For the past eight years, my wife and I have met with a mutual friend each summer for several days to discuss a novel. For the first seven years of this cherished exercise, we read Proust. But having finished the Recherche last year—undoubtedly the greatest reading experience of my life—we needed to look elsewhere. (Although we briefly considered starting Proust all over again.) After deciding to continue with French literature, precisely because none of us has any particular special knowledge of it, we chose Madame Bovary. In what follows I’ll be assuming you know what happens in Flaubert’s book, so be careful if you’re worried about finding out what happens. Much of what does is quite dramatic, but suspense isn’t the point. What matters is the novel’s way of telling. In brief, though: Emma Bovary is married to a doctor, Charles, whose talent for medicine is as middling as his affection for her is devoted. By temperament and through experience she yearns for more than what provincial Normandy offers her. A desire for passion and intensity leads her to commit two affairs, rush headlong to financial ruin, and experience desperation so intense it can only be stilled by suicide.
At the end of our discussion we agreed that we might enjoy teaching the novel more than we did reading it. It’s not that teaching has nothing to do with liking. In fact, it’s easier, for me at least, to teach things I like. But sharing my tastes with others is not what teaching is mostly about. (Though it’s not insignificant.) Helping students to see how literature works—how a novel or poem or play does what it does—is what teaching is about. I often like a book more once I understand what it’s up to, and I hope my students do too, but the two experiences don’t have to go together.
As my wife put it, teaching the book would require us to be devils’ advocates, championing or at least reconsidering some of the things we found difficult about it. Because make no mistake, Madame Bovary is difficult. Not in its syntax, which is at once perfectly clear and surprisingly abrupt, with little regard for sonority, parallelism, and extended metaphor. (The opposite of Proust, basically.) But in its approach to characterization, its use of irony, and its particular narrative voice, the book sharply challenges readers’ expectations.
Over and over again in our conversations we came back to the question of which of the characters, if any, we could sympathize with. It’s a bit surprising that we did. After all, a book named after a character prompts us to expect our identification—the energy we invest in attaching ourselves to another—to be both straightforward and intense.
But it isn’t. Neither Emma nor any of the other characters in the book’s milieu of bourgeois and petit-bourgeois provincial society in the years of the French Restoration is particularly likeable. For Madame Bovary is a cruel book. (Here the contrast to Proust is striking: Proust casts a sharp eye on cruelty—cruelty could even be said to be his great subject—but his book never seems cruel, for we are asked to understand as much as to judge.) What is said of one character, a famous doctor who makes a brief appearance to tend to the dying heroine, might be said of the book itself, particularly its narrative voice:
His gaze, keener than his lancet, would descend straight into your soul, past your excuses and your reticence, and disarticulate your every lie.
Lest we think the novel approves of Doctor Larivière, I should note that he abandons what he immediately realizes is a hopeless case for fear of being associated with a medical failure. And lest we think this description is a disguised idealization of the task of the writer, as I initially did, I should note, as my friends did, that every instance of writing in the book is an exercise in the (usually willful) misrepresentation of reality. But that “disarticulate” is wonderfully appropriate, since it alludes both to speech, or rather its failure or undoing, and to anatomy. In the latter sense, we can’t help but think of one of the book’s many terrible incidents, when Charles Bovary is convinced to operate on the clubfoot of the groom Hippolyte, botching the job so badly that the leg must be amputated.
But I was talking about the book’s keen, sharp narrative voice. It spends most of its time criticizing things, through the irony and bathos that drive its unwillingness to shrink from, to the point of even seeming to delight in, sordidness (of behaviour, bodily functions, disease, etc). A lengthy description of Emma’s outfit for a ball is followed by this sentence: “Charles’s pants were tight around his stomach.” The brunt of that critique, as this example suggests, is born by the habits, beliefs, and expectations of the bourgeoisie. Emma herself bemoans their stupidity and crudity—and here the novel seems to agree with its heroine—yet fails to realize that she is indisputably one of them. Her tragedy isn’t that she flouts bourgeois morality but that she adheres to it. She cares what people think of her. Admittedly, as a woman it’s hard for her to ignores their opinions. She suffers from being a woman in a man’s world. Gender oppression is one way to explain Emma’s behaviour sympathetically (the stakes are much higher for her in having an affair than they are for a man, as the example of the roué Rodolphe clearly suggests), yet readings of this sort don’t get us very far. The novel is as uninterested in women as Emma is herself. After all, there are no other substantial female characters in the book. Even her own mother appears only fleetingly, in the (perhaps unreliable) memories of her father.
But for all Emma’s interest in men, they don’t come off much better. The ones she’s involved with are mediocre: Lèon is timid, Rodolphe a second-rate Casanova. Even the ones immune to her charms are unsympathetic, from the sententious and ultimately rather diabolical pharmacist Homais to the mediocre priest Bournisien; the former’s reductive materialism is as tendentious as the latter’s belief. Perhaps only the minor character of Binet—a tax collector obsessed by duck hunting and woodworking—comes across well. The villagers disdain his hobby as useless (he doesn’t sell his carved figures), but the book seems to value it.
But Binet is a minor character. Of the major ones only Emma’s father, Père Rouault, is at all sympathetic, although he seems to care more about marrying her off than in assuring her well being. He is shrewd enough to know that she is bound to have been dissatisfied had she stayed on his farm, but not enough to realize she is bound to be dissatisfied no matter where she ends up. That leaves Charles, Emma’s husband, a man so enamored with his wife that he connives at his own cuckolding. Charles is utterly clueless, and as such poses an intriguing test case for readers. Can we sympathize with someone so out of his depth all the time, who misses the signs that his wife is cheating on him and consigning him to financial ruin, and who hasn’t the awareness to be self-deprecating? If we can, it is only because is kind, although his kindness extends only to Emma (and perhaps their daughter, Berthe). He doesn’t bear a grudge—even when he comes face to face with one of his wife’s lovers he refuses to blame him, or her. But is this response laudable, or insipid? My friends and I considered the possibility that Charles is the happiest person in the book, yet we were unable to overlook, since the book never lets us, the delusory nature of that happiness.
The ambivalence we felt towards Charles was only heightened when it came to Emma. Her faults are numerous. She lies, cheats, swindles, ignores her child. She is unable to live in the present, preferring a romanticized past or a fantasized future. She models her actions and desires on others’. She thinks she is much more special than she is. And yet we would have to be unbearably sanctimonious or unreflective to condemn her too quickly. Don’t we think ourselves special? Don’t we model our actions and desires on other people’s, even or especially fictional ones? Flaubert’s most sophisticated move, the final turn of his authorial screw, is to have created an unsympathetic heroine with whom we must nevertheless at least in part identify. We will not find our vanity flattered here.
Susan Sontag once described irony as a force so destabilizing and endlessly undermining of itself that it must end either in despair or a laughter that leaves one without any breath at all. Despair may be more appropriate than breathless laughter in describing the effects of Flaubert’s narrative voice. The only thing that seems to escape this coruscating fate in Madame Bovary is the landscape of Normandy. The newly wed Emma, already bored, takes to wandering the countryside:
Sometimes, sudden squalls would blow up, winds that rolled in from the sea over the entire plateau of the Caux region, carrying a salty freshness far into the fields. The rushes would whistle close to the ground, and the leaves of the beeches would rustle, shivering rapidly while the tops of the trees, still swaying, continued their loud murmur. Emma would pull her shawl tight around her shoulders and stand up.
As the last sentence suggests, Emma is not smitten by this landscape—having grown up on a farm “she knew the country too well; she knew the bleating flocks, the milking, the plows”—and it might be too much to say that the narrator is. But I can’t help but think the narrator prefers the murmurs of trees to those of people. It seems to tip its hand, regarding what it values, in its commentary on Emma’s response to the landscape she does like: storms, tempests, greenery that grows over ruins:
She needed to derive from things a sort of personal gain; and she rejected as useless everything that did not contribute to the immediate gratification of her heart, —being by temperament more sentimental than artistic, in search of emotions and not landscapes.
In its own search for landscapes, the narrator, describing the country near the village of Yonville, is moved to a rare metaphor:
The grassland extends under a fold of low hills to join at the far end the pastures of the Bray country, while to the east, the plain, rising gently, broadens out and extends its blond wheat fields as far as the eye can see. The water that runs along the edge of the grass divides with its line of white the color of the meadows from the color of the furrows, so that the countryside resembles a great mantle, unfolded, its green velvet collar edged with silver braid.
But even descriptions like these are soon ironized. A few lines after this last example, the great mantle is forgotten for decidedly prosaic conclusions: “It is here that they make the worst Neufchâtel cheeses in the whole district, while farming is costly, because a good deal of manure is needed to enrich this crumbly soil full of sand and stones.”
And what about the people who live amongst this land? Is there no hope for them, especially as they become less tangibly connected to it? (I was struck by the relative gentleness of the description of Emma and Charles’s country wedding, in comparison to later scenes, similarly crowded, at a ball, an exposition, and the opera.) In the end, the thing that bothered me most about Madame Bovary was its inability or refusal to imagine fantasy as anything other than a dupe or (narrowly conceived) ideology. Which might be another way of saying I wish the novel were more Freudian. (I recognize the anachronism.) Freud showed us that some of our fantasies are rigid, blinkered, disfiguring. But he also showed us that we need fantasy, and that a healthy person is one who seeks to make her fantasies as enabling as possible. (One name he gave to good fantasy was sublimation.) We can’t take Emma as a warning of how fantasy goes wrong, because there are no other examples in the novel that oppose her way of being. It’s important to be able to be carried away from our lives, especially when they are boring or sordid or cramped, because that’s the first step in changing those lives. In this sense, Madame Bovary doesn’t just diagnose rigidity. It is itself rigid.
A few other thoughts:
• The novel seems tailor made to support the scholar Mark Seltzer’s contention that free indirect discourse in fact distances us from characters rather than, as is usually assumed, drawing us closer to them. This effect fits with the novel’s repeated reference to the opposition of intimacy and distance. Distance—and the critique that accompanies it—is certainly what results from the novel’s use of italicized phrases to indicate clichés, received wisdom, banalities the narrator can’t bear to be associated with. A simple example, chosen at random: “Homais suspected it [the reason Lèon goes to Rouen each week] was some young man’s business, an intrigue.” But it’s equally true of more conventionally expressed free indirect discourse. For example, “Her trip to [a ball at] La Vaubyesssard had made a great hole in her life, like those great chasms that a storm, in a single night, will sometimes open in the mountains.” These sentiments, that language of storm and chasm, are Emma’s more than they are the narrators, even if she doesn’t express them directly. My friends and I spent a long time talking about less clear cut examples of narrative voice. For example, when Charles meets Rodolphe after Emma’s death, and makes an unusually grandiose pronouncement: “ ‘Fate is to blame!’”, the text continues:
Rodolphe, who had determined the course of that fate, found him very compliant for a man in his situation, comical even, and rather low.
Who speaks that appositional phrase? Is the narrator just pronouncing that Rodolphe did determine Emma’s fate? Or is it (as I ‘m inclined to think) Rodolphe who thinks this, thereby expressing his pompous ego? Being able to talk at length over textual intricacies like this is one of the reasons we all make the effort to continue this annual exercise.
• One of the pleasures of the book is that it is clearly rooted in a particular time and place. Thus attempts to make it relevant—to call it the first novel of shopping and fucking, as I believe Julian Barnes has done, or Emma the first desperate housewife—are as misguided as they are trite. Lydia Davis’s version seemed the best of the three we consulted (the others were the Francis Steegmuller and the Paul de Man revision of the Eleanor Marx Aveling). She never tries to smooth over the novel’s abruptness or awkwardness, and she spends a lot of time, in unobtrusive notes, filling us in on the particulars of the material objects—and perforce the ways of life embedded in them—that fill the book.
• I became fascinated by a series of motifs: of open mouths (from Charles Bovary’s bawling of his name when he arrives at school to his posture in death), of tempestuous seas (used as a sign of passion throughout and, fittingly, utterly conventional and thus contemptible in a novel where the sea is nearby but never directly present), and, especially, of a particular mode of comportment, namely, leaning on one’s elbows. So many of the characters—Emma and Charles, of course, but Rodolphe and Lèon as well, really I’m not sure anyone is spared—are described in this posture. So much so that what I had at first taken as an indication of melancholy and the saturnine, in homage, perhaps, to Dürer’s engraving of Melancholia, came to seem pointed, yet another criticism of the bourgeoisie, as if its members hadn’t the integrity, even the backbone to stand up on their own.
• Famously this novel is about a woman, the bits that have stayed with me most involve girls. I can’t shake the memory of Emma and Charles’s daughter, Berthe, taken up by an aunt after the death of her parents and sent to work in a cotton mill (however contemptible the bourgeoisie, leaving it in this way seems worse) and of the serving girl Félicité, only 14 when Emma takes her on, and at first so lonely and afraid that each night she creeps to the sideboard where “she would help herself to a small supply of sugar and eat it alone, in bed, after saying her prayers.” This meager theft foreshadows a larger one at the end of the novel, when Félicité absconds with her deceased mistress’s wardrobe. It surely says more about my own readerly need for pathos than anything about the novel itself that I remember this as a scene of a lonely girl rather than an incipient thief. Félicité can look after herself; poor Berthe’s future is much less assured. Surprisingly, the very astringency of Flaubert’s method allows pathos its full due.