Madame Bovary

Madame Bovary by Gustave FlaubertAuthor: Gustave Flaubert
Publisher: Wordsworth Classics (1998) [First published in 1856 (in serial) and in 1857 (in book form) by Revue de Paris (in serial) and by Michel Levy Freres (in book form)]
Number of Pages: 269
How long it took me to read: 1 week
Where I bought this book: An Amazon Marketplace seller
ISBN: 978-1-85326-078-0

Like a Moth to a Flame

This was the second book on the reading list for my Creative Writing course.  I must admit, neither the name of the book nor its author had so much as blipped on the outer rings of my book-seeking radar before.  The closest I’d been to 19th Century French literature was reading ‘Pere Goriot‘ by Honoré de Balzac about half a decade ago, but I couldn’t remember much about it so my only frame of reference was hanging limp and broken in my memory.  Worse still, I was charged with giving a presentation on it for the next lesson.  On the positive side, I feel honour-bound to confess, this did afford me the luxury of a little sneaky cheating on my UBR review:  one set of notes, two useful outputs.  Bargain.

Favorite Five

I propose that the top 5 quotes from this book are:

5. “One day when, in view of her departure, she was tidying a drawer, something pricked her finger.  It was a wire of her wedding-bouquet.  The orange-blossoms were yellow with dust and the silver-bordered satin ribbons frayed at the edges.  She threw it onto the fire.  It flared up more quickly than dry straw.  Then it was like a red bush in the cinders, slowly devoured.  She watched it burn.  The little pasteboard berries burst, the wire twisted, the gold lace melted; and the shrivelled paper corollas, fluttering like black butterflies at the back of the stove, at last flew up the chimney.” (p.52)

4. “The world of ambassadors moved over polished floors in drawing-rooms lined with mirrors, round oval tables covered with velvet and gold-fringed cloths.  There were dresses with trains, deep mysteries, anguish hidden beneath smiles.” (p.45)

3. “Madame Bovary had opened her window overlooking the garden and watched the clouds.  They were gathering round the sunset towards Rouen, and swiftly rolled back their black columns, behind which the great rays of the sun looked out like the golden arrows of a suspended trophy, while the rest of the empty heavens was as white as porcelain.  But a gust of wind bowed the polars, and suddenly the rain fell; it pattered against the green leaves.  Then the sun reappeared, the hens clucked, sparrows shook their wings in the damp thickets, and the pools of water on the gravel as they flowed away carried off the pink flowers of an acacia.” (p.92)

2. “Then, sure of being loved, he no longer kept up appearances, and insensibly his ways changed. He had no longer, as formerly, words so gentle that they made her cry, nor passionate caresses that made her mad, so that their great love, which engrossed her life, seemed to lessen beneath her like the water of a stream absorbed into its channel, and she could see the bed of it.” (p.130)

…and my pick for the No.1 quote is…

1. “The curé marvelled at this humour, although Emma’s religion, he thought, might, from its fervour, end by touching on heresy, extravagance.  But not being much versed in these matters, as soon as they went beyond a certain limit he wrote to Monsieur Boulard, bookseller to Monsignor, to send him ‘something good for a lady who was very clever.’ ” (p.163)

New Words

Words are wondrous creatures. Put them together and they paint a picture. Rearrange them and the scene changes. But to be able to see what they are saying, we must first know what they mean.

New Word: colza (noun)

Definition (Source: The Free Dictionary): rape,  Eurasian plant cultivated for its seed and as a forage crop
Synonyms:  oilseed rape, rapa, rappi, rapaseed
Origins: French, from Dutch koolzaad : kool, cabbage (from Middle Dutch cle, from Latin caulis) + zaadseed (from Middle Dutch saet; see s- in Indo-European roots)
As in: “Besides, the poor old chap, if it hadn’t been for the colza last year, would have had much ado to up the arrears.” (p.15)

New Word: fire-dog (noun)

Definition (Source: metal fireplace support
Synonyms: andiron, dog iron
Origins: 1785–95; fire + dog
As in: “Emma from time to time cooled her cheeks with the palms of her hands, and cooled these again on the knobs of the fire-dogs” (p.18)

Conversation with the Reader

While I read, I write, and as I write, I read. Here’s some of what I wrote while I read this book:

Madame Bovary has been categorised as one of the first ‘realist’ novels, a term created, through that glorious gift of hindsight, to a form of writing that attempts to depict a convincing portrayal of an objective reality, i.e. one that others will recognise as being a consistent reflection of their own ‘reality.’  A representation of reality can, of course, never be reality; rather, it is an illusion that must be conjured, and the writer who attempts it must use sleight of mind to manipulate the audience’s imagination rather than sleight of hand to fool their senses.  In Madame Bovary the purpose of the story is, for Flaubert himself, clear: to expose the disconnection of the bourgeoisie; they who believe themselves better than most others, but not quite as good as they should be.  This clarity of purpose frees him, and his imagination, to experiment with a variety of devices to create his illusion—most prominently through the application of detail, whether persuasively pertinent or apparently irrelevant to the story itself.  One of the most memorable examples of this can be found on the very first page, in the form of an over-emphasised, intricate observation of Charles’ hat:

‘It was one of those headgears of composite order, in which we can find traces of the bearskin, shako, billycock hat, sealskin cap and cotton nightcap; one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile’s face.  Oval, stiffened with whalebone, it began with three round knobs; then came in succession lozenges of velvet and rabbit-skin separated by a red band; after that a sort of bag that ended in a cardboard polygon covered with complicated braiding, from which hung, at the end of a long cord, small twisted golden threads in the manner of a tassel.  The cap was new; its peak shone.’ (pp.1-2)

“The hat was new, bought purposefully for Charles’ first day at school to make a particular impression.  The impression it makes is the inverse of what had been hoped for by, presumably, Charles’ overbearing Mother.  Here, Flaubert is unusually judgemental in his description, just as a fellow schoolmate might be.  However sympathetic we may feel towards Charles, he has been cowed into wearing the ‘poor thing’ when he could have chosen to remove it.  Questions of millinery fashion notwithstanding, the ludicrous ornamentation of the hat stands out in contrast to Charles’ own simplicity.  This heightened, almost exaggerated, description is a technique Flaubert uses sparingly, freezing all action to draw our attention to a particular object or moment, just as his characters are drawn to them. Flaubert gives everyday objects power over his characters’ psyches, and thus their own reading of reality, which in turn affects our reading of it.  A cigar case that Emma retrieves from a ball reveals, in its ornate frame, the kind of intricate love and attention she yearns for and we, as readers, make that association as well.  ‘How can someone as simplistic as Charles ever satisfy her?’ we are prompted to consider, accepting the existence of their relationship even when Flaubert has not explicitly reminded us of it.”

“Often, rather than focussing on a single artefact in the world, Flaubert provides us with a swift sweep of the characters’ surroundings, akin to a camera pan in a film:

‘The rain had stopped, day was breaking, and on the branches of the leafless trees birds roosted motionless, their little feathers bristling in the cold morning wind. The flat country stretched as far as eye could see, and the tufts of trees round the farms at long intervals seemed like dark violet stains on the vast, grey surface, that on the horizon faded into the gloom of the sky.’ (p.11)

“This can serve to give us an idea of how the character may be responding to their external stimuli, aside from any matters of plot or characterisation, but it can also, as John Mullan suggests in his book How Novels Work, provide us with a ‘solidity of specification,’ a sense that the world in which the characters exist also has its own existence, its own life, that would continue with or without them.  This, unless we suffer from extreme egotism, is how we observe our own surroundings and thus is a substantial ingredient in Flaubert’s illusion of ‘reality.’ ”

“Flaubert isn’t dependent on lengthy picture-building to assert his influence over the mind of the reader. He utilises quick, surgically inscribed details.  These can aid our visualisation of characters:

‘…his hair spreading like a mane to the foot of the lamp.’ (p.47)

“…our understanding of their behaviour:

‘…after eating he cleaned his teeth with his tongue; in taking soup he made a gurgling noise with every spoonful…’ (p.48)

“…and of our understanding of significant actions or events:

‘They began slowly, then went more rapidly.  They turned; all around them was turning—the lamps, the furniture, the wainscotting, the floor, like a disc on a pivot.  On passing near the doors Emma’s dress caught against his trousers.  Their legs commingled; he looked down at her; she raised her eyes to his.  A torpor seized her; she stopped.’ (pp.40-1)

“It is when Flaubert economically combines many of these devices at once that his prose is at its most effective, because our modern minds are used to the ‘reality’ of film producing a similar effect:

‘She went out, crossed the boulevard, the Place Cauchoise, and the faubourg, as far as an open street that overlooked some gardens.  She walked rapidly, the fresh air calming her; and, little by little, the faces of the crowd, the masks, the quadrilles, the lights, the supper, those women, everything disappeared like mists fading away.’ (p.224)

“Here we have details of setting, action, behaviour and attitude, giving our minds plenty to process without any obscuring use of imagery or over-elaborate language, and producing the illusion of many minutes-worth of ‘reality’ in the space of a single sentence.”

“Perhaps because of Flaubert’s determination to experiment with the conjuring of a reality, or maybe through failure in translation, there are a handful of occasions where his descriptions build up into a somewhat mutated version of the image he must have held in his head while writing:

‘The water, flowing by the grass, divides with a white line the colour of the roads and of the plains, and the country is like a great unfolded mantle with a green velvet cape bordered with a fringe of silver.’ (p.53)

“On first reading, the shape of the clothing created an awkward and unnecessary overlay upon the picture of the countryside that Flaubert had already described.  Perhaps this could have been avoided by describing it as a mantle rather than simply likening it to one.  Another similarly jarring illusion was created by the sentence:

‘Then she turned on her heel all of one piece, like a statue on a pivot, and went homewards.’ (p.87)

“Flaubert’s intention here is clearly to show Emma as so preoccupied, so disconnected from the world around her, that her movements have become mechanical.  Unfortunately, this particular choice of words caused her, in my mind, to spin around on the spot without requiring the use of her legs at all.  Perhaps there was comic intent in this, but Flaubert’s dry humour takes a while to come to the fore in the book, not making its presence felt until the second half, so on first reading Emma’s sudden transformation into an automaton seemed inappropriately irreverent.”

“Perhaps the most telling sign that I have become completely absorbed by Flaubert’s immaculately crafted ‘reality’ arrived when Emma, having had her crushing debts and destraints exposed to the town on a billboard, enters Guillamen’s opulent house:

‘Now this,’ thought Emma, ‘is the dining-room I ought to have.’ (p.233)

My immediate reaction was to laugh and decry her blind persistent stumbling into destruction.  ‘She’s still doing it,’ I muttered to myself, and for a moment I believed it, before telling myself that no, Flaubert is still making her do it, but the puppet’s strings were invisible until I chose to look for them.”

“The ongoing construction of reality in Madame Bovary is achieved in spite of a potentially reality-breaking question raised at the very beginning of the tale:  Who is the narrator?  The first line of the book reads:

‘We were in class when the headmaster came in…” (p.1)

“But this first person plural soon gives way to a third-person narrative that claims intimate knowledge of Charles’ and Emma’s personal lives, and later that of Monsieur Homais and family as well. While the first line of the book allows for a convincingly boyish description of Charles’ first day at school (with tackily flamboyant cap in tow), are we to believe that one of his schoolmates then decides to stalk him, his wife and his future neighbour for the next forty years of their lives?  It seems odd that a writer who strives so carefully to create a convincing reality would allow as wide a crack as this to tarnish it without good reason.”

Madame Bovary is a fantastic example of how details can be used to enhance the reader’s experience of a fictional work.  There are so many devices employed here, such a generous exploration of place and character, with strong links drawn between the people and the objects or surroundings they harness their emotions to.  Unfortunately, this makes it more jarring when the occasional image fails to form its intended shape, or when the narrative threatens a move towards farce (e.g., the frantic, extended carriage ride that Emma and Leon take to disguise their love-making), but these moments do not detract from Flaubert’s success in creating a believable, absorbing world.  While it’s impossible to sympathise with any of the personal tragedies or triumphs of the main characters (Flaubert’s diversion into pure social commentary at the end makes it clear this wasn’t his intention), we can at least trace a clear line through their motivation.  Above all else, Madame Bovary is still packed with valuable lessons for modern writers, particularly those who want to experiment with decorating and fortifying their narratives without resorting to an overload of figures of speech.”

Gareth Long

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  1. Gareth Long says:

    Yes. My tutor recently made a very important point that should really be more apparent but is easily overlooked – that the invention and assimilation of film into our culture has really changed our expectations when it comes to how we picture moving images. So perhaps, to see what can nowadays be described as ‘camera movements’ in Flaubert’s descriptions is indicative of not only how literature has informed film, but also of how our minds capture and relay to us ‘realistic’ information.

  2. Teta Bombardieri says:

    It’s a great pleasure reading descriptions which make the reader
    capturing images as in a movie …

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