MADAME BOVARY TITLE This is as good a point as any in the course to consider the important matters of titles and character names. Good writers know that they can't afford to choose their characters' names randomly from a telephone directory. Names have meanings.
Bovary is far from a common French name. Flaubert had once met a man whose name was Bouvaret, and he deliberately modify the spelling and pronunciation to Bovary. Look at that name. Can you imagine any reason for Flaubert to use it in this modified form?
Like the English word "bovine," the French word bovin means "relating to cattle." Indeed, a Latin form is bovarium.
On page 33, we read that Charles "would ride along ruminating his happiness, like those who, after dinner, still savored the taste of the truffles they are digesting."
"The use of cattle as a derogatory metaphor for passive and dull people is long and securely established." (Nelles)
Then there's the matter of the book title. Consider the crucial importance of titles.
Flaubert could have called the book any number of things. Why did he, for instance, not call his novel Emma Bovary, as in, for example, the recently published English novels Robinson Crusoe, Clarissa Harlowe, Tom Jones, and Tristram Shandy? What does Madame Bovary give him that other titles would not give him?
CHARACTER The functions of most of the novel’s main characters—Emma, Charles, Léon, Rodolphe, Lheureux—are quite clear. The function of Monsieur Homais, I think, is less so. Though he seems almost dispensable in terms of the plot, Flaubert must have considered him to be extremely important for the novel, giving him not only a huge amount of space, but also the book’s closing sentences. Just what is he here for?
He allows us to understand Emma’s frustration with provincial bourgeois life, even if we don’t approve of her reaction to it.
Don’t forget that he indirectly supplies the agent of Emma’s suicide.
STRUCTURE (Keith Rinehart)
What is the fundamental structure of this novel?
Three numbered parts
The three parts of Madame Bovary are separated from each other by a change in scene. Part I gets the novel under way and shows the early married life of Charles and Emma in Tostes. Part II gives the middle years of their marriage in Yonville-L’Abbaye. Part III, the final years of the marriage, shows Emma mainly in Rouen, though she resides with Charles at Yonville.
The central Part II is yet another pyramid within the larger pyramid of the novel.” The early chapters show her platonic liaison with Léon, the central chapters show her adulterous liaison with Rodolphe, and the closing chapters show her alone and despairing.
Why is the title character not introduced in the first chapter? Why is the reader given a rapid review of Charles’ life and introduced to two other Madame Bovarys—Charles’ mother and the first wife—before meeting Emma Bovary and beginning the action of the novel? The structural significance of the first chapter is to explain Charles’ early life, chiefly the influence of women in his life, an influence that does so much to explain his subsequent relationship with Emma. The first chapter is the first part of a ‘framing device’ within which the action of the novel—Emma Bovary’s
action—is contained, but the ‘framing’ nature of the first chapter is seen only in retrospect from the last chapter of the novel. By itself, the first chapter may seem to be a weak opening, having a mild interest of its own but nothing of the strength that a plunge into the main action would have. The use of a ‘complete frame’ is unusual in novels, even those employing what may be called a ‘framing device.’
Although Emma dies two chapters earlier, she is not buried until the next to the last chapter. The novel’s first and last chapters are equal in length. Before Emma, after Emma: Charles is shown in prospect and retrospect, a secure foundation for the main action and its significance.
This tripartite structure—the full body of the novel framed by its opening and closing chapters, mirrors the explicitly tripartite structure of the body of the novel.
SYMBOLISM One critic, William Nelles, has insightfully and persuasively argued that the novel's three parts cluster "around three distinct symbolic centers: part one around cattle, part to around horses, and part three around water."
You recall, for example, the ruminating, bovine Charles of Part One. We encounter literal cows from p. 45 to Part One’s closing paragraphs on p. 65.
Even beyond the pages of Part One, the bourgeois life associated with Charles is all about cows. As Part Two begins, we read on page 68 that the bourgeois village of Yonville, to which Charles takes Emma, and which she will find so stifling, "reminds one of a cowherd." The mayor is even named Tuvache: "you cow!" At the agricultural fair, on page 142, Monsieur Lieuvain's pompous speech is juxtaposed with the lowing of the cattle. Ultimately, Léon, who proved to be too bourgeois for Emma, winds up marrying another cow: one Mademoiselle Leboeuf (“the ox” or “the beef”).
For millennia, in any number of works of literature and art, the horse has been a symbol of passion. In the book of Jeremiah in the Bible, for example, the lustful sinners are described “as fed horses in the morning: every one neighed after his neighbour's wife.” (KJV)
This is even true in non-literary language and thought, as when we refer to passion as "unbridled," or when Sigmund Freud wrote that the civilizing ego "in its relation to the primitive id is like a man on horseback, who has to hold in check the superior strength of the horse."
Writers have frequently showed the taming of passionate horses to be the responsibility of reasonable, civilized man. To take just one contemporary example, ten years before Madame Bovary Charlotte Brontë wrote the following passages in Jane Eyre: "reasons sits firm and holds the rein," and
his chest heaved once, as if his large heart, weary of despotic constriction, had expanded, despite the will, and made a vigorous bound for the attainment of liberty. But he curbed it, I think, as a resolute rider would curb a rearing steed.
Horse symbolism begins to appear in a negative form in Part One. On page 12, as Charles approaches and does home for the first time, his horse begins "to slip on the wet grass." On page 40, Emma finds that Charles is "unable to tell her the meaning of a riding term she had come across in a novel. But shouldn't a man know everything, excel in all sorts of activities, initiate you into the turbulence of passion?"
In the central chapter of Part Two, Emma goes to the agricultural fair and engages in a flirtation with Rodolphe. Meanwhile,
cows with their legs folded under them were lying on the grass, slowly chewing their cud and blinking their heavy eyelids at the gnats buzzing around them. Bare-armed teamsters gripped the halters of stallions that kept rearing and neighing loudly in the direction of the mares.
The contrast between the placid cattle and aroused horses could hardly be more conspicuous. "Chewing their cud" reminds us of the ruminant Charles of Part One.
Emma and Rodolphe "begin their liaison ostensibly because of their shared interest in riding, and Monsieur Homais' warning before their first ride together, on page 153, is ironically prophetic: 'Be careful! Your horses may be high-spirited!'" After the affair and us, and no longer wants a horse. On page 208, "she insisted that her horse be sold; things she had once liked now displeased her." "Her former interest in horses, a symbol of the flesh, is replaced for the moment by an interest in religion, a symbol of the spirit."
"The name Hippolyte means 'unyoker of horses,' emblematic of the course the affair between the two lovers (as symbolic horses) will take. To operate on Hippolyte's foot, we are told on page 171, Charles 'had to determine which kind of clubfoot he had. The foot was an equinus [literally, that of a horse] mingled with a little varus, or perhaps a slight varus with a strong admixture of equinus. His equinus -- which actually was as wide as a horse's hoof, with a rough skin, hard tendons and huge toes whose black nails were like the nails of a horseshoe. The failure of the operation foreshadows the point that Emma's own 'tendency to equinus,' her passionate nature, cannot be excised, even by her brief religious fervor, and will reappear when she meets Leon again."
Just before Emma's first actual act of adultery, on page 155, Rodolphe ties their horses. At the bottom of the next page, "she tilted back her head and her white throat swelled in a sigh. She suddenly felt weak and a long tremor ran through her body; weeping and hiding her face, she abandoned herself." A few lines later, we find Rodolphe "mending a broken bridle." It doesn't take much to imagine what symbolically broke this bridle. It's worth noting "only one bridle breaks; Rodolphe is by no means carried away to the extent that Emma is, as his later callous behavior establishes."
Finally, for obvious enough reasons, water, and especially flowing water, has been for millennia a potent symbol of instability. The pre-Socratic philosopher Heraclitus famously said that "you can't step into the same stream twice." Others have added that, in fact, you can't step into the same stream once. The frequent river imagery in Part Three fits the profound instability of Emma's later life and mind.
TENSE Nearly all stories are told in the past tense, all the way to the end, as in the movement from “Once upon a time” to “And they lived happily ever after.” Madame Bovary is highly unusual in that 99.95% of the novel is written in the past tense, while the last four sentences suddenly leap across the divide of time into the present tense. When you think about it, this is even more unusual than it might at first appear to be, for a couple of reasons.
First, the protagonists are already dead at this point, so the narrative seems to merely be tying up loose ends when it makes this startling move. Second, the shift to the present tense is not merely technical: rather, it moves the action into our world. The narrator asks us to contemplate the lives of Charles and Emma over a definitive gap in time which separates them from us. We are told, however, that Berthe’s work in the cotton mill and Homais’ success are happening now, in an immediate world which we share with these characters. What do you make of this extraordinary narrative device?
For example, it implies that we are living in a world where injustice is the norm: where an innocent young girl who already has lost both of her parents is condemned to a life of hardship, while a pompous, ignorant, vain, and unscrupulous man prospers. The grammatical device is thus a tool of social criticism.
It also suggests that the book’s entire narrative was not a fairy tale from some other realm, entirely cut off from us, as in “and they lived happily ever after,” but rather something that happened in our own world just yesterday, separated from us only by the momentary movement from “was” to “is,” as in “The traffic light was red, but now it is green.” This, too, helps to make the novel work as a social critique, rather than just a storytelling game.
PERSPECTIVE Just as most novels stay in the past tense, so too, most novels, both before and since, feature one consistent narrator throughout. Most often, this has been a nameless voice who is omniscient. What does that mean?
In other cases, the narrator may be one of the characters: "Call me Ishmael." There are, of course, variations, such as less-than-omniscient narrators. There have even been one or two experimental novels with no narrator at all. William Gaddis' JR, a very long and complex novel with many characters and settings, consists entirely of dialogue, without even so much as a "he said." As you can imagine, it's a challenge to read, leaving us to continually deduce, from the speech itself, who is speaking to whom, but its rewards make its challenges quite worthwhile.
In Madame Bovary, the narrator shifts, sometimes explicitly and sometimes implicitly. For example, who narrates the opening pages?
This first-person-plural narrator quickly disappears, and the narration is subsequently given in third-person form. The identity of this third-person narrator, however, seems to shift. We first see Emma, on pages 13-15, through Charles' eyes: for example, "Her eyes were her best feature; they were brown, although they seemed black because of her eyelashes, and they looked straight at you with naïve boldness." We soon lose Charles' perspective, as well, as it is succeeded by numerous others. “At times the narrative voice sounds omniscient and at times it does not. In some passages it seems to emanate from a mere unidentified observer; in others, it resembles that of an historian; in others still, it approximates that of a social philosopher given to generalizations." This is an early step toward what Bakhtin would call the "polyphonic novel."
The most interesting aspect of this, however, is not the mere succession of voices, but rather the blending of them.
While other novelists might be best known for their skills with, say, plotting or characterization, Flaubert was, above all and quite deliberately, a stylist. Specifically, he is best known for his masterly use of what he called le style indirect libre, known in English as free indirect style, or free indirect discourse. Does anyone know, from another literature course, what this is?
It’s a concept which literature students should learn.
Direct discourse, using the character’s quoted words or thoughts, would be: “He said: ‘It’s true.’” or “He thought: ‘It’s true.’”
Indirect discourse, using a narrative voice, would be: “He thought that it was true.”
Free indirect discourse is a kind of narration which can move freely and almost imperceptibly between the perspective of a narrator outside of the plot and the perspective of a character.
The English novelist Jane Austen is credited by many critics as the first writer to make thorough and effective use of this narrative approach. Before Austen, readers of fiction were rarely in doubt as to who was thinking. There was normally one consistent voice, unless the text clearly indicated otherwise.
We can see free indirect discourse, for example, in this passage from Austen’s novel Emma, in which we move from the point of view of the narrator to that of Emma Woodhouse, the protagonist:
Harriet Smith was the natural daughter of somebody. Somebody had placed her, several years back, at Mrs. Goddard’s school, and somebody had lately raised her from the condition of scholar to that of parlour-boarder. This was all that was generally known of her history. She had no visible friends but what had been acquired at Highbury, and was now just returned from a long visit in the country to some young ladies who had been at school there with her.
She was a very pretty girl, and her beauty happened to be of a sort which Emma particularly admired. She was short, plump, and fair, with a fine bloom, blue eyes, light hair, regular features, and a look of great sweetness, and, before the end of the evening, Emma was as much pleased with her manners as her person, and quite determined to continue the acquaintance.
She was not struck by anything remarkably clever in Miss Smith’s conversation, but she found her altogether very engaging - not inconveniently shy, not unwilling to talk and yet so far from pushing, shewing so proper and becoming a deference, seeming so pleasantly grateful for being admitted to Hartfield, and so artlessly impressed by the appearance of every thing in so superior a style to what she had been used to, that she must have good sense, and deserve encouragement. Encouragement should be given. Those soft blue eyes, and all those natural graces, should not be wasted on the inferior society of Highbury and its connexions. The acquaintances she had already formed were unworthy of her. The friends from whom she had just parted, though very good sort of people, must be doing her harm.
The built-in ambiguity of free indirect discourse, combining the advantages of first-person and third-person narrative, allows for certain subtleties not otherwise available.
Flaubert is usually cited as the greatest master of free indirect discourse, especially in Madame Bovary. He particularly exploited the style’s possibilities for irony. “Every value judgment in the novel seems to be made from the point of view of one of his characters.”
On p. 158, for example, as Emma contemplates her life with Rodolphe, the novel’s text, without quotation marks, says: “At last she was going to possess the joys of love, that fever of happiness she had despaired of ever knowing. She was entering a marvelous realm in which everything would be passion, ecstasy and rapture....” Without being told, the reader recognizes the fatal flaws in Emma’s perspective.
In a letter which he wrote while working on Madame Bovary, appearing on page 362 of your book, Flaubert wrote that “the author, in his book, must be like God in the universe, everywhere present and nowhere visible.” Free indirect discourse gave him a tool which facilitated this.
Free indirect discourse has become so pervasive in subsequent fiction that it is difficult for us to notice it. It’s a bit like this cartoon (Romeo and Juliet). Its use here, however, makes Madame Bovary a landmark in the history of the novel, and a major step toward the Modernist novel.
LITERATURE Like a number of characters in novels from Don Quixote to Joyce’s Ulysses, Emma is led astray, specifically and paradoxically, by reading novels.
At first, she was captivated by historical women whose stories were heavily romanticized in the books which she must have read. On p. 36, we read that
she worshiped Mary Queen of Scots and venerated other illustrious or ill-starred women. For her, Joan of Arc, Héloïse, Agnès Sorel, La Belle Ferronnière and Clémence Isaure stood out like comets against the vast darkness of history....
She soon moves on to unequivocal fiction. Charles’ mother says that Emma spends her time
“reading novels and other bad books that are against religion and make fun of priests with quotations from Voltaire! It can lead to all kinds of things, my son — a person who isn’t religious always comes to a bad end.”
It was therefore decided to keep Emma from reading novels. It would probably not be an easy thing to do. [Charles’ mother] agreed to take care of it herself: she would go to see the owner of the lending library when she passed through Rouen and tell him Emma was canceling her subscription. And wouldn’t they have a right to go to the police if he refused to stop spreading his poison? —123
“She remembered the heroines of novels she read, and the lyrical legion of those adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. It was as though she herself were becoming part of that imaginary world, as though she were making the long dream of her youth come true by placing herself in the category of those amorous women she had envied so much.” —158
Of Charles’ mother: “there were many other things that displeased her: first of all, Charles had not followed her advice about forbidding Emma to read novels....” –188
The priest “was not even scandalized one day when the pharmacist advised Charles to give his wife a pleasant diversion by taking her to the opera. Homais was surprised by his silence and asked his opinion; the priest declared that he regarded music as less dangerous to morals than literature.” – 214
In that same conversation, Homais tells the priest that even “‘the Bible has more than one ... spicy passage, you know; some of the things in it are really ... quite strong! I’m sure you’ll agree it’s not a book to give to a young girl!’
‘But we’re not the ones who recommend the Bible!’ cried the priest impatiently. ‘It’s the Protestants!’” – 215
Enchanted by the opera, which was based on a Walter Scott novel, “Emma found herself back in the books she had read as a girl, immersed in the world of Sir Walter Scott. [When Lucia] complained of the sufferings of love and asked for we us, Emma, too, known to flee from life, to fly away in an embrace. Suddenly Edgar Lagardy appeared.” Emma, of course, seduced by Scott’s fiction and Donizetti’s music, falls for him. – 219
A mad idea came over her: he was looking at her now, she was sure of it! She longed to rush into his arms, to take refuge in his strength as in the incarnation of love itself, to say to him, cry out to him, “Carry me off, take me with you, far away! All my passion and all my dreams are yours, yours alone!”—222
Twenty-six years before the publication of the novel, the passionate and highly suggestible French Romantic composer Hector Berlioz had seen a British actress, Harriet Smithson, performing in Romeo and Juliet. Though they were wholly unsuited to each other, Berlioz, captivated by her beauty, tenaciously pursued her for years until she gave in, resulting in a marriage miserable on both sides.
Watching Lucia’s wedding in the opera, “Emma thought of her wedding day and saw herself walking to the church along the narrow path between the wheatfields. Why had she not resisted and supplicated, like Lucia? But she had actually been joyful, unaware of the abyss into which she was plunging herself....” – 221
"How peaceful her life had been in those days! How she had longed for the ineffable sentiments of love which she had tried to imagine from her books!"—279
As her situation worsens, so does the fiction she reads and the effects it has on her: “She would stay up all night reading lurid novels full of orgiastic scenes. Often, seized with terror, she would utter a cry.” — 284
“She went on writing him [Léon] love letters nevertheless, on the principle that a woman must always write to her lover. But, as she wrote, she saw another man, a phantom composed of her most urgent memories, her strongest desires and the most beautiful things she had read. He finally became so real, so accessible, that she was thrilled and amazed....” – 286
Even after Emma’s death, “the owner of the lending library demanded three years’ subscription fees.” — 336
The novel acknowledges the connection between the literary and lying elements of fiction. Emma, the reader/liar, is captivated by both:
From then on her whole life was a tissue of lies which she wrapped around her love like a veil, to hide it. Lying became a need, a mania, a pleasure; so much so that if she said she had walked down the right side of a street the day before, it was almost certain she had walked down the left. — 266
NOTHING The English critic Walter Pater, a contemporary and admirer of Flaubert, wrote that “all art constantly aspires towards the condition of music.” What do you suppose he meant by that?
In the mid-19th century, the content of art works was being devalued in favor of the style. A good example is Whistler’s White Girl, which we discussed in our first class. He painted this five years just after the publication of Madame Bovary.
A little earlier, Alfred, Lord Tennyson, had published his poem “Mariana,” a static description of a woman who simply waits and waits for her lover, who never arrives.
Art ostensibly about nothing has continued ever since, through Samuel Beckett’s Waiting for Godot through television’s Seinfeld. In Godot, a two-act play, the characters wait through both acts and Godot never comes in either of them. A perceptive critic at the premiere wrote: “Waiting for Godot is a play in which nothing happens — twice!”
Around the same time that Pater, Whistler, and Tennyson were working, Flaubert was working on Madame Bovary, and he wrote, in a letter which is printed on p. 357 of your book: “What seems beautiful to me, what I would like to write, is a book about nothing, a book without any external support, which would be held together only by the inner strength of its style, the way the Earth hangs suspended in space, a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if that is possible. The most beautiful works are those in which there is the least matter; the closer the expression comes to the thought, the more perfectly the language clings to the idea and disappears, the more beautiful the style. I believe that the future of Art lies in this direction. I see art, as it has developed over the years, becoming more and more ethereal.”
This is very close to Pater’s view, but, in this form, it is only an aspiration and prediction on Flaubert’s part. Did he, to any degree, actually achieve this in Madame Bovary? Is it, in any sense, “a book about nothing”? If so, how so?
BOREDOM This issue is related to a problem which Flaubert, like many writers before and since, faced. The novel requires that Emma find her domestic life intolerably boring. Flaubert must show this to us, but he can’t afford to be boring while depicting a boring life.
Again, Waiting for Godot is another good example.
You may, perhaps, have found the novel to be boring, and think that Flaubert failed. If, however, you think, like most readers, that he succeeded, how did he pull it off? How does he make material boring to a character, yet interesting to a reader?
Flaubert himself recognized the problem and was acutely troubled by it. In a letter printed on pp. 364-65 of your book, he wrote: "What torments me in my book is the comic element, which is mediocre." This seems to me to be an unfortunate translation. Flaubert actually wrote: "Ce qui me tourmente dans mon livre c'est l'element amusant...." "Amusant," obviously cognate with "amusing," can mean "comic," but in this context the more relevant sense is "entertaining." Thus, he wrote the equivalent of
What torments me in my book is the entertaining element, which is mediocre. There is a lack of event. I myself hold that ideas are events. It is more difficult to make ideas interesting, I know, but then the style is to blame. I now have fifty consecutive pages in which there is not a single event. It is a sustained portrait of a bourgeois life and an inactive love; a love which is all the more difficult to describe because it is both timid and profound, but alas! without inner turmoil, because my gentleman is of a quiet nature. I have already had something similar in the first part: my husband loves his wife in somewhat the same way as my lover. There are two mediocrities in the same milieu and must, however, be differentiated. If I succeed in doing this it will, I think, be very strong, for it means laying one color over another that is very close to it, which is not easy. But I am afraid that all these subtleties will be tiresome and that the reader would just as soon see more action. Well, one must be true to one's original conception. If I try to introduce action to it, I would be following a program and I would spoil everything. One must sing in one's own voice and mine will never be dramatic or arresting. Besides, I am convinced that everything is a matter of style, or rather of shape, the outward appearance of sentences.
The critic Harry Levin, in a famous essay which is reproduced in your book, wrote: “What is literally boring he renders metaphorically interesting. The river quarter of Rouen, at first sight, is ‘a small, ignoble Venice.’ Similes, ironically beautiful, frequently serve to underline ugly realities: thus the pimples on the face of his first wife, on page 10, were ‘blossoming on her face like buds in springtime.’“
TRIAL Upon the original serial publication of Madame Bovary in a magazine, Flaubert and his publisher were put on trial by the French government for “grossly offending against public morality, religion, and decency.” The prosecutor argued that the novel made adultery appear attractive, and would encourage women to have affairs. Just a few months later, also in Paris, the poet Charles Baudelaire was put on trial on very similar charges.
Do these charges against Madame Bovary surprise you? What points, do you imagine, might be argued for or against the novel?
The defense argued that the sinner gets her just desserts and then some. Adultery was not, after all, a criminal offense, and while one might have been imprisoned for debt, one was not executed for it. Emma not only dies, but she dies a particularly long and agonizing death.
Indeed, one of Flaubert’s literary contemporaries (Lamartine) argued that he had punished Emma too severely. “Why need Flaubert have been so much less merciful than Jesus was toward the woman taken in adultery?
Harry Levin argued that this was “partly because he was not, regardless of the courtroom argument, actually trying to exemplify justice, but mainly because her adultery was just an incidental expression of an all-pervasive state of mind: what has since come to be called Bovarism.”
If the novel were a straightforward moral condemnation of Emma, showing the justice in her payment for her sins, what are we to make of the terrible sufferings of the innocent Charles and Berthe, and the triumph of the odious Homais?
Further, what are we to make of Flaubert’s famous statement: “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”—”that’s me.”
This also gets us back to the issue we considered before of the possible pernicious effects of reading romantic fiction. Señor Quijano and Emma Bovary were led into folly by the books which they read. Can you imagine a real reader being led into folly by this book?
Flaubert was acquitted, and, as has so often been the case, the trial brought huge attention to the novel, contributing greatly to its sales in book form the following year. The acquittal was not a foregone conclusion, as is evident from the fact that Baudelaire was convicted six months later.
Lest we think that such trials are quaint examples of bygone, 19th-century morality, we might consider the similar legal cases brought, in the 20th century and in the United States, against such novels as James Joyce’s Ulysses, D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover, and Allen Ginsberg’s Howl.
TRAGEDY The legal arguments draw our attention to a literary issue. Some critics have described Madame Bovary as a tragedy, while others have denied this.
What is a tragedy?
Does this novel qualify?
EPILEPSY (John C. Lapp)
We usually assume that great artists and writers differ from us with respect to their greater levels of insight, intelligence, and skill. All of this is certainly true, but it overlooks physiological differences which may also affect the artist's work. This is easier to see in the visual arts than it is in literature.
For example, most viewers probably assume that the blurriness of Impressionist paintings derives exclusively from an aesthetic decision. I don't mean to discount that, but consider the fact that Claude Monet suffered from cataracts which gradually worsened. Here are three Monet paintings of the same bridge, painted in 1899, then a year later, and then 23 years later.
Again, Edvard Munch, who painted The Scream, developed an opacity -- a blind spot -- in one eye late in his life. He thus saw a black spot in the middle of whatever he looked at. His mind tried to make sense of this spot, much as we might see a man in the moon or a meaningful shape in a cloud or a stain. The black spot looked like a black bird to Munch, and he placed that bird in a number of late drawings, such as these.
It is, of course, not the disease or condition itself which contributes to the art in such cases, but rather the ways in which the artist responds to it. The overwhelming majority of people suffering from these conditions can't make art from them. Munch's imagination led him to interpret the essentially formless spot as a bird, and his skill allowed him to incorporate that bird in evocative pictures. Still, the condition plays its role.
Flaubert suffered from epilepsy, and his seizures were sometimes accompanied by hallucinations. Some critics have argued that this condition, while not accounting for his genius or making his artistry possible, made its contribution. They have pointed, for instance, to the extreme richness of imagery in Madame Bovary, as well as the descriptions of extraordinary states of mind.
Consider, for example, Flaubert's description of his own hallucinations:
Suddenly, like lightning, there is an invasion or rather an instantaneous irruption of the memory, for a true hallucination is exactly that -- for me, at least. It is an illness of the memory, a loosening of what it contains. You feel the images escaping from you like spurts of blood. It seems as though everything you had in your head were bursting like the thousands of bits of a fireworks display, and you don't have time to look at all these internal images which pass madly by. In other cases, it begins with a single image which grows larger, fills out, and ends by covering objective reality completely, for instance a spark which flutters about and then becomes a great flaming fire. In this latter case, you can perfectly well think of other things at the same time; and it is almost like what is called having spots before your eyes, those little, round, satin spots that some people see floating in the air, when the sky is leaden and their eyes are tired.
Compare the description of Emma's profoundly disturbed state of mind just before she goes to get the arsenic, on pages 308-09.
Flaubert told a friend that, in his hallucinations, "you can perfectly well see an unreal image with one eye and real objects with the other, and again: you can perfectly well think of other things, at the same time." We see this simultaneity not only in Emma's dramatic hallucination, which we just read, but even in Charles' more mundane visions, as on p. 12, where Charles sinks
into a drowsiness in which recent sensations were confused with more distant memories; he saw a double image of himself as both a student and a married man, lying in bed as he had been a short time before, and walking through a surgical ward as he had done in the past. A warm smell of poultices was mingled with the fresh smell of dew; he heard the clatter of curtain rings sliding along the metal rods of hospital beds, and the sound of his wife's breathing as she slept.
Emma's visionary moments often seem hallucinatory, and frequently share the specific characteristics of Flaubert's hallucinations. At the top of p. 157, for example, we read this: "Here and there, all around her, among the leaves and on the ground, were shimmering patches of light, as though hummingbirds had scattered their feathers in flight."
Again, on p. 143, as she smells Rodolphe's hairdressing,
she suddenly felt languid; she recalled the viscount who had waltzed with her at La Vaubyessard and whose beard had given off the same odor of vanilla and lemon as Rodolphe's hair; and unconsciously she half closed her eyes so that she could smell it better. But as she did so she leaned back in her chair saw in the distance, on the furthest horizon, the old stagecoach, the Hirondelle, slowly coming down the Les Leux Hill, trailing a long plume of dust behind it. It was in that yellow carriage that Leon had so often come back to her, and it was along that road that he had left her forever! For a moment she thought she saw him at his window on the other side of the square, then everything became confused and clouds passed before her eyes; it seemed to her that she was again whirling in the waltz, beneath the blazing chandeliers, in the viscount's arms . . . and yet she could still smell Rodolphe's hair beside her. The sweetness of the sensation permeated her past desires, and, like grains of sand in a gust of wind, they swirled in the cloud of subtle fragrance that was spreading through her soul.
Those Romantic heroines we found Emma worshipping on p. 36 “stood out like comets against the vast darkness of history.”
When Flaubert wrote about his own hallucinations being like “having spots before your eyes, those little, round, satin spots that some people see floating in the air,” he used a French idiom for such spots: “papillons noirs”: “black butterflies.”
On page 66, Emma throws her bridal bouquet into the fire. “She watched it burn. The little cardboard berries burst open, the brass wire twisted, the braid melted; and the shriveled paper petals hovered along the back of the fireplace like black butterflies, then finally flew up the chimney.”
Later, at the agricultural fair, at the bottom of page 145, Emma feels a gust of wind, looks out the window into the square, and sees "the big bonnets of the peasant women [rising] like fluttering white butterfly wings."
Later still, Emma tears up a note and throws out of a cab window the "torn scraps of paper which scattered in the wind and fluttered down further on, like white butterflies, in a field of flowering red clover."
Flaubert also said that his epileptic hallucinations were characterized by whirling sensations: "There was a whirlwind of ideas and images in my poor brain which made it seem as though my consciousness, my self, was sinking like a ship in a tempest." This is echoed in Emma's many whirling sensations. On page 107, "she felt limp and abandoned, like a wisp of bird down being whirled along in a storm...." On page 143, she smells Rodolphe's hair, and "the sweetness of the sensation permeated her past desires, and, like grains of sand in a gust of wind, they swirled in the cloud of subtle fragrance spreading through her soul." On page 263, the voice of the blind man "descended into the depths of her soul, like a whirlwind in an abyss, and swept her into realms of boundless melancholy." On page 303, she is "swept along in her memories as in a seething torrent."
In Flaubert's hallucinations, his sense of hearing was abnormally intensified. On page 308, Emma hears "the throbbing of her [own] arteries ... as deafening music filling the whole countryside." "Rodoplphe's letter chronicling in her hand crackles like sheet-metal."
Shortly after completing Madame Bovary, Flaubert said that he had finally rid himself of his epileptic hallucinations. In a letter to a friend, he wrote:
You asked me how I got over the nervous hallucinations which I used to have? In two ways: 1) by studying them scientifically, that is by trying to understand them, and 2) by will power. I often felt madness coming. There was a whirlwind of ideas and images in my poor brain which made it seem as though my consciousness, my self, was sinking like a ship in a tempest. But I held fast to my reason. Even battered and besieged it dominated everything. On other occasions I tried inducing these horrible sufferings artificially by a deliberate act of imagining.... I conquered the ailment by wrestling with it.
Perhaps the writing of this novel was, in effect, part of his therapy, part of his successful attempt to rid himself of his illness "by endowing the world of this novel with its sensations and visions...."
LITERARY RESPONSES Like so many great novels, Madame Bovary has inspired not only great masses of critical commentary, but also numerous responses themselves in literary form. There is an additional layer of irony here in that Emma, led to destruction by fiction itself, has been herself immortalized in more fiction.
The Nobel Prize winner Nadine Gordimer, for example, wrote a 1957 story called “Our Bovary,” resetting Emma’s tale in modern South Africa.
In one of Woody Allen’s cleverest stories, the 1977 “The Kugelmass Episode,” Kugelmass, an unhappily married New York professor tormented by Bovaryesque adulterous longings, is transported by a miraculous machine into Flaubert’s novel. Upon returning, he thinks:
I am in love, I am the possessor of a wonderful secret. What he didn’t realize was that at this very moment students in various classroom across the country were saying to their teachers, “Who is this character on page 100? A bald Jew is kissing Madame Bovary?” A teacher in Sious Falls, South Dakota, sighed and thought, Jesus, these kids with their pot and acid. What goes through their minds!
After numerous visits to 19th-century Yonville, Kugelmass manages to bring Emma to 1977 New York, where they stay at the Plaza Hotel.
“I cannot get my mind around this,” a Stanford professor said. “First a strange character named Kugelmass, and now she’s gone from the book. Well, I guess the mark of a classic is that you can reread it a thousand times and always find something new.”
Meanwhile, Kugelmass says that a Literature professor “who has always been jealous of me, has identified me as the sporadically appearing character in the Flaubert book. He’s threatened to go to my wife.”
Kugelmass finally sends Emma back to Yonville once and for all, but then tries for another literary love affair. This time, however, the machine malfunctions and Kugelmass finds that
he had been projected into an old textbook, “Remedial Spanish,” and was running for his life over a barren, rocky terrain as the word “tener” (“to have”)—a large and hairy irregular verb—raced after him on its spindly legs.
In the most recent example I know, Cathleen Schine’s 2003 novel She Is Me, another New York professor, Elizabeth Bernard—initials E.B.—is lured to Hollywood to write the screenplay for an update of Madame Bovary called Mrs. B., placing her in what the producer calls “the Age of Ikea.” While the producer rejects her scripts because they lack “cutting-edge banality,” Elizabeth feels the kinds of temptations which destroyed her subject.
The most interesting example of all is Christine Brooke-Rose’s novel Textermination. Jane Austen’s novel about Emma Woodhouse was published in England in 1816, and Flaubert’s novel about Emma Bovary was published forty years later. In 1992 Brooke-Rose, an English-born writer long resident in France, published her very clever novel in which the two nineteenth-century Emmas, English and French, meet, interact, and are continually confused with one another. Brooke-Rose plays with the issues of perspective, irony, and free indirect style pioneered in the earlier novels. I recommend Textermination.