Gustave Flaubert’s narrative in Madame Bovary is analogous to the art of a cinematographer. Cinematographers decide when and how to zoom in and out of the actors, in order to create a sort of emphasis. Flaubert has the narrator of Madame Bovary do the same thing. His “shots” of his characters are very particular. At times, the narrator is inside of the minds of the characters and at other times he is very much an outsider. The narrator’s distance to the characters is made apparent at certain extended points of the novel. This provides the reader with ample time to create biases of the characters, especially of Emma and Charles Bovary. This is also when Flaubert’s free indirect discourse comes into play; by zooming in, to the point of being inside of the character’s mind, he imposes the narrator’s feelings of things surrounding the plot. In doing so, Flaubert’s narrator offers his own feelings of the text, acting the way in which a DVD commentator does (a DVD commentator commonly is a director or actor, who interjects opinions of his or her movie, whilst it is playing on a DVD). The zooming in and out on Emma and Charles Bovary is used to create certain degrees of closeness to them, with the purpose of understanding their complexity, or in one of their cases, the lack thereof.
In the beginning of the novel, Flaubert uses a close narration, but not to the point of where the narrator is inside of the character’s mind. Flaubert deviates from the rest of his book after the first chapter by changing the narration from first person to third person. In the first chapter, the narrator is either a student from Charles’s class or the collective point of view of all of the students in Charles’s class. The latter possibility is plausible because of the fact that the first person narrator in this chapter refers to himself as “we.” Why Flaubert does this is particularly interesting. He makes the narration come from the perspective of a flat character (or flat characters) in order to establish objectivity to Charles’s mediocrity. By establishing him directly in the first person narration of a flat character, he creates more believability of Charles’s passive and mediocre nature. In other words, a flat perspective in this chapter allows the reader to more effectively understand Charles’s nature. This chapter is quite different from the other ones, which are narrated by a subjective, and possibly unreliable, third person .
The narrator usually remains at far distances from important or tragic instances in this novel, while at other times he is very close to, comparatively speaking, minute details. The following quotation is excerpted from the time in which Charles’s first wife, Heloise, dies. Notice the conciseness of this particular episode. “…A week after, as she was hanging up some washing in her yard, she was seized with a spitting of blood, and the next day, while Charles had his back turned and was closing the window curtains, she said, “O God!” gave a sigh and fainted. She was dead! What a surprise! (Flaubert 14).” This is the description that the great writer, Gustave Flaubert, gives of death. No need to doubt his literary talent--this was done purposefully. Notice the part where the narrator says, “She was dead! What a surprise!” The lack of feeling and the absence of expounded description give the reader a sense that the narrator is distancing himself from this occurrence. When the narrator uses his free indirect discourse (this term will be fully explained later) in saying “She was dead! What a surprise!” it almost seems as though he is being sarcastic, as though he were saying to the reader, “You knew it was coming.” Whatever the case with it’s meaning, one imposed emotion is quite apparent: indifference.
“When they left Tostes in the month of March, Madame Bovary was pregnant. (Flaubert 49).” This is yet another example of the lack of narrative dedicated to important events in this novel. In this case, other than expressing his own feelings about the event, the narrator describes it so unfeelingly and rapidly that it effectively emphasizes Emma’s feelings about her pregnancy. On reading such a dry report of her pregnancy, the reader has no choice but to assume that Emma is unexcited about it.
Why does Flaubert dedicate, for the most part, so little time to important events? Other than implying the characters’ feelings about an event, one explanation is that he was a realist writer, and thus, did want to romanticize his subjects. Appropriately, the irony of Madame Bovary is that it is a mock-romantic novel, due to the fact that Emma is insanely romantic because of the influence of her romance novels. This is why the expressions of love that she uses toward men, whom she barely knows, are so zealous; some would say that she has never felt genuine love for any one man, that it is all an illusion created by the imaginary worlds of her novels. A Glossary of Literary Terms states, “To achieve such effects, the novelist we identify as realists may or may not be selective in subject matter—almost most of them prefer the commonplace and the everyday, represented in minute detail, over rarer aspects of life… (260-261).” Therefore, because Flaubert was a realist writer, it is appropriate that an objectivity of non-commonplace matters in Madame Bovary exists.
According to A Glossary of Literary Terms, free indirect discourse means “represented speech or thought.” It states that “These terms refer to the way, in many narratives, that the reports of what a character says and thinks shifts in pronouns, adverbs, tense, and grammatical mode, as we move…between the direct narrated reproductions of these events by the narrator (Abrams 172).” An example of such a discourse is apparent in an interaction between Emma and Rudolphe. After much time as Rudolphe’s mistress, Emma passionately expresses her usual sentiments of love towards Rudolphe. Rudolphe becomes desensitized to her lavish praises because they have been so constantly used and exaggerated that they have lost their effect to flatter. After the narrator expresses Rudolphe’s reactions of indifference towards Emma’s comments, he states: “No one ever has been able to give the exact measure of his needs or his concepts or his sorrows. The human tongue is like a cracked cauldron on which we beat our tunes to set a bear dancing when we would make the stars weep with our melodies” (Flaubert 138). This is one example of free indirect discourse that reflects the views of the narrator. The narrative subjectivity to the above quotation is overtly depicted. It seems almost like a social commentary. One could indeed dub this instance of narration a dual voice of character and narrator.
The extended far distance of Charles makes him so marginal to the point of having him become merely a literary device that Flaubert uses in order to emphasize Emma. Charles almost does not exist after the narrator focuses in on Emma. After the narrator focuses in on her, Charles’s actions are fully narrated, but his thoughts are given little emphasis. Flaubert does this for two reasons. One is that Emma is now the protagonist, and the second reason is that it highlights Charles’s obliviousness. Emma has long and, towards the end, reckless affairs with other men. Never once is Charles’s doubt depicted in the narration, therefore, there is nothing left to assume but that he must be totally oblivious to any of Emma’s affairs. By not indicating any amount of suspicion by Charles, the narrator is implying the unsaid, which is Charles’s total ignorance and lack of intuition.
The narrator does not always remain close to Emma. Just when Flaubert sees that the reader is gaining enough sympathy of Emma, he objectifies her narration, and thus allowing the reader to reassess his opinions of her. After an elaborately long narration of Emma’s melancholy and devastation about Leon’s absence, the narrator quickly and callously speaks of the dissipation of those feelings. “But Emma recoiled beforehand at the difficulties of the enterprise, and her desires, increased by regret, became only more acute (Flaubert 88).” In reading Emma’s lamentations of her lost love, the reader begins to feel sympathy, but the quick explanation of the acuteness of those feelings compels the reader to see her for what she is: a fictitiously, romanticized, fickle woman. This is just one of the many examples of elaborate-to-object narration of Emma’s depiction.
The narration of Madame Bovary is ingeniously composed. It moves in and out of the characters’ minds, through means of illustrating their feelings concisely and unfeelingly and by portraying important actions as objective reports. The free indirect discourse imposes the subjectivity of the narrator, which in part, serves as a mechanism for expressing social commentary. The extended “close-ups” and distancing of the characters are used for creating redefinitions of the reader’s impression of them. Madame Bovary’s particular form of narration deems it a perfectly expressed novel.