Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1857)

She still was not happy – she never had been. What caused this inadequacy in her life – why did everything she leaned on instantly decay? … Oh if somewhere there were a being strong and handsome, a valiant heart, passionate and sensitive at once, a poet’s spirit in an angel’s form, a lyre with strings of steel, sounding sweet-sad epithalamiums to the heavens, then why should she not find that being? Vain dream! There was nothing that was worth going far to get: all was lies! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a misery. Every pleasure brought its surfeit; and the loveliest kisses only left upon your lips a baffled longing for a more intense delight. (Madame Bovary, Part three, chapter six)

Gustave Flaubert

Flaubert is one of the most famous novelists of the 19th century, in any language. Born in 1821 in Normandy, he went to Paris to study law but dropped out after being afflicted by a mystery illness, probably epilepsy. He returned to Normandy and spent the rest of his life living off a modest private income in the remote village of Croisset, devoting himself to literature.

His early (unpublished) novels are lyrical and romantic. As he matured he reined in his tendencies to lush romanticism in order to create a new kind of studied realism.

Madame Bovary

Flaubert is most famous for his first published novel, Madame Bovary (1857) the low-key, realistic depiction of the life of a small-town woman, Emma Rouault, originally the daughter of a farmer, who marries the well-meaning but dull local doctor, Charles Bovary, but soon yearns for something more.

She has an affair with a stylish local landowner, Rodolphe, who, after several years of dallying, dumps her when she shows signs of wanting to leave her husband and getting serious. As a result Emma has a nervous breakdown and takes months of being tenderly cared for by her husband to recover. Sone years later she develops a passionate and sensuous affair with young Leon the law clerk from her small town, who has moved on to bigger things in Rouen. With him she arranges weekly meetings for days of unbridled sensuality.

Nemesis comes not as a result of these affairs, but through Emma’s equally wanton way with money. The village haberdasher, Lheureux, preys on her over the years, selling her all kinds of luxury knick-knacks she doesn’t really need, making her consolidate her debts into large promissory notes, renewing these at extortionate interest, and finally handing the lot over to a rack-renting debt collector who announces that  she is bankrupt and that he is going to impound and sell off all the good doctor’s belongings and house to pay off the debts.

On this last, climactic day, Flaubert shows Emma desperately running round the village, begging everyone she knows for money. She begs the haberdasher himself, the local lawyer, then goes out to the chateau of her old lover Rodolphe, in a vain attempt to rekindle his interest and get him to lend her money. She takes the coach into town to beg Leon to get the money for her from a friend and then suggests that he steals the money from his employer. One by one all the men reject her.

Finally, in a delirium of despair, Emma goes in the back of the local chemist’s shop, persuades his biddable young assistant to fetch her a jar of arsenic (whose existence we’d learned about in an unrelated scene years earlier, but which she now remembers) and stuffs her mouth with it.

She staggers back home and there follows a protracted death bed scene, at which Charles her husband is distraught and calls for a set of more senior doctors to come and help. Quickly the two local ‘experts’ realise there’s nothing they can do for her and so they take up the offer of Homais, the chemist, to repair for a slap-up dinner at his house (his wife fussing and fretting that she doesn’t have anything special to hand). Back in the sick room, Emma coughs and pukes her last breaths, while the local curé struggles to administer the sacraments. She dies.

The trial of Emma Bovary

Because it was so matter of fact and realistic in its depiction of Emma’s affairs (for its day, 1857) Madame Bovary was seized by the authorities, and Flaubert and the publisher of the magazine it was serialised in were prosecuted for ‘insulting public morals and offending decent manners’.

The trial lasted one day and the defendants were acquitted, although Flaubert was reprimanded by the court for his use of graphic detail concerning ‘adulterous and corrupt affairs’.

The trial, as well as his devotion to the art of writing, which became apparent when Flaubert’s wonderfully colourful and thoughtful correspondence was published after  his death (1880), made Gustave a kind of patron saint of serious literary types, both writers and critics.

Realism

The appeal, the pleasure, of realism is in the precision of the descriptions. Flaubert excels at interiors.

A young woman in a blue merino dress with three flounces came to the threshold of the door to receive Monsieur Bovary, whom she led to the kitchen, where a large fire was blazing. The servant’s breakfast was boiling beside it in small pots of all sizes. Some damp clothes were drying inside the chimney-corner. The shovel, tongs, and the nozzle of the bellows, all of colossal size, shone like polished steel, while along the walls hung many pots and pans in which the clear flame of the hearth, mingling with the first rays of the sun coming in through the window, was mirrored fitfully. (Part one, chapter two)

One day he got there about three o’clock. Everybody was in the fields. He went into the kitchen, but did not at once catch sight of Emma; the outside shutters were closed. Through the chinks of the wood the sun sent across the flooring long fine rays that were broken at the corners of the furniture and trembled along the ceiling. Some flies on the table were crawling up the glasses that had been used, and buzzing as they drowned themselves in the dregs of the cider. The daylight that came in by the chimney made velvet of the soot at the back of the fireplace, and touched with blue the cold cinders. Between the window and the hearth Emma was sewing; she wore no fichu; he could see small drops of perspiration on her bare shoulders. (Part one, chapter three)

Light is important in these prose paintings. They have the still, pregnant precision of interiors by Vermeer.

The precisely rendered descriptions extend to finely observed accounts of humans and their surfaces.

In bed, in the morning, by her side, on the pillow, he watched the sunlight sinking into the down on her fair cheek, half hidden by the lappets of her night-cap. Seen thus closely, her eyes looked to him enlarged, especially when, on waking up, she opened and shut them rapidly many times. Black in the shade, dark blue in broad daylight, they had, as it were, depths of different colours, that, darker in the centre, grew paler towards the surface of the eye. His own eyes lost themselves in these depths; he saw himself in miniature down to the shoulders, with his handkerchief round his head and the top of his shirt open… (Part one, chapter five)

And Flaubert deploys the same forensic skills in his descriptions of human behaviour.

When shy Charles marries sentimental Emma, their wedding feast is an opportunity for Flaubert to satirise the behaviour of the small-town Normans he himself lived his whole life among.

Until night they ate. When any of them were too tired of sitting, they went out for a stroll in the yard, or for a game with corks in the granary, and then returned to table. Some towards the finish went to sleep and snored. But with the coffee everyone woke up. Then they began songs, showed off tricks, raised heavy weights, performed feats with their fingers, then tried lifting carts on their shoulders, made broad jokes, kissed the women. At night when they left, the horses, stuffed up to the nostrils with oats, could hardly be got into the shafts; they kicked, reared, the harness broke, their masters laughed or swore; and all night in the light of the moon along country roads there were runaway carts at full gallop plunging into the ditches, jumping over yard after yard of stones, clambering up the hills, with women leaning out from the tilt to catch hold of the reins. (Part one, chapter four)

He’s good at crowd scenes. As well as the wedding feast, he really goes to town in his description of the annual Agricultural Show in the novel’s main setting, Yonville. There’s a sumptuous and vivid set-piece description of a performance of Lucia di Lammermoor at Rouen. And Emma’s funeral is another opportunity for Gustave to show his skills at large-scale compositions, the prose equivalent of the large canvases of his contemporary realist, the painter Gustave Courbet.

Flaubert’s characters

Flaubert applies the same wry, detached attitude to his characters.

We get a detailed account of the upbringing of Charles Bovary – which amounts to him being spoiled as a boy by his mother and encouraged to run around in the woods to become ‘a man’ by his father, all of which creates his easy-going, lazy personality. Charles drops his medical studies in Rouen and flunks his exams; then gives them another go, scrapes through to qualify as a doctor, and his doting mother finds him a nice, quiet, rural job as doctor in Tostes (a town near the river Seine, about ten miles south of Rouen).

At first we see Emma only through Charles’s eyes when he goes to treat her father, a worthy old farmer, Monsieur Rouault. Her physical beauty and stillness in the dark parlour entrance him. It’s only after they’re married, that Flaubert gives us a chapter describing Emma’s background and we begin to realise she is not at all what she seemed to simple Charles.

Only now are we told that Emma Bovary née Rouault is shallow, sentimental and silly, having been raised on a diet of romantic novels and sentimental religion at a convent school. It turns out that her poise and stillness conceal a mind consumed by the worst clichés of cheap fiction.

She thought, sometimes, that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life – the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless to fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep road, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains, along with the bells of goats and the muffled sound of a waterfall; at sunset on the shores of gulfs to breathe in the perfume of lemon trees; then in the evening on the villa-terraces above, hand in hand to look at the stars, making plans for the future. It seemed to her that certain places on earth must bring happiness, as a plant peculiar to the soil, and that cannot thrive elsewhere. Why could not she lean over balconies in Swiss chalets, or enshrine her melancholy in a Scotch cottage, with a husband dressed in a black velvet coat with long tails, and thin shoes, a pointed hat and frills? (Part one, chapter seven)

Thus Flaubert, skewering the shallow tropes of popular fiction.

Emma hoped the confident amiable young doctor had come to take her away from a life of rural boredom. Instead she finds herself trapped in an arguably even worse life of small-town boredom.

Perhaps she would have liked to confide all these things to someone. But how tell an undefinable uneasiness, variable as the clouds, unstable as the winds? Words failed her – the opportunity, the courage. If Charles had but wished it, if he had guessed it, if his look had but once met her thought, it seemed to her that a sudden plenty would have gone out from her heart, as the fruit falls from a tree when shaken by a hand. But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him. (Part one, chapter seven)

A trajectory of alienation which continues throughout the book, until Emma comes to loathe and detest everything about Charles.

Banality

What Flaubert hated, what terrified him most, was banality. Life is banal and, oh God, people are so trite and shallow. In their different ways, Charles and Emma are almost spiteful portraits of dullness.

Charles’s conversation was as flat as a street pavement, on which everyone’s ideas trudged past, in their everyday dress, provoking no emotion, no laughter, no dreams.

And poor Emma, the heroine around which these four hundred pages rotate, is an embodiment of the inchoate longing for adventure, for romance, for something, in the mind of a silly, shallow, provincial young woman, trapped by her narrow upbringing, limited life opportunities and her own trite personality.

Life in 1840s rural France seems almost unbearably dull to us, reading the book in the 21st century – but was doubly so for women who lived virtually under house arrest. Of course, she could go out whenever she liked, except that, in the dull little towns where the couple lived, there was almost nothing to do and no-one to see.

The thought of having a male child afforded her a kind of anticipatory revenge for all her past helplessness. A man, at least, is free. He can explore the passions and the continents, can surmount obstacles, reach out to the most distant joys. But a woman is constantly thwarted. At once inert and pliant, she has to contend with both physical weakness and legal subordination. Her will is like the veil on her bonnet, fastened by a single string and quivering at every breeze hat blows. Always there is a desire that impels and a convention that restrains. (Part two, chapter three)

Inevitability

The story of this small-town tragedy unfolds with a kind of grim inevitability. Flaubert pinpoints with surgical precision the moments where Emma slowly realises she doesn’t love Charles, then chafes at her restricted life, then begins to dislike Charles, then ends up passionately hating him.

This makes her ill, stressed and unhappy. She loses appetite. Charles and his domineering mother, blissfully unaware of her feelings, decide a change of scene is called for and they move to a different town, the (fictional) rural town of Yonville. This is the setting of most of the story.

Against the rhythms of rural and small town life, against the backdrop of the Wednesday market and the Agricultural Show attended by the Department Prefect (part two, chapter 8), we watch Emma:

  • get pregnant, desperately hope it will be a boy who she can project her wish for freedom onto, and sink into despair when it is a girl, who she resents and never bonds with
  • has an almost wordless, touchless, intense passion with a young law student, Léon Dupuis, who shares her naive love of literature and music – perversely she doesn’t return his obvious admiration and he leaves to study in Paris, plunging her deeper into despair

It is then that she is spotted by Rodolphe Boulanger, a wealthy local landowner and experienced womaniser. With cold calculation he sets out to seduce Emma and add her to his list of conquests.

If he is what we nowadays call a ‘sexual predator’, Emma is far from helpless victim. She is depicted as self-centred and heartless – her lack of affection for her own little girl is quite upsetting to anyone who’s been a parent.

And Flaubert depicts with quite haunting insight the development of their affair, its ups and downs, as both parties are by turns genuinely carried away with love and lust, or have moments of doubt and repulsion, return to the fray willing it to remain heady and romantic, become slightly hardened… and so on.

In other words, there are no heroes or villains, everyone is portrayed with a clinical detachment, sometimes with tones of compassion, sometimes broad satire (the chorus of gossipy townspeople), sometimes bordering on contempt.

Style

Stupid young married woman is seduced by cynical womaniser, has further affairs, runs up huge bills  – then kills herself. It’s not a novel you read for the plot. Instead, it’s a book you can open at any page and immediately enjoy for the precision and deftness of its style. God, it’s good writing, even in translation. Here are the household servants.

‘Let me alone,’ Felicity said, moving her pot of starch. ‘You’d better be off and pound almonds; you are always dangling about women. Before you meddle with such things, bad boy, wait till you’ve got a beard to your chin.’
‘Oh, don’t be cross! I’ll go and clean her boots,’ replied Justin.
And he at once took down from the shelf Emma’s boots, all coated with mud, the mud of the rendezvous, that crumbled into powder beneath his fingers, and that he watched as it gently rose in a ray of sunlight. (Part three, chapter twelve)

Composition

And the conception, the composition, feels so right. If the plot isn’t exactly original, it unfurls with a kind of stately orderliness and clarity. Although it is categorised as a ‘realist’ novel, there are in fact many scenes which seem pregnant with an almost medieval sense of allegory and deeper meaning.

In part two, chapter six, Emma hears the church bell of Yonville ringing and is suddenly overcome by the need to confess and unburden herself. She bustles along to the church but there follows an excruciating scene where she tries to hint and convey to the curé that all is not well, but he is hopelessly distracted by a class of unruly young boys he is trying to teach the catechism. Eventually Emma leaves having said nothing, with all her frustration redoubled and bottled up. Back at the house she sits in an agony of frustrated unhappiness while her poor little daughter, Berthe, comes tugging at her skirt, wanting to play. Emma tells her to go away but like all toddlers she comes back and then Emma snaps and pushes her hard with her elbow. With perfect inevitability, Berthe falls backwards and cuts her cheek against the curtain holder, at which Emma snaps out of her misery and panics, shrieking for the maid and then for Charles who comes running. All are impressed by Emma’s doting hyper-care for the child; only we, the reader, have any idea at all of the raging turmoil in her mind which drove her to be so thoughtless.

The whole incident unfolds with the heavy inevitability of a Greek tragedy yet at the same time is entirely naturalistic. There’s nothing forced or symbolic or precious about it. This, you feel, is how life is, made up of silly frustrations, unhappinesses, angers and accidents.

But the way Flaubert chooses and selects these moments is almost breath-taking. ‘Realism’ sounds like it ought to be dull, but Flaubert’s selection of just the right psychological and emotional moments from this tawdry story means that every single scene is alive with meaning and intensity.

And the words. The extremely careful phrasing of every sentence which is used to depict all these charged scenes.

The furniture in its place seemed to have become more immobile, and to lose itself in the shadow as in an ocean of darkness. The fire was out, the clock went on ticking, and Emma marvelled at this calm of all things while within herself was such tumult. But little Berthe was there, between the window and the work-table, tottering on her knitted shoes, and trying to come to her mother to catch hold of the ends of her apron-strings.
‘Leave me alone,’ said Emma, putting her from her with her hand.
The little girl soon came up closer against her knees, and leaning on them with her arms, she looked up with her large blue eyes, while a small thread of pure saliva dribbled from her lips on to the silk apron.
‘Leave me alone,’ repeated the young woman quite irritably.

The ticking clock, the spool of spittle, all scream out Emma’s unbearable unhappiness. Character, mood and emotion is portrayed with stunning brilliance on every page. This is what makes Madame Bovary a masterpiece. Here is Charles, alone by the body of Emma, after she’s died and been dressed for her funeral by the village women.

It was the last time; he came to bid her farewell.

The aromatic herbs were still smoking, and spirals of bluish vapour blended at the window-sash with the fog that was coming in. There were few stars, and the night was warm. The wax of the candles fell in great drops upon the sheets of the bed. Charles watched them burn, tiring his eyes against the glare of their yellow flame.

The watering on the satin gown shimmered white as moonlight. Emma was lost beneath it; and it seemed to him that, spreading beyond her own self, she blended confusedly with everything around her – the silence, the night, the passing wind, the damp odours rising from the ground.

Comedy

If Flaubert is harsh on the self deceptions of the lovers – Emma herself, the calculating cad Rodolphe, the genuinely intoxicated young Leon – and gives an unflinching portrait of Charles’s dull obtuseness and the bossiness of his domineering mother, always ready to stick her oar in – an under-appreciated aspect of the book is its broad humour.

Comedy is harder to quote or pick out of a novel than its countless serious strands and issues. It generally needs more context or build-up. But there’s a kind of Dad’s Army, warm humour about Flaubert’s depictions of the inhabitants of the Norman village. If they can be caught out in petty hypocrisies or pompous speeches or absent-minded behaviour or gossiping, they will be.

A lot rotates around the figure of Homais, the pompous village chemist, who fancies himself as a scientific pioneer, quietly breaks the law by giving medical consultations on the side, and also largely writes the little local paper. Flaubert gives us big quotes from this august journal, allowing us to judge for ourselves its pompous provincial quality.

There’s a classic scene which takes a bit of explaining: Charles’s father dies of a stroke. Charles is so upset he deputes Homais to tell Emma. Homais, in his self-important way, writes a long speech (tearing up numerous drafts in order to arrive at just the right slow revelation of this tragic occurrence.)

And so Homais sends his boy to fetch Emma and tell her it’s important. She is walking by the river, but when the boy tells her something serious has happened and she must come to Monsieur Homais’ at once, she is understandably panic-stricken. But – and here’s the comic denouement – when Emma arrives breathless and anxious, she finds Homais in a fury because his assistant has gone into his inner sanctum and meddled with his chemistry equipment. Emma repeatedly asks what is the important message, while Homais rants and shouts at his poor cowering assistant.

Finally, in a paroxysm of anger, Homais turns to Emma and declares ‘Charles’s father has died,’ then returns to chastising his assistant. See, it’s not very funny when I write it down here. But if you are properly absorbed in the world of the book and its characters and the flow of the narrative, I found it very funny and it is clearly intended to be funny.

Similarly, at the end of the book, as Emma lies slowly dying, Charles sends messages for help to the two most senior doctors in the neighbourhood. After quickly examining the patient, the most senior one concludes there is no hope (he is correct) and, none of them wanting to be associated with death (bad for business), they eagerly take up Monsieur Homais’s invitation to cross the road to his house for a slap-up lunch – which is the point where his wife begins fussing that she doesn’t have fine food suitable for such eminences and sends out in a fluster for some luxury fare.

I grew up in a village. I have kids of my own and a network of family, cousins, in-laws, all with their foibles and peculiarities. My parents have died, friends have died, I’ve seen people behave very oddly around bereavements and funerals: the strongest collapse in tears, the weakest turn out to be brilliant at organising the funeral, some just can’t face it, can’t face death.

Without trying very hard I’ve come across commentary on the internet describing the behaviour of Homais and the doctors as ‘despicable’ and ‘contemptible’, but this seems to me much too harsh, simplistic and judgmental. Their behaviour is human, all-too-human. The judgers obviously haven’t learned from Shakespeare that something can be intensely tragic and howlingly funny at the same time – the message also conveyed 400 years later by Samuel Beckett. And maybe they haven’t been at many death beds or attended many funerals.

In fact, at a pinch, this could be taken as the humanist message of ‘literature’ – that people are complex, really complex, that what outsiders regard as ‘positive’ traits, can be mixed in with ‘negative’ traits, that people’s feelings and motivations fluctuate from moment to moment. It is as if modern readers took the moment when Emma pushes her daughter over as the one and only moment which Defines Her Character and condemn her as a Bad Mother.

That is to take a legalistic, social worker-cum-Nazi informer view of human nature, where one chance action or one chance remark against the Great Leader, condemns a person for life.

Literature – or some kinds of relatively modern literature – are intended to work precisely against simple-minded judgementalism and to show human beings in all their contradictoriness. The public prosecutor in Rouen didn’t understand this, and saw only a story about an immoral woman. It is disheartening, but not that surprising, that in our own hyper-judgmental times, many teachers and students of literature take a similarly one-dimensional, judgmental view of Flaubert’s characters.

Not that he’d have been surprised. It is exactly what he’d have expected.

Translations

As befits such a classic, Madame Bovary has been translated into English numerous times.

Madame Bovary, 1886 by Eleanor Marx-Aveling
Madame Bovary, 1928 by James Lewis May
Madame Bovary, 1946 by Gerald Hopkins
Madame Bovary, 1950 by Alan Russell
Madame Bovary, 1957 by Francis Steegmuller
Madame Bovary, 1959 by Lowell Bair
Madame Bovary, 1964 by Mildred Marmur
Madame Bovary, 1965 by Paul de Man
Madame Bovary, 1992 by Geoffrey Wall
Madame Bovary, 2010 by Lydia Davis
Madame Bovary, 2011 by Adam Thorpe

I read the old 1950 Penguin translation by Alan Russell, but I’ve quoted from the only version which seems to be available online, the one by Karl Marx’s daughter, Eleanor Marx-Aveling.

Gustave Courbet

Here’s a depiction of a rural funeral by the great pioneer of realism in painting, Gustave Courbet. In its sense of a) composition with large number of figures b) its emphasis on the quirks and individuality of the people depicted – their boredom, itchy noses and distracted looks, in among the expressions of genuine grief and remorse – it is very much the visual equivalent of Flaubert’s all-encompassing vision.

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)

A Burial at Ornans by Gustave Courbet (1850)


Related links

Flaubert’s books

%d bloggers like this: