My aged professor’s hunched figure hobbles through the door each morning, usually muttering a hello to the class or launching directly into a ramble about our novel. He positions himself behind the dark wooden podium, which obscures most of his body. We only see the brown leather shoulder pads on his green canvas coat and the snow-white tufts of hair on his head, and everything in between. As he talks he alternates between English and French.
“I don’t know why, I just feel like speaking English more today,” he muddle-stutters. “I don’t know… I just feel like it.”
He tends to repeat things twice, sometimes, too.
He glances occasionally at a loose stack of yellow lined notepad paper with sharp crisp lettering in blue ink adorning its surface. In between long winds of explanations, he coughs, clears his throat abruptly, and with vigor (a jarring phenomenon to witness at first, but I have, oddly enough, grown rather used to it at this point). Besides my professor’s idiosyncrasies, the insights I’ve unearthed from the novel we are tackling, Madame Bovary, have made a lasting impression in my mind.
Up to three times per class, my professor interrupts his thoughts mid-sentence to digress that Madame Bovary is the best novel ever written in the history of French culture, that it is a phenomenal effort by the author, Gustave Flaubert, to engage in modern methods of expression in literature.
“This book is about the sadness of life, really.” he sighs, he blinks, and continues, “I don’t think young people should be allowed to read this book. It’s too harsh, too cynical.”
Under the guidance of my peculiar professor, I learned some fascinating information I will now relay back to the universe via cyberspace. Here goes :
Madame Bovary was published in 1857 by Gustave Flaubert, when Paris looked like this:
A brief summary: Emma Bovary marries a gentle and well-meaning, but rather dull and boring bafoon of a husband, Charles Bovary. By way of rather shallow ‘love’ affairs and spending more money than she has, Emma lives beyond her means in order to escape the banalities and emptiness of her provincial life.
Flaubert went on trial for the promiscuity of his writing the year the novel was published. Remember that film did not exist quite yet; it wasn’t invented until nearly four decades after Madame Bovary’s publication. Naturally, novels had greater impact on the literate populations of the time. Literature was one of the most primary and vivid methods of story-telling for the public. Emma’s intense problem of desire to escape the boredom and insufficiency of life, and Flaubert’s expression of her dissatisfaction and frustration with her life, was thought to arouse the passions of the middle-class society of women. The novel was charged as “an outrage to public and religious morals.”
As a brief side note I want to acknowledge that this work was indeed written from the perspective of a woman by an upper-class 36-year-old French white man, and so it goes without saying that it cannot contain the subtle, unspoken and inexplicable, nuances that form the complete whole of a womanhood. Accepting these facts and moving on, I chose, for this reason, to focus on reading the novel not so much as an authentic account of gendered experience but more so as an intimate look into life for a woman in the time period, and the nature of the patriarchal system she finds herself as victim of.
In class we only briefly touched on the feminist tones of the novel. My professor has not explored the concept in further detail on the grounds that there is deeper meaning behind the novel as an aesthetic document. He says that all great works transcend sex and gender. Which I have decided that I do agree with, however, I think that for certain works, a specific sex may resonate on a different level with the truths of that story because of particular sensibilities. He claims that women probably get more out of Madame Bovary that men do, which I have also decided that I would like to believe.
Flaubert’s literary predecessors were Honoré de Balzac and Victor Hugo, whom wrote in a styles referred to as “realism” and “romanticism,” respectively. They entail long winding descriptions and the monumentalizing of objects and people, as well as emotionally charged, dramatic exchanges and experiences.
To be modern is to make a clean break with the past. If the past of literature consisted of didactic realism and inflated romanticism, then Madame Bovary is a satire of not only contemporary systems and society, but of past literary styles themselves. Madame Bovary cuts directly to the bare, stark core of the bleak reality of things. Furthermore, this means that Flaubert’s novel is not so much called “modern” for the content of the story, but the way in which the story is told. The surface plot of Madame Bovary is banal as can be, considering that stories about adultery are as old as books themselves.
There are a number of ways in which Flaubert’s style exudes these bold jabs at the ridiculousness and dated-ness of the past while establishing some new experimental
1). He writes in imperfect tense, discards the safety net narrator.
This tense combines past tense and imperfective aspect (reference to a continuing or repeated action). It has meanings similar in English like “was walking” or “used to walk.” The ambiguity and vagueness of this tense leaves readers unsure of the exact order and timing in which certain actions of the characters are performed. This imprecision stems from a larger effort on Flaubert’s part to do away completely with the concept of the narrator. In past novels, the narrator was always established as an all-knowing figure who provided masses of information and insights about characters and the storyline. In this novel, the voice of the narrator is absent; Flaubert asserts that the narrator is no longer our friend here.
2). Ironic tone and distancing of past conventions
As is so concisely put by Dangerous Pages Redux, Madame Bovary is “a biting satire of the French bourgeoisie, the petty, social climbing snobs of the middle road…The novel comments on the trends of the time, using Emma as a mouthpiece to show France’s upwardly mobile middle class as unsophisticated, gaudy and materialistic.” One way Flaubert subverts the norm is through his extensive and obviously sarcastic use of clichés. During one of the exchanges between Emma and her lovers, for example, the couple discuss the colors of the setting sun and of music. The conversation continues to drone on this note of mockingly sappy dialogue. Flaubert presents clichés as a reflection of people’s suffering from a lack of originality and freshness in ideas. Flaubert italicizes terms in order to deliberately set them apart as words that he, for lack of better words, finds dumb. To distance his writing style from the romantics’, he purposefully dedicates an absurdly long chunk of text to the meticulous description of a ridiculous looking hat. This is his jab at past writers and their encyclopedic portrayal of objects and people. Talk about being shady.
3). ‘Flaubertian’ Lyricism
While some passages in the novel are bitingly satiric and ironic, Flaubert’s writing occasionally undulates into zones of poetic descriptions that have a melodic rhythm and project harmonious images. In other words, his writing goes beyond prose and towards the sensuous oscillation of a rising and falling pitch. For example, take the sentence:
“La pluie ne tombait plus; le jour commençait à venir, et, sur les branches des pommiers sans feuilles, des oiseaux se tenaient immboiles, hérissant leurs petites plumes au vent froid du matin.” (Partie Une, Chapitre II).
Here, we see that the “et” (“and”) acts as a break, in the sense that the portion of the sentence preceding the word is pronounced in a rising tone, and, the second portion of the sentence after the “et” is read to end in a falling, lower toned pitch. Each comma acts as a marker to change an octave. Hence with his ample use of semicolons and “et” to direct the melody of his words, Flaubert achieves a poetic form of writing.
“La phrase prend de l’ampleur,” says my professor.
It is for this reason that I must also be the barer of bad news for all non-French readers out there; to really get the full effect of the sing-song poetic quality ingrained in Flaubertian diction and syntax structure, one must read en Francais. Flaubert deliberately chose certain words in this language for not only their pointed meanings but the sound they make when they are uttered in the mind or aloud while reading.
4). Big themes
Emma suffers from a fundamental unhappiness deeply rooted in boredom, the banality and insufficiency of her life. To escape her suffering and attempt to transcend the limits of her desires, Emma falls hard for the fairytale ending she has read about in books, and becomes fully invested in insisting that these illusions appear in her reality. She is driven forth by the hope for Prince Charming to show up, for a life of adventure, for anywhere but here. Tangled in this net of solitary suffering and longing, Emma rejects both her husband and child, and centers her energy on herself. At the same time that Emma is portrayed as a bitter, unkind and cold person, the hopelessness of her dealing with her situation demands sympathy from the reader which Flaubert has managed to masterfully extract. Madame Bovary is captivating because of the complexities of both themes and character that is presents.
5). My favorite concept:
The passage from the novel that has occupied my thoughts the most as of late lies in Flaubert’s commentary about the limitations of spoken word. Interrupting a sparse dialogue between the characters, Flaubert injects a paragraph about the failure of words to capture and express, at times, the core of an emotion or thought. This got me thinking that all linguistic endeavors are man-made. They are not innate, they were not born with the Earth but with humans. Language and words are just a tool that humans made up in the hopes that the pronunciation of certain sounds in determined orders, combinations and tonal inflections would approximate, closely enough, the essence of a mood or idea that stirs inside of a person. But words can fail us sometimes, and that’s okay. It’s okay because this leaves some truths impossible to express. And that leaves some truths holy.
6). What to make of it
My professor triumphantly announced on the first day of class, “Ce livre n’est pas à props de Madame Bovary, mais de nous.” (“This book is not about Madame Bovary, but about us.”)
Flaubert has famously said “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.” (“Madame Bovary is me.”)
How do I reconcile these claims? Well, they are not mutually exclusive. Flaubert wrote this book partly in self-reflection and deep analysis of self, which he infused into Emma’s character and mentality. Yet this same mentality is what extends and connects to us all as breathing, thinking beings. In reading the novel, a certain familiarity of emotions will seep into your periphery and you will confront yourself.
It is about Flaubert, and me, and you.
Header image: Photograph of 19th century Paris