Full Text: copyright 1985 Gale Research, copyright 2007 Gale, Cengage Learning Full Text: [Brombert's essay on technique in Madame



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[Brombert's essay on technique in Madame Bovary contains five parts. Excerpted below are the sections on patterns of imagery and structure, irony, and point of view; not included are those covering the origins of the novel, Flaubert's use of symbolic detail, and the nature of Emma's tragedy. Here, Brombert begins by examining Flaubert's use of imagery. He contends that Madame Bovary is constructed around clusters of interrelated images that from cyclic themes and that characters and events in the novel consistently move from ennui to self-destruction. Brombert then identifies the author's perspective in Madame Bovary. After noting the connection between laughter, cruelty, and tragic absurdity in Flaubert's approach to comedy, Brombert contends that Flaubert uses a double perspective that renders him simultaneously inside and outside his characters. This results in the ambiguity of the authorial stance that allows Flaubert to project both ironic mockery and sympathetic understanding. ]

Flaubert takes cruel satisfaction in ironic contrasts. Many of them are set up in a somewhat obvious fashion: the Bovary dog-cart and the elegant carriages of the guests at the Vaubyessard ball; Charles' smugness and Emma's frustration; her exaltations and her moments of torpor; the alternations of ardor and frigidity; Emma's vibrating body still tingling from the caresses, while her lover, a cigar between his lips, is mending a broken bridle! At times, the antithesis tends to be more subtle: the knotty articulations of a peasant hand appear on the very page where the lovers' fingers intertwine.

These planned juxtapositions do, however, point to the heart of the subject. They emphasize the basic theme of incompatibility. Their implicit tensions stress a fundamental state of divorce at all levels of experience. But they also fulfill a dramatic function. If Charles' father happens to be a squanderer and an almost professional seducer, if Charles himself, while still married to his first wife, is drawn to Emma because she represents a forbidden and inaccessible love, these ironies are part of an effective technique of “preparation.” And these very anticipatory devices—whether prophetic in a straightforward or an ironic fashion—are in turn related to the theme of “fate” which Flaubert propounds with characteristic ambiguity. “C'est la faute de la fatalité!” is Charles' pathetic, yet moving final comment. But the notion of “fatality” is of course one of the most belabored Romantic clichés Charles' exclamation carries its own condemnation, at the same time that it implies a debunking of the tragic ending of the novel. ... Yet who is to deny that, in addition to elements of pathos, the novel constantly suggests an all-pervasive determinism: Emma's temperament, the character of Charles, the effects of heredity, the erosive quality of small-town life, the noxious influence of books, the structure of the novel itself?

Flaubert significantly devotes an entire chapter to Emma's education in the convent. Her private symbolism of love, mysticism and death is determined by this experience. The “mystic languor” provoked by the incense, the whisperings of the priest, the very metaphors comparing Christ to a celestial lover, predispose her to confuse sensuous delights and spiritual longings. The convent is Emma's earliest claustration, and the solicitations from the outside world, whether in the form of books which are smuggled in, or through the distant sound of a belated carriage rolling down the boulevards, are powerful allurements. As for Emma's reactions to the books she reads, the image of a female Quixote comes to mind. She too transmutes reality into fiction. Here, as in Cervantes' novel, literature itself becomes one of the strongest determinants.

Yet there is, in Madame Bovary, a necessity stronger even than the temperamental, social and intellectual pressures to which the protagonist is subjected. It is a necessity inherent in the inner logic and progression of Flaubert's own images. The very chapter on Emma's education ... reveals a characteristic pattern. The primary images are those of confinement and immobility: the atmosphere of the convent is protective and soporific (“... elle s'assoupit document ...”); the reading is done on the sly; the girls are assembled in the study, the chapel or the dormitory. Very soon, however, images of escape begin to dominate. These images are at first strictly visual. ... Soon, however, the images become less precise, giving way to vaporous dreams (“pale landscapes of dithyrambic lands”), and to an increasingly disheveled exoticism: sultans with long pipes, Djiaours, Bayadères, Greek caps and Turkish sabres. The suggested confusion of these images rapidly degenerates into indifferentiation and ultimately even chaos, as palm trees and pine trees, Tartar minarets and Roman ruins, crouching camels and swimming swans are brought into senseless juxtaposition. Escape seems inevitably to lead to a manner of disintegration, even to images of death (perhaps even a suggested death-wish), as the swans are transformed into dying swans, singing to the accompaniment of funeral harps, and Emma, infinitely bored by it all, but unwilling to admit it to herself, continuing her dreams by habit or by vanity, finally withdraws into herself, “appeased.”

The chapter on Emma's education is revealing, not merely because it proposes a parable of the entire novel, but because the progression of images corresponds to a pattern repeated throughout the book: from ennui to expectation, to escape, to confusion, back to ennui and to a yearning for nothingness. But whereas the symbolic detail is often, with Flaubert, part of a deliberate technique, this logic of imagery associations, these recurrent patterns depend on the spontaneous life of images, on their mutual attractions and irremediable conflicts, on a causality which operates at an unconscious, poetic level. The novel as a whole is thus constructed around recurrent clusters of images, all of which are part of definable, yet interrelated cycles. These cycles, or cyclic themes, do parallel on a massive canvas the inevitable movement, from boredom to self-destruction, which characterizes Madame Bovary in its overall conception as well as in its detailed execution.

First the patterns of ennui. This begins early in the novel. The eternal sameness of experience is already suggested by the weekly letters to his mother which the boy Charles writes regularly every Thursday evening with the same red ink, and which he seals with the same three wafers. Charles' working habits are moreover compared to those of a mill-horse. The primary means for suggesting an anesthetizing routine are temporal. Emma gets into the habit of taking strolls in order to avoid the “eternal” garden. The days resemble each other (“... the same series of days began all over”); the future seems like an endlessly dark corridor. And repeatedly, the mournful church bell punctuates the return of the monotonous hours and days with its characterless lament. The repeated use of the imperfect tense, with its suggestions of habitual action, further stresses the temporal reality of Flaubertian boredom.

The underlying sense of hopelessness and monotony is also conveyed by means of liquid images. There is a great deal of oozing, dripping and melting in Flaubert's fictional world. During Charles' early courtship of Emma, the snow is melting, the bark of the trees is oozing, one can hear drops of water falling one by one. Later, when the bitterness of her married existence seems to be served up to her nauseatingly during their daily meals, Emma is aware that the walls are “sweating.” These liquid images, suggesting erosion and deterioration, are of course bound up with a sense of the emptiness of Time. A steady écoulement, or flow, corresponds to feelings of hopeless waste and vacuity. These liquid images of an annihilating temporality will be even more pervasive in L'Éducation sentimentale. But Madame Bovary also brings out this immense sadness of time's undoing. ... The steady flow becomes the very symbol of a chronic despair. ... Finally, the monotony of existence is conveyed through a series of spatial images. The Norman landscape near Yonville is “flat,” the meadow “stretches,” the plain broadens out and extends to the very horizon—“à perte de vue.” This colorless landscape is in harmony with the lazy borough sprawling along the river banks. Emma, throughout the novel, scans the horizon. But nothing appears which would relieve the deathlike evenness.

This spatial imagery clearly constitutes the bridge between the theme of ennui and the theme of escape. Once again, the series of images can be traced back to the early pages of the novel which deal exclusively with Charles. Repeatedly, he opens his window, either to stare at the muddy little river which in his mind becomes a wretched “little Venice” and to dream of a yearned-for elsewhere, or to indulge in love reveries as he leans in the direction of the Bertaux farm. The window becomes indeed inMadame Bovary the symbol of all expectation: it is an opening onto space through which the confined heroine can dream of escape. But it is also—for windows can be closed and exist only where space is, as it were, restricted—a symbol of frustration, enclosure and asphyxia. Flaubert himself, aware that Emma is often leaning out the window, explains that “the window in the provinces replaces the theater and the promenade.” ... More, however, is involved than a simple taste for spectacle. Jean Rousset, in a brilliant essay, quite rightly suggests that the open window unleashes “mystical velleities”. In fact, the symbolic uses of the window reveal not only a permanent dialectic of constriction and spatiality, but an implicit range of emotions embracing the major themes of the novel.

Emma's characteristic pose is at, or near, a window. ... The image, from the very outset, suggests some manner of imprisonment as well as a longing for a liberation. After her marriage, her daily routine brings her to the window every morning. When she goes through one of her nervous crises, she locks herself up in her room, but then, “stifling,” throws open the windows. Exasperated by a sense of shame and contempt for her husband, she again resorts to the typical gesture: “She went to open the window ... and breathed in the fresh air to calm herself.” ... The sense of oppression and immurement is further stressed after Rodolphe abandons her: the shutter of the window overlooking the garden remains permanently closed. But the imprisonment in her own boundless desire is intolerable. Emma's sexual frenzy, which reaches climactic proportions during her affair with Léon, is probably the most physical manifestation of her need to “liberate” herself. The window, as symbol, offers an image of this release.

Chromic expectation turns to chronic futility, as Emma's élans toward the elsewhere disintegrate in the grayness of undifferentiated space. Velleities of movement and flight only carry her back to a more intolerable confinement within her petty existence and her unfulfilled self. But expectation there is. Just as the chatelaines in her beloved Gothic romances wait for the dashing cavalier on his black horse, so Emma lives in perpetual anticipation. “At the bottom of her heart ... she was waiting for something to happen.” ... Flaubert insists, somewhat heavily at times, on this compulsive expectance of the conclusive event.

Images of movement reinforce the theme of escapism. Emma enjoys taking lonely walks with her greyhound and watching the leaps and dashes of the graceful animal. Restlessness and taste for aimless motion point to the allurement of a mythicalelsewhere. Once again, the theme is ironically broached early in the novel, in pages concerned with Charles. “He had an aimless hope. ...” Images of space and motion—the two are frequently combined—server, throughout the novel, to bring out the vagrant quality of Emma's thoughts. Departure, travel and access to privileged regions are recurring motifs. The “immense land of joys and passions” exists somewhere beyond her immediate surroundings: the more accessible things are, the more Emma's thoughts turn away from them. Happiness, by definition, can never be here. “Anywhere out of the World”—the title of Baudelaire's prose poem—could sum up Emma's chronic yearning for the exotic. ... By a skillful, and certainly far from gratuitous touch, Flaubert concludes Emma's initiatory stay at the Vaubyessard residence with a visit to the hothouses, where the strangest plants, rising in pyramids under hanging vases, evoke a climate of pure sensuality. The exotic setting becomes the very symbol of a yearned-for bliss. The “coming joys” are compared to tropical shores so distant that they cannot be seen, but from where soft winds carry back an intoxicating sweetness.

Travel and estrangement come to symbolize salvation from the immurement of ennui. Emma believes that change of abode alone is almost a guarantee of happiness. “She did not believe that things could be the same in different places. ...” The unseen country is obviously also the richest in promises of felicity. Paris remains sublimely alluring precisely because—contrary to his original intentions—Flaubert does not grant Emma access to this promised land. Her first conversation with Léon typically exploits the Romantic cliché of the “limitless” expanse of the ocean, which “elevates the soul” through suggestions of the ideal and of infinity. ... The culmination of the travel imagery coincides with plans for Emma's elopement with Rodolphe ... and with her visions of life in gondolas or under palm trees, to the accompaniment of guitars, in far-off countries with splendent domes and women dressed in red bodices. The very concept of emancipation is bound up with the notion of voyage. During her pregnancy Emma hopes to have a son, because a man is free: “he can travel over passions and over countries, cross obstacles, taste of the most far-away pleasures.” And part of Rodolphe's prestige when she meets him is that he appears to her like a “traveler who has voyaged over strange lands.” ... Emma's tragedy is that she cannot escape her own immanence. “Everything, including herself, was unbearable to her.” ... But just as her walks always lead back to the detested house, so Emma feels thrown back into herself, left stranded on her own shore. The lyrical thrust toward the inaccessible leads back to an anesthetizing confinement.

The cycles of ennui and spatial monotony, the images of escape (window perspectives, motion, insatiable desire for the elsewhere), are thus brought into contrapuntal tension with an underlying metaphoric structure suggesting limits, restriction, contraction and immobility. The basic tragic paradox of Madame Bovary is unwittingly summed up during Emma's first conversation with Léon. They discuss the pleasures of reading: “One thinks of nothing ... the hours slip by. One moves motionless through countries one imagines one sees. ...” As for the sense of limitation, the very site of Yonville (the diminutive conglomeration in the midst of a characterless, undifferentiated landscape) suggests a circumscribed and hopelessly hedged-in existence. As soon as one enters the small market town, “the courtyards grow narrower, the houses closer together, and the fences disappear. ...” The entire first chapter of Part II, which introduces the reader to Yonville, plays on this contrast between expanse and delimitation. The very life of Yonville suggests constriction. ... The entire tragic tension of the novel seems to be summed up in this experience of spiritual claustrophobia. The sitting-room where Emma, in her armchair, spends hours near the window, is distinguished by its particularly “low ceiling.” The predominant impression is one of entrapment or encirclement.

This imagery of restriction and contraction is intimately related to the disintegrating experiences of sameness, interfusion and confusion of feelings, indiscrimination, abdication of will and lethal torpor. ... The seduction scene at the comices agricoles—a chapter of which Flaubert was particularly proud—is almost a continuous exercise in telescoping of levels of reality. Everything tends to merge and become alike. Even the villagers and the peasants present a comical and distressing uniformity. “Tous ces gens-là se ressemblaient.”

Confusion, whether due to oppressive monotony, moral drowsiness or spiritual anesthesia, is one of the leitmotifs in Madame Bovary. Once more, the opening pages are revealing. When Charles reads the list of course offerings at the medical school, he experiences a spell of “dizziness.” Riding toward the Bertaux farm, he falls into a characteristic doze wherein his most recent sensations “blend” with old memories: the warm odor of poultices “mingled” in his brain with the fresh smell of dew. Confondre, se mêler are among Flaubert's favorite words. ...Emma's ability to distinguish between levels of values dwindles as the novel progresses. “She confused in her desire the sensualities of luxury with the delights of the heart.”... Later, this commingling of sensations becomes increasingly habitual, until no clear notions at all can be distinguished.

Emma's lust, her longing for money and her sentimental aspirations all become “confused” in one single, vague and oppressive sense of suffering. While listening to Rodolphe's seductive speeches, she conjures up other images: the viscount with whom she waltzed at Vaubyessard, his delicately scented hair, Léon who is now far away. The characteristic faintness (“mollesse”) which comes over her induces an overlapping and a blurring of sensations which is not unlike a cinematographic fade-out. ... But this psychological strabismus is not here a technique whereby the author creates suspense or modestly veils the action. It corresponds to an abdication of choice and will, and points to the very principle of disintegration. ... The latent yearning for annihilation or nothingness is probably the most fundamental tragic impulse of Flaubertian protagonists. Not only does Emma dream of dissolving herself in an all-absorbing whole, but approaching death is described as a “confusion de crépuscule.” Ultimately, not only all desire but all pain is absorbed in an all-embracing and all-negating woe. Thus Charles' retrospective jealously, when he discovers Emma's infidelities, becomes “lost in the immensity of his grief.” The frustration of all desire and of all hope is so great that nothing short of total sorrow and total surrender to nonbeing can bring relief.

A state of numbness or even dormancy is one of the chronic symptoms of bovarysme. Mollesse, assoupissement and torpeur are other favorite words of Flaubert. They refer most generally to a vague sensuous well-being, to a condition of nonresistance and even surrender. When Emma hears Rodolphe's flattering, if not original love declaration (he compares her to an angel), her pride “like one who relaxes in a bath, expanded softly” (“mollement”). The almost untranslatable mollement appears again, a few pages later, when Rodolphe puts his arm around Emma's waist and she tries “feebly” to disengage herself. Numbness and drowsiness occur almost regularly in a sexual context. During the nocturnal trysts in the garden, Emma, her eyes half closed, feels her emotion rise with the softness (“mollesse”) of the perfume of the syringas. Her physical submissiveness to Rodolphe is termed “a beatitude that benumbed her” (“une béatitude qui l'engourdissait” ...). And when she meets Léon again at the opera in Rouen, she is assailed by the “torpor” of her memories.

The pathological nature of such torpid states is strongly suggested. Early in the novel, her torpor follows moments of “feverish” chatter, and corresponds to periods when Emma suffers from heart palpitations. But the real pathology is of the spirit, not of the body. Just as the somnolence of the listeners at the agricultural show reflects the dullness of the speeches and the intellectual indolence of the townspeople, so Charles' congenital yawning symbolizes his inadequacy. When the coach arrives in Yonville, Charles is still asleep. During the evening at the Homais, he regularly falls asleep after playing dominoes. Such drowsiness seems contagious. Only Emma's takes on a more symbolic aspect. She suffers from an “assoupissement de sa conscience” ...: her very conscience is made numb. And in this numbness there is not only the principle of despair, but of death. All desire, like Baudelaire's ennui, leads to an omnivorous yawn.

This relentless deterioration of everything is very different from the Balzacian wear and tear which is most often the price man pays for his tragic energy. Flaubert's heroes not only have a vocation for failure, but they fail independently of any investment of fervor. Charles' early fiasco at his examination foreshadows his entire career. Paradoxically, it could be said that unsuccess precedes the act of living. In Flaubert's world, life is not fought out and lost, but spent. It is only appropriate that Emma should be congenitally improvident. For she is a squanderer not only of money. In a strained but revealing simile, Flaubert compares her loss of illusions to a steady act of “spending.” “Elle en avait dépensé à toutes les aventures de son âme. ...” But it is, in reality, her own self that she is dissipating, as though urged on by the desire to fade or melt away. Flaubert elsewhere speaks of death as a “continuous swooning away” (an “évanouissement continu”). The death-wish is a permanent reality in the fictional world of Flaubert; it most often reveals itself through an almost mystical desire to vanish or be absorbed by a larger whole. On her way to Father Bournisien, Emma dreams of the “disappearance” of her entire existence. The longing for nothingness is often linked to religious or pseudo-religious images. In Emma's mind, it is most often associated with memories of the convent, with a desire to return to it, as one might to a maternal womb. The desire to stop living (“She would have liked not to be alive, or to be always asleep” ...) corresponds to a quasi-metaphysical fatigue, to the immedicable pain of having been betrayed by life itself. In the face of universal abandon, the Flaubertian heroine is driven to dissipation. She becomes the willing accomplice of all the forces of disbandment.

The convoluted fabric of images, often circuitous and apparently bound by an uncontrolled necessity, amply suggests that Flaubert is not indulging in a mere virtuose exercise. The imagery, in Madame Bovary, appears almost self-generated: a determinism seems to preside over its pattern, and this pattern itself corresponds to the forms of the author's imagination, thus testifying to the all-importance of themes in his work.

This is not to deny the willed construction of the novel. ... Flaubert's hesitations and ultimate decisions all bespeak an unrelenting concern for structure. The very strategy of Emma's adultery is revealing. In one of the earlier scenarios, Léon becomes her lover before Rodolphe. But very soon, Flaubert introduces a significant change: the love for Léon is to remain repressed. The reason for this repression is clear, and Flaubert himself has commented on it: Emma's “fall” with Rodolphe will become that much more necessary. Her successful defense against Léon fills her with the sadness of her own “sacrifice,” increases her resentment of her husband, and makes her an eager victim of any aggressive seducer.

Clearly, also, Flaubert took immense pains preparing and articulating his episodes. ... Opening sentences often impose the very rhythm of Time. “Ils recommencèrent à s'aimer”—the beginning of chapter 12 of Part II is a good example of the Flaubertian change of gears by means of which the unique act slips into a dreary continuum, and hope is transmuted into an unheroic despair. As for the almost unbearable acceleration toward the end of the novel, notably in chapter 7 of Part III, when, after the delirium of the senses, Emma frantically attempts to ward off financial disaster, it is brilliantly executed.

Yet the very care with which Flaubert proceeded resulted in a certain laboriousness: the novel, at times, seems a bit too “constructed,” the symbols appear perhaps just a trifle too obvious. With even a mild dose of ill will, one could easily magnify some characteristics of Flaubert's technique into significant defects. The exposition is indeed very slow, and occupies a good third of the novel. Not until chapter 9 of Part II does the dramatic action begin.

[But] if the construction of the novel is indeed laborious and could be compared, as Flaubert himself might well have done, to the patient stacking of solid masses one on top of the other, this blocklike composition is also responsible for the admirable “scenes” which constitute the very anatomy of Madame Bovary. These scenes are themselves at times mere expository devices, such as, for instance, the beginning of Part II—the scene at Mme Lefrancois' inn—whose function it is to present a number of new characters (Binet, Léon, Homais, Bournisien, Hivert, Lheureux) and to introduce the reader to the atmosphere of Yonville. But most often the “scene” in Flaubert corresponds to a particular vision. The ambulant love scene in the cab ..., where all the reader is granted is the view of the cab with its blinds drawn, now trotting quietly and then galloping furiously, driven by a puzzled and exasperated coachman, conveys—in its disordered movement as well as in its picturesque details—the very nature of Emma's erotic experience. The changes of speed, the dizzying crescendi, the torn letter scattered to the wind by an ungloved hand and falling on a field of red clover (an obvious reminder of the burning of her wedding bouquet), acquire a symbolic value. Indeed, all of Emma's life is a race ending in death (the cab is “shut more closely than a tomb”), and the lumbering machine into which Emma agrees to step because “it is done in Paris” is a grotesque but also malefic vehicle.

To be sure, the episode comes very close to being a tour deforce. A relish for bravura similarly appears at the very conception of the famous comices chapter. The idea of having Rodolphe court Emma while prize cattle low and official speeches are declaimed, appealed to Flaubert because he was fond, in advance, of the “symphonic” effect he might achieve. As craftsman, he valued the challenge to create an animated triptych. The scene, ultimately, is far more than a clever display of technique: the comical juxtaposition and contrasts, the insistence on animality, as well as the general flow of meaningless words, not only bring out the vulgarity and stupidity of Emma's world, but constitute a parody, or rather a mockery of love. The central meaning of the novel is somehow conveyed in this chapter of futility and degradation.

But to enjoy Flaubert's art at its purest, that is where least tainted by the display of technical prowess, one should turn to another famous scene, though perhaps less spectacular than the comices chapter: Emma's visit to Father Bournisien. ... Flaubert explained his intentions in a letter to Louise Colet: Emma, almost undergoing a religious crisis, seeks help from the inept and utterly pedestrian priest who, unable to intuit her anguish and aware only of physical suffering, remains totally deaf to her secret hope, and thus helps close the door to spiritual salvation. In the novel, however, analysis and commentary are totally absent. Language here carries the entire burden, and primarily the dialogue, which is the more effective for being used so sparingly in Flaubert's work. Emma's frustrating conversation with Bournisien rests almost entirely on a basic misunderstanding: she speaks of moral suffering, seeks solace and needs “no earthly remedy”; his mind turns exclusively to the discomforts of the flesh: the summer heat and the distress of indigestion. The very interruption of her sentences by Bournisien's irrelevant remarks stresses the fundamental lack of communication between them.

On one level, the scene is painfully comic. Flaubert almost indulges in caricature. The grease and tobacco stains on Bournisien's cossack, his noisy breathing, the shower of cuffs he distributes among his pupils, his thick laughter and cheap puns, all stress his coarseness and peasant mentality. He answers Emma's complaint that she is “unwell,” with the admirable mot de comédie: “Well, and so am I.” But there is a deeper irony in this passage. For the priest, reminding Emma that her husband is the “doctor of the body” (while he, Bournisien, is the “doctor of the soul”), is astonished that Charles Bovary did not prescribe something for her. After advising her to take some tea (always good for the digestion), he ends the conversation with a “Good health to you, madame” which is doubly ironic since he not only sends her back empty to an unbearable life, but specifically to a cohabitation with an incompetent husband-doctor. The very drama of incommunicability is summed up by this exchange:

“But you were asking me something. What was it? I really can't remember.” “I? Nothing ...! nothing ...!”

A scene such as this involves the very nature of Flaubertian comedy. The intimacy between laughter, cruelty and tragic absurdity is indeed characteristic of Flaubert. Comedy, in Madame Bovary, appears on one level as a Molièresque farce. The ludicrous accoutrements (Charles' cap, Homais' costumes) are excellent illustrations of Bergson's theory of laughter: “le mécanique plaqué sur le vivant.” Rigidity is here in conflict with life itself. Binet, the captain of the corps of firemen, wears a collar so high and stiff, a tunic so tightly buttoned, that his entire body, above his legs, seems paralyzed. The visor of his helmet, covering his face down to his nose, totally blinds him. This rigidity of attire and of body is paralleled by an equal stubbornness of mind which condemns the Flaubertian comic figures to an imprisonment within their ridicules, just as the Flaubertian “hero” becomes the quixotic victim of a perilous illusion. Idées fixes, misunderstandings, pedantry, boors and bores, the absurdities of medical practice and the humiliations of the flesh—all these are part of the tradition of comedy. What distinguishes Flaubert is the unusual stress laid on language itself, both as symptom and as an instrument of denunciation. This dual role of style is best exemplified in Flaubert's systematic exploitation of clichés. Homais' “opinions” (on weather, on hygiene, on women), his articles to the Rouen newspaper, are fundamentally as inane and as exasperating as Flaubert's lifelong entries into hisDictionnaire des idées recues, which, one suspects, he consulted repeatedly while writing Madame Bovary. The same almost perverse satisfaction occurs whenever he can weigh down a character under the load of his own unalterable ineptness.

Stylistic caricature and parody are among Flaubert's more obvious talents. But they correspond not merely to the author's desire to mock the mental foibles and the vulgarity of bourgeois society: too much has been made of Flaubert thebourgeoisophobus! This comedy of language reaches out to the very heart of the novel. When, for instance, Rodolphe writes his hypocritical, and fundamentally caddish farewell letter to Emma, and Flaubert studs this masterful missive with the most hackneyed Romantic thoughts and mannerisms, the author's attitude is critical, to be sure: Rodolphe is fully conscious of his own lies. But the irony of the passage reaches beyond the victim of seduction and the egoism of the seducer. It involves indirectly the very meaning of the novel: the tragicomedy of lies, ersatz and illusion. And it is characteristic of Flaubert that comedy is for him simultaneously an instrument of “meaning,” an expression of his indignation and a technique of oblique intervention.

This raises the question of Flaubert's passionate “presence” in his own novel. The myth of the author's impassibility indeed crumbles as soon as the reader attunes his mind to the peculiar vehemence of Flaubert—a vehemence which most often, at least in his fictional work, takes the form of a contained wrath. A permanent, and to some extent artificially cultivated ire seems to be one of Flaubert's most fecund sources of inspiration. To the brothers Goncourt he once explained: “Indignation alone keeps me going. ... When I will no longer be indignant, I will fall down flat.” This propensity for anger reveals itself in the peculiar Flaubertian irony at the expense of his characters. We are here far from the tender, protective and lyrical smile of a Stendhal. Flaubert proceeds with an apparent absence of charity. Thus he has Charles almost push Emma into the arms of Rodolphe. This type of devastating irony is the common note. When Emma is about to ride off with Rodolphe, Homais' exhortation is like an invitation for trouble: “An accident happens so easily! Be careful! Your horses perhaps are impetuous!”

This kind of irony is tragic by nature. It makes of the reader and accomplice of “destiny.” Charles is the privileged victim of this cruel game. When Rodolphe invites Emma to go horseback riding with him, it is Charles who encourages her not to worry about public opinion: “Health before everything!” It is again he who thanks her for making a trip to Rouen to consult Léon a business matter: “How good you are!” ... The entire episode of the club-foot operation is conceived and executed in order to humiliate Charles. One almost has the impression that Flaubert enjoyed destroying Charles professionally.

The author's presence is felt not only in such ironies of detail. Irony in the structure of the novel also points to the author's chronic “intrusion,” and constitutes, so to speak, a built-in commentary. The most flagrant examples—though perhaps they show Flaubert at his most arbitrary—are the episodes with the Blind Man. The relationship between irony, the tragic spirit, and even a certain allegorical mood is nowhere more tightly drawn than in these passages. The Blind Man himself is a semigrotesque and semilugubrious figure, whose creation corresponds to Flaubert's taste for the pathological, and possibly also to memories of his trip to the Near East. A beggar afflicted with a horrible skin disease and with two huge, oozing empty eye-sockets, he appears at critical moments during the latter stages of Emma's life, like an embodiment of corruption and meaningless death. The first time Emma sees him is after one of the hotel-room meetings with Léon, and the ghastly contrasts between the innocent love ditty he sings and the leprous horror of his face is like a macabre emblem of all physical love. And it is significant that this first encounter takes place in the very chapter ... which insists on Emma's moral corruption: her gluttony, her taste for lies, her walks through the red-light district, the voluptuousness and sadness of the hotel room with its faded elegance that reeks of decomposition.

The second meeting with the Blind Man ... provides no less of a commentary on the action and moral situation. Emma is returning from a rendezvous with Léon during which she tried, with lascivious provocation, to convince her lover to steal money for her. This second scene with the Blind Man conveys an even more pungent and more terrifying symbolism. The ideas of Law and Society are invoked by Homais, who would like to see such intrusive beggars locked up. The pariah-like existence of the Blind Man is of course related to Emma's subjective feeling—particularly strong in this chapter—of being herself an outcast. Similarly, Homais' allusions to crime and penology are meant to resound in Emma's mind. But it is the Blind Man's revolting pantomine which most profoundly affects Emma: his head thrown back, his tongue sticking out, his hands rubbing his belly, his guttural cry are a repellent burlesque of all appetite and gratification, and more specifically a hideous mockery of the sex act. The scene ends with Emma's flinging to the beggar her last five-franc piece, as though money had exorcising virtues—an additional irony given the context of the novel.

The third appearance of the Blind Man—even more melodramatic than the others—coincides with the exact moment of Emma's death. The ditty he sings this time combines erotic and macabre motifs. The tragic elements of the scene are almost theatrical in a classical sense: the blind beggar is like an ancient chorus, present as an observer and as a mourner. His very blindness seems to endow him with supernatural vision, at the same time that it symbolizes a hopeless impasse in the face of the Absolute. His appearance, which interrupts the priest's prayers (“the muffled murmur of the Latin syllables”), did provoke the ire of the Imperial prosecutor. But it could be easily argued—as did Flaubert's lawyer, Maître Sénard—that far from representing a profanatory intrusion, the Blind Man is the living “reminder of her fault, remorse in all its horror and poignancy.” Indeed, the arrival of the beggar not only coincides with her death, but seems to provoke it. The passage nonetheless remains characteristically ambiguous. The sinister laughter of Emma—a laughter which is described as “atrocious,” “frenetic” and “desperate”—certainly does not be-speak the peace of a soul about to be released from human bondage. The laughter sounds much rather like a satanic expression of scorn in the face of life's ultimate absurdity, death.

The exact nature of the author's perspective remains one of the most puzzling questions in Madame Bovary. Traditional interpretations insist either on frigid impassibility (the myth of objectivity) or on mordant satire (the double myth of the bourgeois-hater and the anti-Romantic). The truth is both more elusive and more interesting. For there is ambiguity not only in Flaubert's implicit commentary, but in the very method by which this commentary is textured into the fiction. Flaubert's almost exclusive instrument of intervention is style itself; it is this precisely which disconcerts the reader used to more formal, and more obvious techniques of intrusion. But this reliance on the resources of syntax enables Flaubert to be both “in” and “out” at the same time. This double perspective is nowhere better illustrated than in the countless examples of style indirect libre, of which Flaubert is a pioneer in French letters as well as the masterful practitioner, and which he utilizes not only as an elliptic abstract of conversation and as a subtle way of underlining clichés, but as an equivalent for interior monologue. Yet it is only an equivalent, for it allows him to formulate clearly that which, in the character's mind, remains unformulated or only half-formulated, and thus establishes a gap between what the characters feel and what the author understands. It is this somewhat elastic gap which represents the area of the author's personal commitment.

Some examples may clarify these remarks. First a rather simple illustration. When Emma lies naked in the sumptuous hotelroom bed, and Flaubert writes that “nothing in the world was so lovely as her brown head and white skin standing out against this purple color, when, with a movement of modesty, she crossed her bare arms, hiding her face in her hands” ..., this lovely pose is obviously appreciated both by Léon and by the author. But when Flaubert's style penetrates into the very consciousness of the protagonist, the focus becomes less clear: “But she—her life was cold as a garret whose dormer-window looks northward, and ennui, the silent spider, was weaving its web in the dark, in every corner of her heart.” ... Who is thinking this? Is it a series of clichés to be attributed to the character, or is it the character's vague sensation that the author translates and elaborates into images? The same fundamental ambiguity presides over many comparisons and metaphors. “The future was a dark corridor, with its door at the end shut tightly.” ... We are no doubt “inside” the character: it is Emma's sense of frustration and gloom that the metaphor conveys. But the metaphor also carries an “objective” value: it corresponds to the theme of claustration that Flaubert develops throughout the novel. This duplicity of the style indirect libre is perhaps most clearly illustrated in a passage where Emma dreams of an “impossible” love, while aware of the very principle of disintegration in her life:

No matter! She was not happy—she had never been. Whence came this insufficiency in life—this instantaneous turning to decay of everything on which she leant? ... But if there were somewhere a being strong and beautiful, a generous nature, full at once of exultation and refinement, a poet's heart in the form of an angel, a lyre with sounding chords ringing out elegiac epithalamia to heaven, why, perchance, should she not find him? Ah! how impossible! Nothing, anyhow, was worth the trouble of seeking it! Everything was a lie! Every smile hid a yawn of boredom, every joy a curse, all pleasure surfeit, and the sweetest kisses left upon your lips nothing but the unattainable desire for a greater delight. ...

Clearly the passage fuses the character's interior monologue with the author's point of view. But even that point of view is not clear: Flaubert's pity blends with his caricature of Romantic dreams, and nothing would be more difficult than to draw a line separating the two. Finally, even the caricature of the Romantic clichés remains ambiguous. On the one hand, the cliché—both as an intellectual and a stylistic fausse monnaie—is the permanent object of Flaubert's scorn; but clichés are also, no matter how ludicrous and objectionable, the surprising and touching conveyors of the characters' “innocence.” This is what neither the literal-minded reader nor a callous seducer such as Rodolphe is likely to understand. In one of the most curious passages of the novel, commenting on Rodolphe's insensibility to Emma's genuine emotion (he has heard the same expressions of love so often!), Flaubert explains that it is a grave mistake not to seek candor behind worn-out language, “as though the fullness of the soul did not at times overflow in the emptiest metaphors.” ... And Flaubert, in what may appear like an apologia pro domo, suggests that nobody can ever give the exact measure of his needs and of his sorrows, that human speech is “like a cracked tin kettle on which we strike tunes fit to make bears dance, when we long to move the stars.” This feeling that human speech cannot possibly cope with our dreams and our grief goes a long way toward explaining why so often, in the work of Flaubert, the reader has the disconcerting impression that the language of banality is caricatured and at the same time transmuted into poetry.

We are perhaps touching here on the very secret of Flaubert's lyrical achievement within a realistic framework. But the framework, or setting, should not blind us to the fact that Flaubert's temperament and practice, despite all the noise made around the substantive “realism,” has little in common with the products of a Champfleury, a Duranty, or even a Daumier. “One need only read Madame Bovary with intelligence,” writes Guy de Manupassant, “to understand that nothing is further removed from realism.” And Maupassant goes on to explain that Flaubert's sentences soar above the subject they express, that in order to convey the stupidities of Homais or the silliness of Emma, his language assumes majesty and brilliance, “as though it were translating poetic motifs. ...” One of the most striking features of Flaubert's art is indeed his ability to shift, without transition, from the trivial to the lyrical—or rather, to transmute the one into the other. This alchemy is not the result of chance: Flaubert was fully lucid about the dangers of a double “tone,” and determined to bring about a poetic fusion. “The entire value of my book ... will have been the ability to walk straight on a hair, suspended between the double abyss of lyricism and vulgarity (which I want to fuse in a narrative analysis).”

A certain duplicity vis-à-vis his characters, a basic lack of solidarity with the world in which they move and suffer, and the insistence on the self-redeeming qualities of style, have made Flaubert vulnerable to the charge of having dehumanized the novel. The rift between the author's artistic, sophisticated vision and the insufficient, confused vision of the protagonist is probably responsible, as much if not more so than the Parnassian aspects of Flaubert's prosody, for a certain rigid, inanimate quality. One misses, in Flaubert's work, those approximations and hesitations, those imperceptible human tremors, thrusts and recoils which convey artistically the very drama of existence in the works of a Stendhal, a Dostoevsky or, in our own day, a Nathalie Sarraute. Yet it is precisely this rift, or rather the telescoping of two unrelated perspectives, which bestows upon the novel a unique beauty. A stereoscopic vision accounts in large part for the peculiar poetry and complexity of Madame Bovary.

This stereopsis is particularly evident in the beautiful landscape descriptions.

During their “honeymoon” in Rouen, Léon and Emma take a boat to have dinner on one of the islands. ... In approximately ten splendid lines, Flaubert evokes the dockyard, the caulking mallets resounding against the hulls of the vessels, the smoke of tar, the large spots of oil undulating in the purple color of the sun—the very poetry of a river port. As they row toward the island, the city noises gradually grow distant. But the entire passage corresponds not merely to Flaubert's own attachment to the river—the permanent spectacle from his windows at Croisset; it also suggests Emma's transformation of the commercial port into a grandiose and lyrical image of departure, and her landing on the little island into an arrival in an exotic country of bliss. Similarly, the distant view of Rouen ... involves double optics: the character's subjective, vague unformulated feelings as the town appears “like an amphitheater,” and the author's ability to see and to render the tableau. The personal poetry of the author and the reaction of Emma do not, of course, coincide. But the thematic validity of the passage depends almost exclusively on this very discrepancy which, once again, stresses the divorce between a reality perceived by the author (and by his accomplice, the reader) and the illusions of his heroine. The author describes the monotonous landscape, “motionless as a picture,” the anchored ships, the meanders of the river, the factory chimneys. But this apparently gratuitous description acquires its full significance once we become aware that Emma, looking at exactly the same panorama, experiences a giddiness, an inebriating sensation of space and infinite possibility, as she is about to enter the rather dull provincial town which for her is an “enormous capital” and even a true Babylon!

This ability to be simultaneously “inside” and “outside” his characters leads to even greater complexities if one considers the poetry of adultery. Indeed Emma views adultery as a privileged condition. “I have a lover! a lover” she keeps repeating to herself with a sense of wonder. It seems to her like a long-awaited initiation to a mystery: “She was entering into a world of marvels. ...” She feels surrounded by an azure infinity (the adjective “bleuâtre” occurs repeatedly in the novel) as she joins the “lyric legion” of the adulterous fictional heroines she so admires. ... But Flaubert's attitude is by no means one of clinical detachment. It would be a misreading not only of the novel, but of Flaubert's entire work, to consider Madame Bovary a moral dununciation of conjugal infidelity! For the author also, adultery was a magic word. Ever since his adolescence the notion of adultery was endowed with a poetic and a tragic meaning. ... To the entire generation reared on Romanticism—and Flaubert is as much a “victim” as Emma—adultery, because of its officially immoral and asocial status, acquired a symbolic value: it was a sign of unconventionality, rebellion and authenticity. But more important still—and here Flaubert the troubadour reworks one of the main themes of Western poetry—adultery holds out the promise of beauty precisely because it is the forbidden happiness, the inaccessible dream, that which always eludes: the Ideal. It is in this light that one should reread the juvenile works of Flaubert: Mémoires d'un fou, Novembre, the first Éducation sentimentale—where adultery is viewed as a “supreme poetry” made up of a mixture of voluptuousness and malediction.

The famous exclamation “Madame Bovary, c'est moi ...” is thus not merely the sally of a writer irritated by seekers of sources and models. A curious symbiotic relationship exists between Flaubert and his heroine. The novelist, despite his practice of a double perspective, draws his fictional creature toward himself, and discovers himself in Emma even more than he projects himself into her. This complex relationship, in which the writer is to some extent playing hide-and-seek with himself, in which he punishes himself while granting himself a perspective that transcends the limits of his own temperament, makes it extremely difficult to assess the exact measure of personal involvement and to come to grips with the nature of this tragic experience. Emma's death exists, on the one hand, as a pathological fact, inevitable as the effects of the arsenic she swallows. But as she strains to kiss the crucifix, and as the priest gives the extreme unction to all those parts of her body that have lived, loved and suffered, an immense pity, an immense sadness and an immense fraternal understanding seem to emanate from Flaubert's text which will forever baffle those readers who view the novel principally as an anti-Romantic and antibourgeois satire.



Source Citation   (MLA 7th Edition)

Brombert, Victor. "The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques." The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques. Victor Brombert. Princeton University Press, 1966. Rpt. inNineteenth-Century Literature Criticism. Ed. Laurie Lanzen Harris. Vol. 10. Detroit: Gale Research, 1985. Literature Resource Center. Web. 13 Aug. 2014.



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