Madame Bovary, Gustav Flaubert

Madame Bovary, Steegmuller translation



My mother cautioned me once that Bovary should only be read "when one is old enough", and I know of few sayings more certain to entice an irrepressibly curious young person.

How will you know when you are old enough? Fadiman (Lifetime Reading Plan, 113, 1988) admits that he finds the novel "cold and depressing." I imagine it helps, but is not necessary, to be married; I imagine it helps, but is not necessary, to be a woman. My reading of Bovary left me convinced it is an absolute gem: a rare and perfect marriage of form and function it would be impossible to duplicate ever again. The genius of Bovary is in its style, which, like a meticulous Dutch painting, continually brings into focus small, commonplace, sometimes sordid details - the stain on a shirt-front, the creases in a boot. Almost always they reflect or reveal some shading of character and create an absolutely real sense of place. Emma Bovary is prone to Romanticism, and trapped within this world of farmers and chemists, dog-carts and buzzing flies. She thinks it is her relative bourgeois poverty, a country doctor's wife of no distinction, but Flaubert's narrative style suggests that there is no refuge, not even among the rich, from the small imperfections, the human foibles, the very particularness that is oppressive to a mind trying to escape its tether. Her husband Charles is cheerfully oblivious: content in his limited sphere of acquaintance and interests, pleased with himself, and comfortable in his country manners and dress.

Of course things go from bad to worse - how could they not? Emma is a time-bomb, with no internal discipline to keep her unhappiness and anger in check - but what is truly remarkable is that the novel reserves judgement. It would have been so easy to produce a sad tale of a misguidedly-idealistic young woman's descent, or, alternatively, to have held her up as a visionary soul surrounded by petty-minded, ignorant and pretentious folk, but Flaubert walks the knife's edge. One of the brilliant aspects of the book, I thought, was that it doesn't begin with Emma and her clandestine dormitory reading of sentimental poetry and exotic Romance novels; it begins with plain, plain Charles, as a somewhat clumsy and thick-headed boy at school,  his mother and father's mismatched and unhappy marriage, and Charles' own first marriage to the horrible Madame Dubuc, so there is a kind of diffusion of blame. It is not just Emma, or just Charles, but a more universal difficulty in finding the right match of temperaments suited to making a happy life. Not that all people are equally capable of creating happiness - when Emma finds Leon, who also has a penchant for music and poetry, she merely devours him.

It amazes me that Flaubert as a novelist was able to enter deeply into the mind of a woman of his time - particularly in her frustration at being pent up because she is a woman and not as free as a man. And there is the fascinating anecdote that Flaubert once said of his most famous heroine, "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." But then he is also remarkably sensitive in his depiction of the inner life of his other major characters, such as Madame Bovary senior (Charles' mother) and Charles himself.

I find Charles intriguing, in some ways more than Emma, for Emma makes a kind of selfish sense. I love this description of his dogged pursuit of the studies his mother set him on as a young man:
"...lectures on anatomy, lectures on pathology, lectures on physiology, lectures on pharmacy, lectures on botany and clinical medicine, and therapeutics, without counting hygiene and materia medica--all names of whose etymologies he was ignorant, and that were to him as so many doors to sanctuaries filled with magnificent darkness. He understood nothing of it all; it was all very well to listen--he did not follow. Still he worked; he had bound note-books, he attended all the courses, never missed a single lecture. He did his little daily task like a mill-horse, who goes round and round with his eyes bandaged, not knowing what work he is doing." (Book I, Ch 1)
But then this is also the Charles who learns he has a taste for dominoes, and music, and drink, and women, who has to be put back on his task. He has a first, loveless marriage in which he is the one looking for affection, but then also becomes the smug, obtuse husband who cannot glimpse Emma's misery. And there is a rather amazing (gruesome) bit at the end during the vigil over Emma's body, when, after dwelling on his idealized memories of love, he lifts the shroud to see her once more and falls back in horror. Even unimaginative Charles is a romantic when it comes to death, and the novel will not let him.

Again, the knife's edge: it would have been easy - it is easy - to be a realist and a pessimist and to take a kind of ugly pleasure in wallowing in the seaminess of life. But the novel is great precisely, I think, because it is careful merely to present, because the only solution to the problem posed by Emma (dissatisfaction, boredom, Romantic disgust for all that falls short of the imagined ideal) is to turn and embrace the present and particular in the spirit of Zen Buddhism. I don't know if Flaubert ever thought of it this way, but reading Bovary made me think about the ways in which my mind rejects elements of its surroundings and tries to slip out the back way, when what is called for is an intensification of focus on the present-immediate. Wash the dishes, fold the laundry, approach Romance novels with caution.