Posts Tagged ‘Madame Bovary’

A rebel with a silly cause

November 1, 2013 40 comments

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert. 1856. Translation by Eleanor Max-Aveling.

Flaubert_Madame_BovaryGuy and I decided to re-read Madame Bovary after his review of The Doctor’s Wife by M.E. Braddon, based on Madame Bovary which Ms Braddon found immoral. Given her lifestyle, I was surprised of that statement. Actually, we both wondered why Madame Bovary was more immoral than other novels previously published and a re-read imposed itself. I had that nagging question in mind while I was reading: What did Flaubert do to make it so immoral?

Now I’m a bit intimidated at the idea to write about such a masterpiece. The first time I read it, I was 15 or 16. I read it for the story. The next time I was in my twenties and still read it for the plot. Now that I’m older, I saw much more in it than before and the difference comes more from a better knowledge of the history and literary currents of that time than to maturity, although it has its part, of course.

Given that it’s a very famous novel, maybe THE French novel Anglophone readers know the best –with the Three Musketeers— I don’t feel like writing too much about the plot and there will be spoilers in this billet. So if you haven’t read it and intend to read it and don’t want to know how it ends, you may want to stop reading now.

Let’s make a quick summary though. The book is set in Normandy, in the countryside near Rouen, during the Restauration. (1830-1848). Charles Bovary is not the brightest guy in school (In French, I’d say, “Il n’a pas inventé le fil à couper le beurre”, which is appropriate for a Normand) and he barely manages to study medicine. He’s a bit of a mama’s boy; his mother chose his career and his first wife. He’s widowed and settled as a GP in Tostes when he meets Emma Rouault. She’s the daughter of a farmer and was educated in a convent. Charles is smitten by her, she thinks this is love and they soon get married. Emma is full of high ideas about love and romance. Nothing can cheer her up from her ennui. Charles decides to change of setting and moves to Yonville. Emma is pregnant at the time and will have a daughter, Berthe. Emma is pretty and graceful; she’s a male magnet. Léon, a clerk at the local notary practice falls in love with her but doesn’t reveal his feelings. Then she is seduced by Rodolphe Boulanger, the local womaniser. After he left her before eloping, she becomes a devout. Then Léon and she mutually seduce each other. All that time, she doesn’t care much about her daughter, makes extravagant expenses and Charles remains blissfully ignorant of her actions and worships her. After her money troubles become public, she commits suicide with arsenic, leaving behind an inconsolable Charles. That’s for the plot.

So what’s the verdict? Do I know now why it was such a scandal at the time? The answer is yes, I think I do. So much that I have noticed the same quotes as Ernest Pinard, the imperial prosecutor who represented the State at the trial in 1857. (It is in my paper edition of the novel)

Everything in the book concurs to tag the book as immoral. It is impudent on several fronts at the same time: it criticises religion, mocks progress, shows adultery through a sensual side and without any remorse. It shoots at close-range at the rural society praised by the king. It attacks Romanticism as a literary movement and ridicules the Romantic attitude of young people. It tramples on literary geniuses such as Chateaubriand, Balzac or George Sand. It shows corrupted characters without condemning them, except with sarcasm. Stupidity is a character in itself considering that almost all the characters have contracted that disease. Not one character is likeable. Charles is bovine, as his name and his attitude let it know:

Et alors, sur la grande route qui étendait sans en finir son long ruban de poussière, par les chemins creux où les arbres se courbaient en berceaux, dans les sentiers dont les blés lui montaient jusqu’aux genoux, avec le soleil sur ses épaules et l’air du matin à ses narines, le cœur plein des félicités de la nuit, l’esprit tranquille, la chair contente, il s’en allait ruminant son bonheur, comme ceux qui mâchent encore, après dîner, le goût des truffes qu’ils digèrent. And then along the highroad, spreading out its long ribbon of dust, along the deep lanes that the trees bent over as in arbours, along paths where the corn reached to the knees, with the sun on his back and the morning air in his nostrils, his heart full of the joys of the past night, his mind at rest, his flesh at ease, he went on, re-chewing his happiness, like those who after dinner taste again the truffles which they are digesting.

I just see him as a cow in a field, chewing grass, moving slowing from one side of the field to the other. He’s a good person but Flaubert opens the books with Charles’s start at collège and he’s so ridiculous that it’s impossible to have another image of him afterwards. He’s blind to Emma’s every flaw and nothing she does will make her fall from the pedestal he put her on.

Homais, Yonville’s chemist, is criminally imbecile and self-satisfied. Léon is weak. Rodolphe is a scoundrel. Emma is …Emma, the one who created the term of bovarisme, which means being chronically dissatisfied with life. The micro-society of Yonville mirrors the society of the time and it compares to Balzac’s novels or even better to Stendhal’s The Red and the Black. Homais is the heir of the French Revolution and the Empire. He idolises Voltaire and can’t stand Bournisien, the priest. The said Bournisien tries to win back religion’s influence on people. Lheureux, the merchant has only one religion: money. The rest of the citizens fluctuate between the three summits of this triangle. The verbal confrontations between Homais and Bournisien are violent. Homais doesn’t mince his words and what Flaubert puts in his mouth doesn’t help his case:

Je suis pour la Profession de foi du vicaire savoyard et les immortels principes de 89 ! Aussi, je n’admets pas un bonhomme de bon Dieu qui se promène dans son parterre la canne à la main, loge ses amis dans le ventre des baleines, meurt en poussant un cri et ressuscite au bout de trois jours : choses absurdes en elles-mêmes et complètement opposées, d’ailleurs, à toutes les lois de la physique ; ce qui nous démontre, en passant, que les prêtres ont toujours croupi dans une ignorance turpide, où ils s’efforcent d’engloutir avec eux les populations. I am for the profession of faith of the ‘Savoyard Vicar,’ and the immortal principles of ’89! And I can’t admit of an old boy of a God who takes walks in his garden with a cane in his hand, who lodges his friends in the belly of whales, dies uttering a cry, and rises again at the end of three days; things absurd in themselves, and completely opposed, moreover, to all physical laws, which prove to us, by the way, that priests have always wallowed in turpid ignorance, in which they would fain engulf the people with them.

If this isn’t a strong attack against religion…

The young writer Flaubert depicts an Emma corrupted by literature. She has read the Romantics and loves trashy romance novels. She expects to live a flamboyant life like the heroines of her novels. She never managed to distance herself from what she reads. Instead of reading romance novels and treating them as fairy tales, she believes that it’s what love should be. She has a husband who loves her, behaves properly, has a steady income and is healthy. She should be content but she’s not because she dreams of a great passion:

Elle se laissa donc glisser dans les méandres lamartiniens, écouta les harpes sur les lacs, tous les chants de cygnes mourants, toutes les chutes de feuilles, les vierges pures qui montent au ciel, et la voix de l’Éternel discourant dans les vallons.


She let herself glide along with Lamartine meanderings, listened to harps on lakes, to all the songs of dying swans, to the falling of the leaves, the pure virgins ascending to heaven, and the voice of the Eternal discoursing down the valleys.

An exchange with Max about Brooklyn by Colm Tóibín had me thinking about how novels shape our vision of what relationships should be. We were at least three to think that the love story in Brooklyn is not very interesting in itself. And yet, it’s a plausible one between people who have an average life like most of us. We found this uninteresting and I wrote “you don’t expect this in a novel”. It’s mundane and deep down we think the characters of a novel shouldn’t be mundane. Anyway.

Charles is content with the quotidian, Emma expects grand passion. Charles’s imagination is turned off; Emma’s is working at full regime. They are imagination-incompatible. He won’t suspect her affairs, she’ll find fuel for her imagination in her lovers. He looks stupid; she looks silly.

Emma is immoral for the time because she isn’t ashamed of her affairs. She’s living the grand passion she reads about and nothing else matters. She has no remorse except for fleeting moments. She’s capricious and haughty.

elle ne cachait plus son mépris pour rien, ni pour personne ; et elle se mettait quelquefois à exprimer des opinions singulières, blâmant ce que l’on approuvait, et approuvant des choses perverses ou immorales : ce qui faisait ouvrir de grands yeux à son mari. Moreover she no longer concealed her contempt for anything or anybody, and at times she set herself to express singular opinions, finding fault with that which others approved, and approving things perverse and immoral, all of which madeher husband open his eyes widely.

When she gives herself away to Rodolphe and starts their affair, she doesn’t put up much resistance. It happens at their third meeting; she’s quite bold in her rendezvous with him. Nothing else matters. She doesn’t care about her reputation, her family and doesn’t try to fight against her attraction. She’s immoral because she is not conflicted about what she’s doing. She’s not as vicious as Madame de Merteuil in Les Liaisons Dangereuses or as manipulative as Valérie in La Cousine Bette. The Red and the Black was published in 1830 and neither Madame de Rênal nor Mathilde de la Mole is virtuous; Madame de Rênal is adulterous too. In the eyes of society, Emma doesn’t have a valuable motive to be unfaithful. She just wants to live the passion she’s heard about. She’s ordinary. She could be the wife next door and it frightens a society that such behaviours could reach the middle class.

Let’s see her with our modern eyes: she’s stuck for life with an oaf for a husband (no divorce possible), she has no profession (so she gets bored) and lives in a village. She’s intelligent enough to yearn for more but focuses her quest on love instead of something else. If I read between the lines, I figure that Flaubert the chauvinist thinks that women aren’t capable of more.

From the start, Emma is portrayed as a sensual woman. Her love is in her head, her heart but it’s not a platonic love. She enjoys the physical aspects of her affairs and is not ashamed of that. From the beginning, Flaubert hints at her sensuality, at her perversion.

Mais elle triomphait maintenant, et l’amour, si longtemps contenu, jaillissait tout entier avec des bouillonnements joyeux. Elle le savourait sans remords, sans inquiétude, sans trouble. But now she triumphed, and the love so long pent up burst forth in full joyous bubblings. She tasted it without remorse, without anxiety, without trouble. 
Elle se repentait, comme d’un crime, de sa vertu passée, et ce qui en restait encore s’écroulait sous les coups furieux de son orgueil. Elle se délectait dans toutes les ironies mauvaises de l’adultère triomphant. She repented of her past virtue as of a crime, and what still remained of it rumbled away beneath the furious blows of her pride. She revelled in all the evil ironies of triumphant adultery.
Quand elle se mettait à genoux sur son prie-Dieu gothique, elle adressait au Seigneur les mêmes paroles de suavité qu’elle murmurait jadis à son amant, dans les épanchements de l’adultère. When she knelt on her Gothic prie-Dieu, she addressed to the Lord the same suave words that she had murmured formerly to her lover in the outpourings of adultery.
Emma retrouvait dans l’adultère toutes les platitudes du mariage. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage. 
Elle partit donc vers la Huchette, sans s’apercevoir qu’elle courait s’offrir à ce qui l’avait tantôt si fort exaspérée, ni se douter le moins du monde de cette prostitution. So she set out towards La Huchette, not seeing that she was hastening to offer herself to that which but a while ago had so angered her, not in the least conscious of her prostitution. 
Ensuite il récita le Misereatur et Undulgentiam, trempa son pouce droit dans l’huile et commença les onctions : d’abord sur les yeux, qui avaient tant convoité toutes les somptuosités terrestres ; puis sur les narines, friandes de brises tièdes et de senteurs amoureuses ; puis sur la bouche, qui s’était ouverte pour le mensonge, qui avait gémi d’orgueil et crié dans la luxure ; puis sur les mains, qui se délectaient aux contacts suaves, et enfin sur la plante des pieds, si rapides autrefois quand elle courait à l’assouvissance de ses désirs, et qui maintenant ne marcheraient plus. Then he recited the Misereatur and the Indulgentiam, dipped his right thumb in the oil, and began to give extreme unction. First upon the eyes, that had so coveted all worldly pomp; then upon the nostrils, that had been greedy of the warm breeze and amorous odours; then upon the mouth, that had uttered lies, that had curled with pride and cried out in lewdness; then upon the hands that had delighted in sensual touches; and finally upon the soles of the feet, so swift of yore, when she was running to satisfy her desires, and that would now walk no more.

In these quotes we see strong words like prostitution, triumphant adultery and a comparison between marriage and adultery. Shocking. Emma attracts men. Charles, Léon, Rodolphe, Justin (a domestic), her father-in-law (Her mother-in-law once hastens their departure from Charles’ household because she fears that Bovary Senior could attempt at sleeping with his daughter-in-law.) Emma is referred to with sexual innuendos. Léon is surprised by her dexterity at adultery. She enjoys herself and that’s unforgivable. Moreover, she doesn’t want to sacrifice her happiness for Charles and do her duty.

Emma’s behaviour is not acceptable for society at the time and the icing on the cake is Flaubert’s tone. He could be moralising to acknowledge that Emma’s behaviour is inadmissible and choose the side of bourgeois way of thinking. He doesn’t. Instead, he’s caustic. He doesn’t like his heroine and openly criticises her reading tastes:

Ce n’étaient qu’amours, amants, amantes, dames persécutées s’évanouissant dans des pavillons solitaires, postillons qu’on tue à tous les relais, chevaux qu’on crève à toutes les pages, forêts sombres, troubles du cœur, serments, sanglots, larmes et baisers, nacelles au clair de lune, rossignols dans les bosquets, messieurs braves comme des lions, doux comme des agneaux, vertueux comme on ne l’est pas, toujours bien mis, et qui pleurent comme des urnes. They were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, “gentlemen” brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains.

With this, he criticises the authors who write these books or feuilletons. He also pictures the education received at convents as useless. The isolation grows young girls into women who have no idea of what real life is. They’re disconnected from reality. That’s another dart sent at the church (they run the convents) and at society (they consider this as good education). Balzac’s Mémoire de deux jeunes mariées proves Flaubert’s point.

In my humble opinion, Madame Bovary is much more than the tragic fate of a serial adulterer. It’s the writer’s rebellion against society’s hypocrisy (you can read Romantic literature but not put its ideas into practice), against an established literary movement, against stupidity and bourgeois thinking. I haven’t read Flaubert’s biography but I’d say that Madame Bovary is him because she does what she wants regardless of the consequences. She’s a rebel with a silly cause, that’s all.

I’ll leave you with a last quote:

Le devoir, c’est de sentir ce qui est grand, de chérir ce qui est beau, et non pas d’accepter toutes les conventions de la société, avec les ignominies qu’elle nous impose. One’s duty is to feel what is great, cherish the beautiful, and not accept all the conventions of society with the ignominy that it imposes upon us.

Tough program.

Don’t forget to visit Guy’s Blog to read his review of the book.

PS: As a side note, I never understood why Chabrol chose Isabelle Huppert to impersonate Emma Bovary. Emma can’t be a readhead. Flaubert keeps on describing her beautiful dark hair. How could he choose Isabelle Huppert, who is also too old for the role?

Madman Bovary by Claro: read Flaubert instead

September 9, 2011 11 comments

Madman Bovary by Claro. 2008.

When I entered a book store and asked for Madman Bovary, the clerk looked down on me and replied “You mean Madame Bovary” and it wasn’t even a question. She didn’t say “of course” but I heard it. So my voice was slightly irritated when I confirmed that I really wanted Madman Bovary by Claro, published by Babel.

It’s the story of a man who’s been dumped by his lover Estée. He decides to stay in bed and drown his sorrow in re-reading Madame Bovary. The blurb was intriguing, I wondered what he did with that pitch.

Then I lost myself in a sort of incoherent stream of consciousness in a style full of affectation. I hate sentences as “Naturellement virgule par nonchalence virgule il en vint à se délier de toutes les résolutions qu’il s’était faites.”. (“Naturally comma out of nonchalance comma then again he came to free himself of all the resolutions he had taken”.) I wonder why it’s not written full stop at the end. Claro should read Jean-Bernard Pouy to learn how to play with the language without sounding pedantic. You can’t take yourself too seriously when you want to twist grammar and vocabulary.

I didn’t survive past page 47, too mad for me. I left the guy where he was, thinking I should re-read Flaubert instead.

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