeks guidance in vain from a superficial blockhead of a churchman who fails to appreciate the nature of her troubles. Suddenly, in a very dramatic chapter (II.8), a dashing worldly gentleman Rodolphe seduces her. Finally she gives in to his bold advances, and soon begins to romanticize their affair. Not long afterward, however, a letter from her father recalls to her mind the (imagined) innocence and pleasures of her youth, and she begins to repent of her indiscretion. These doubts are laid to rest, however, when her husband bungles a medical operation and his reputation appears doomed. She devotes herself afresh to Rodolphe, but he jilts her on the morning they decide to run away together. Emma is crushed, and nearly commits suicide. In time she begins to recover, and adopts religion as her newest romantic obsession. Her attempt to get religious in order to stimulate feelings of faith (II.14) does not work, however, and Charles takes her to a play in Rouen in the hopes of entertaining her into good health. Here she meets Léon again, and Charles naïvely recommends that Emma stay in town to enjoy the shows for the weekend while he goes home to work.
- The story begins, curiously, with a scene of Charles in school. We never return to that time in his life, and the next series of descriptions takes us from his birth through his marriage. Although the first scene does educate us as to the wherefores of Mr. Bovary’s personality, it seems disjunct from the rest of the novel. After I.5, the action is centered solely on his never-fulfilled, ever-hungering wife. Of course, we do not regret the lack of focus on the drab, naïve loser of a husband. He is necessarily a half-human in order for Madame to have the freedom to explore her reckless fantasies.
- Flaubert is meticulous in description, especially early in the novel: flies crawling up glasses, sun slanting through window slats, wrinkles in wallpaper (I.3); a wedding description (I.4); the Bovary residence (I.5); the ball at La Vaubyessard (including the table, the women, the men, and– in sharp contrast– Charles’ modest carriage and horses on the way home) (I.8). The dreary, mundane atmosphere of Emma’s home life continues in descriptions in I.9. The climax of this descriptive contrast comes when the ball is reproduced in vulgar caricature by the street entertainer’s music box. Interestingly, however, these bouts of description taper off quickly, and do not characterize the second or third parts of the book.
- The subtle sexuality that infuses descriptions of Emma, e.g. I.3, 6th par. Again, although Flaubert is in a sense not a romantic, he is keenly aware of emotion and sensuality and portrays it poignantly.
- The author is marvelous at creating subtle psychological vignettes: e.g. a disillusioned wife and a bad marriage (I.1); Charles getting over Heloise (I.3, par.4); Charles’ love for Emma (end of I.6); Emma’s feelings towards Léon (with great language) (II.5); and Emma’s sorrowful memory of Léon and her subsequent coldness (II.7).
- I.6 is perhaps my favorite chapter. Romantic novels, poetry, and pictures infuse in Emma a desire for a life of emotional highs and sensual experience. She is headed inexorably for disillusionment because she exalts, even idolizes, passion. Only the aspects of religion she can easily romanticize appeal to her. Eventually she becomes disgusted with her life because her nebulous dreams of fulfilment fail to come alive and rescue her.
- The book is lightly sprinkled with the sometimes humorous, always pseudo-intellectual soliloquies of the pharmacist Homais. One example is his freethinking notion of God (II.1). He revolts against organized Christianity and the Biblical account, in favor of a vaguer, more deistic, but less anthropomorphic God, which squares better with his scientific worldview.
- Léon expounds upon a philosophy of idealism in art, the concept that it ought to stir the heart (II.2).
- In a deft and dramatic chapter (II.8), Rodolphe’s pretended passion for Emma is presented side by side with an equally bogus speech by the master of Yonville’s carnival ceremonies on the virtues of duty and agriculture. Both speeches are crafty and manipulative; both orators deliver from a stage, spouting gibberish to their respective audiences. Rodolphe lures Emma to violate her marriage vows (much as Lord Henry attempts to drag Dorian into the hedonistic life in Oscar Wilde’s Picture of Dorian Gray).
- When Emma has succeeded in destroying herself, the curate anoints her body in the Last Rites, an ironic reminder that her reverence for her fleshly fantasies are what brought her to this state (III.8).
Tidbits of Significance
(translated from the French by Joan Charles)
His wife had once been mad about him; she had loved him with a thousand servile gestures which had alienated him from her even further. Formerly a gay woman, expansive and wholly affectionate, she had become, in growing older (like a wine gone flat and turned to vinegar), difficult in temper, irritable, nervous. She had suffered so much, at first without complaint, when she saw him chasing after all the village wenches, and coming home to her every evening from a score of low haunts, surfeited and stinking of drink! Then pride had rebelled. She had become silent, swallowing her rage in a mute stoicism which she preserved to her death. She was constantly in action, attending to his affairs. She went to lawyers, to the president, remembered the expiration dates of notes, secured extensions; and, at home, sewed, washed, supervised the laborers, settled their accounts while Monsieur, without troubling himself over anything, forever immersed in a sullen drowsiness from which he emerged only to make disagreeable remarks to her, remained in a chimney corner, smoking and spitting into the ashes.
-of Charles Bovary’s parents, I.1.
“I know how it is,” he said, patting Charles on the shoulder. “I was like you, too. When I lost my poor late wife, I went into the fields to be alone; I dropped down at the foot of a tree, I cried, I called out to God, I talked nonsense to him; I wanted to be like one of those swellings I saw on the branches, with worms crawling about inside them: dead. And when I thought that other men, at that moment, were with their good little wives, holding them close in their arms, I beat on the ground with my stick; I was so nearly mad that I didn’t eat any more; the bare idea of going to the café disgusted me, you wouldn’t believe it. Well, gradually, one day following another, a spring after a winter and an autumn on top of a summer, bit by bit, crumb by crumb, that passed; for it’s gone, it has left me, it has sunk down, I should say– for something still stays with you, deep down, like what you might call… a weight, here, on the chest. But since we all come to that in the end, we shouldn’t despair and wish to die because others are dead… You must shake it off, Monsieur Bovary; it will pass!”
-Roault to Bovary, I.3.
Thinking that after all he had nothing to lose, Charles resolved to ask when an opportunity offered; but each time it offered, fear of not finding suitable words glued his lips together.
So he was happy and had not a care in the world. A meal alone with her, an evening stroll along the highroad, a touch of his hand on her hair, the sight of her straw hat hung on a window fastening and many other things that Charles had never suspected to be sources of pleasure, now composed the continuity of his happiness.
It was necessary for her to draw a sort of personal gain from things; and she rejected as useless all that did not contribute to the immediate response of her heart– being of a sentimental rather than artistic temperament, in search of emotions, not landscapes.
…now Charles’ love for Emma seemed to her a forsaking of her own tenderness, an encroachment upon what belonged to her; and she observed her son’s happiness in gloomy silence, like some poverty-stricken soul who peers through a window at people seated around the dinner table in his own former home. She kept reminding him, in the guise of recollections, of her struggles and sacrifices and, comparing them to Emma’s negligence, came to the conclusion that he was most unreasonable to adore Emma in so exclusive a manner.
-of Charles’ mother, I.7.
…she had thus struck her heart a few times with the steel without eliciting a spark.
-of Emma, I.7.
In their indifferent glances was the serenity of passions daily gratified; and through their agreeable manners penetrated that particular brutality communicated by domination in fairly unexacting matters where force is employed and in which vanity takes pleasure: the handling of blooded horses and the society of abandoned women.
-of the nobles at La Vaubyessard, I.8.
…she resigned herself: she laid reverently away in the wardrobe her lovely gown, and even her satin slippers whose soles had been yellowed by the slippery wax of the dance floor. Her heart was like them: at the touch of wealth it had taken on something that would not be wiped away.
-of Emma, I.8.
Besides, the closer things were to her, the more she turned from them in her thoughts. Everything immediately surrounding her, dull countryside, imbecile common folk, mediocrity of life, seemed to her an exception in the world, a particular set of circumstances in which she found herself caught, while beyond stretched, as far as the eye could reach, the vast territory of delights and passion.
-of Emma, I.9.
She confused, in her longing, the sensual appeals of luxury with the joys of the heart, elegance of manners with delicacy of sentiment.
-of Emma, I.9.
In the depths of her soul, meanwhile, she was waiting for an event. Like sailors in distress, she cast despairing eyes about the solitude of her life, searching the horizon mists for some distant white sail. She did not know what the circumstance might be, what wind would drive it to her, toward what shores it would take her, whether it would be a long-boat or a three-masted ship, laden with anguish or filled to the gunwales with delights. But each morning, upon waking, she hoped that day would bring it, and she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, was astonished that it did not come; then, at sunset, more sorrowful every day, she began to yearn for the morrow.
-of Emma, I.9.
“I adore God! I believe in the Supreme Being, in a Creator, whatever He is, it doesn’t matter to me, who has placed us here below to fulfil our duties as citizens and as fathers; but I don’t need to go to church to kiss silver plates and empty my pocket to fatten a lot of humbugs who are better fed than we are! For one can honor Him just as well in the woods, in a field, or even by contemplating the vault of the heavens, as the ancients did.”
“One thinks of nothing,” he continued, “the hours go by. Motionless, you walk through the lands you seem to see, and your thought, interweaving with the fiction, lingers over details or follows the outlines of adventures. It becomes involved with the characters; it seems that it is your heart that beats underneath their costumes.”
-Léon, on good books, II.2.
“Has it ever happened to you,” Léon went on, “that you encounter in a book a vague idea you once had, some cloudy image that returns from a distance, and a sort of complete analysis of your most formless emotion?”
“Actually, it seems to me,” the clerk said, “that those works which do not stir the heart miss the true aim of Art. It is so pleasant, among the disenchantments of life, to be able to escape in thought to noble characters, pure affections and pictures of happiness. As for me, living here, far from the world, that is my only diversion; but Yonville offers so few resources!”
Had they nothing else to say to one another? Still, their eyes were brimming with more serious talk; and while they forced themselves to find commonplace phrases, they felt an identical languor overcoming both of them; it was like a murmur from the soul, deep, uninterrupted, which rose above that of their voices. Overcome with astonishment at this pleasant new sensation, they did not think to mention it to one another or to seek its cause. Future delights, like tropical coastlines, project upon the immensity which precedes them their native lassitudes, a scented breeze, and one drowses in that intoxication without even troubling to search for the horizon which cannot yet be seen.
-of Léon and Emma, II.3.
As for Emma, she did not examine herself to find out if she loved him. Love, she believed, should strike suddenly, with thunder claps and fulgurations– a tornado out of the heavens which hurls itself upon life, turns it upside down, snatches away volition like leaves and sweeps the whole heart off to the abyss. She did not know that, on the terraces of houses, the rain makes lakes when the gutters are choked, and she might thus have remained in her security had she not suddenly discovered a fissure in the wall.
Her own natural gentleness gave her spasms of rebellion. Domestic mediocrity drove her to lustful fantasies, marital tenderness to adulterous desires.
The next day was a dismal one for Emma. Everything seemed to her to be swathed in a black miasma that drifted confusedly across the surfaces of objects, and sorrow rushed into her spirit with soft moaning sounds, like the winter wind in a deserted castle.
From that time on this memory of Léon was a sort of focal point for her boredom; and the most distant memories as well as the most immediate events, what she had experienced and what she had imagined, her frustrated desires for physical gratification, her projects for happiness which crackled like dead branches in the wind, her sterile virtue, her fallen hopes, her marriage bed, she gathered up all, accepted all, made all serve to warm her sorrow. Nevertheless, the flames died down, whether because her inner resources became exhausted or because too much fuel had been heaped upon them. Little by little love was extinguished by absence, regret smothered by habit; and that fiery glow which had washed her pale skies with purple sank away into shadow and was gradually obliterated.
What happiness in those days! What freedom, what hope, what abundance of illusions! Nothing of them was left, now. She had expended them on all the adventures of her spirit, throughout all the successive phases, in virginity, in marriage and in love– losing them thus along the course of her life, day after day, like a traveler who leaves something of his wealth at each of the inns along the way.
-on Emma’s childhood and life since, II.10.
Emma was like all mistresses; and the charm of newness, slipping down little by little like a garment, revealed unclothed the eternal monotony of passion which has always the same forms and the same language.
-on Rodolphe and Emma, II.12.
…exaggerated turns of speech conceal mediocre affections: as if the fulness of the soul might not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one, ever, can give the exact measurements of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his suffering, and the human word is like a cracked cauldron upon which we beat out melodies fit for making bears dance when we are trying to move the stars to pity.
…pleasures, like students in a school yard, had so trampled his heart that no green thing grew there.
…it was thus that they would have liked to be, each of them constructing an ideal to which they were now adjusting their past lives.
-of Emma and Léon, III.1.
…the spoken word is a roller that always spreads emotions out.
“In those days you were to me a sort of indescribable, incomprehensible force that enslaved my life.”
-Léon to Emma, III.1.
It was the first time he had bought flowers for a woman, and his chest, as he sniffed at them, swelled with pride, as if this homage which he directed toward another were reflected back upon himself.
-of Léon, III.1. [Truly, it does reflect on oneself– so we might do well to examine our motives for any chivalrous activity.]
It was not the first time they had seen trees, blue skies, grass, that they had heard water flowing and the breeze whispering in leaves; but doubtless they had never admired these things, as if nature had not existed before, or had only begun to be beautiful since the gratifying of their desires.
-of Léon and Emma, III.3.
Through the variety of her moods, mystic or gay by turns, talkative, taciturn, passionate, indifferent, she went on rousing in him a thousand desires, summoning instincts or reminiscences.
-of Léon and Emma, III.3.
From this moment on, her life was no more than an amalgamation of lies in which she wrapped her love as in veils, to hide it.
-of Emma, III.5.
…vilifying those we love always alienates us from them to a certain extent. Idols should not be touched: the gilding comes off on the hands.
…in the letters Emma sent him, she spoke of flowers, poems, the moon and stars, artless resources of a diminished passion which seeks to revivify itself by means of all external stimuli.
What had once charmed him now alarmed him a little. In addition, he was in revolt against the absorption of his personality, every day more pronounced. He bore Emma a grudge for this constant victory. He even forced himself not to love her; then, at the click of her boot heels, he felt himself go slack, like drunkards at sight of strong liquor.
-of Léon, III.6.
It made no difference. She was not happy, had never been. Whence, then, came this insufficiency on the part of life, this instantaneous decay of things upon which she leaned?… If somewhere there existed a creature strong and handsome, a valiant nature full at once of ardor and of delicacies, a poet’s heart beneath an angel’s form, a lyre with brazen strings ringing out elegiac nuptial songs to the heavens, why, by chance, should she not find him? Oh, what an impossibility! In any case, nothing was worth the effort of search; everything lied. Each smile concealed a yawn of boredom, each joy a malediction, every pleasure its own disgust, and the most ardent kisses left upon the lips only an unrealizable longing for a higher gratification.
-of Emma, III.6.
…an infinity of passions can be contained in a minute, like a crowd in a small space.
…for every ordinary man, in the fire of his youth, if only for one day, one minute, has believed himself capable of tremendous passions, of lofty enterprises. The commonest libertine has dreamed of sultanas; every notary bears within himself the relics of a poet.
Emma was rediscovering in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.
After anyone’s death, there is always a sort of stupefaction that sets in, so difficult is it to realize this actuality of nothingness and to resign oneself to belief in it.
READ THIS WHEN…
…you are intrigued by the lure some find in a life of sensuous fantasy and lofty romantic expectations;
…you want to spend a few hours discreetly following an urbane and funloving belle as she seeks happiness and battles disenchantment.
IF YOU LIKE THIS, YOU’D LIKE:
(For the investigator of the effects of hedonism and adultery:)
- William Makepeace Thackeray, Vanity Fair (1847-1848)
- Leo Tolstoy, Anna Karenina (1873-1877)
- Oscar Wilde, The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891)
- John Updike, Rabbit, Run (1960)
(For the attendee of the French naturalist school of novelists:)
- Edmond and Jules Goncourt, Germinie Lacerteux (1864)
- Alphonse Daudet, Le Petit Chose (1868)
- Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education (1869)
- Émile Zola, L’Assommoir (1877)
Hardcover: The excellent Everyman edition is in print!
Paperback: The Signet Classic