Saturday, July 21, 2012

Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary


Opening Passage:

We were in class when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy, not wearing the school uniform, and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who had been asleep woke up, and every one rose as if just surprised at his work.

Summary: The story of Madame Bovary is actually fairly simple. Charles Bovary, a somewhat plodding and not all that bright young man, grows up to become an officier de santé, which is basically a low-level limited medical practitioner registered to a particular place, in this case Rouen; that is, he's not a doctor, but a country and village substitute for one, a very respectable position, but well below the education and status of a doctor or surgeon. Charles is essentially under the thumb of the first Madame Bovary in the novel, his mother; she essentially arranges for him to marry an older wealthy widow, who is the second Madame Bovary we meet in the novel. She dies a fairly short way in. This leads to the third Madame Bovary, Emma, whose marriage to Charles, two adulteries, and debt take up most of the book. At the end of the book, as at the end of life, Emma and Charles both die (not a surprise ending, although getting there is an interesting tale).

It's very tempting to take Emma Bovary, who is the primary character for much of the book, as the subject, but this is misleading; she just happens to be the one who is least predictable, and therefore ends up taking the most time to summarize. It does end up making her for practical purposes the main character of the book. But in a sense I think we can see the book as a study in the usurious approach to life. It's written in a realistic style, although the Emma is not herself an entirely realistic character (no real human being is quite that consistent), and it's not too difficult to see why the book was brought up on obscenity charges, since Flaubert's descriptions are so intense as to be feverish, and this in combination with the theme of adultery inevitably tends in one direction. But I think it's important not to overlook how moralistic, in a non-derogatory sense, the book is. The book is realistic not just about the natural world but about the moral world as well; while Emma is portrayed sympathetically, in that her motives are laid out in such a way that one could at least sometimes sympathize with her, and while the author does not intrude to lecture at us, the book is unequivocal that Emma's course through the book is one of deterioration and corruption. She is, in other words, not a villainess, and her only temperamental weakness is an excessive tendency to live inside her own head and become overly attached to her own ideas so that she becomes bored with the real thing. But the book puts Emma's adultery and her increasing debt due to extravagance in close parallel. Emma's life is one dependent wholly on credit: lending, taking, and borrowing goods and pleasures that are not her. In her affairs, Emma seeks escape from her plodding marriage, but she always matrimonializes her adultery -- her affairs are ideal marriage taken on credit, without any possibility of actual payment or possession, and she builds up the moral interest on these debts throughout the book until it, like her actual financial debt, crashes around her. And Emma herself in the conduct of her affairs occasionally has some uncomfortable parallels with M. Lheureux, the scammer and usurer who gets her into financial straits.

This is a book with hardly any subject -- all the characters are monotone mediocrities -- but a surprising depth arises simply out of the way the book presents them. And this, of course, was precisely Flaubert's aim: almost no subject, almost all style or way of looking at things.

As I noted before, the book's descriptions are very intense, far more intense than I remember from reading it long ago, and far more intense than anyone's actual experience could possibly present them. In the old Norton Critical Edition I read, there was an appended selection from Jean-Paul Sartre in which he perceptively talks about the peculiarity of taking the book as a paradigmatic example of realistic style, which it often still is. There's a sense in which one can entirely see why someone would take it as a work of realism: the relative lack of author's voice, the extraordinary precision of description, the careful use of plausibility. Characters are a bit stylized and simplified, but where they are, it is always in the service of novelistic plausibility. On the other hand, Sartre is quite right that there's something arbitrary about the classification. The descriptions aren't just vivid, they are super-vivid, high definition, often more vivid than they would be in anyone's ordinary experience, since our actual experience of the world leaves a lot of vagueness that is not amenable to crystal clarity. Dreams and imaginations and fantasies play a continual role throughout the book. There is a justly famous passage in which Flaubert depicts Charles and Emma side by side in bed. Charles is dreaming about his family, and his dream has a lot of detail and variation as he follows his daughter through her life; Emma, on the other hand, is fantasizing about running away with her lover, and her fantasy, while vivid and bright, is monotonous. There is so much packed into this one scene of juxtaposed dream and fantasy. When we look at the plot, we find so many parallelisms and symmetries that we can hardly keep track. And the vivid descriptions are quite often not just descriptions but clearly symbolic in character. Sartre's own accont of the work is not all that much more plausible, but he's definitely on to something here: while the realism label makes a sort of sense, one could just as easily call it a work of surrealism or hyperrealism, and the insistence on the work as a realistic work says perhaps as much as or more about the people who classify it as such than about the work together. There are layers and layers here.

Favorite Passage:
Almost all of the descriptions are very good, but the following is an excerpt from what I think the best passage in the book:

He was bored now when Emma suddenly began to sob on his breast; and his heart, like the people who can only stand a certain amount of music, became drowsy through indifference to the vibrations of a love whose subtleties he could no longer distinguish.

They knew one another too well to experience any of those sudden surprises which multiply the enjoyment of a possession a hundredfold. She wa sas sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma found again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage.

But how to get rid of him? Then, though she felt humiliated by the sordidity of such a happiness, she clung to it out of habit, or out of degeneration; she pursued it more desperately than ever, destroying every pleasure by always wishing for it to be too great. She blamed Léon for her disappointed hopes, as if he had betrayed her; and she even longed for some catastrophe that would bring about their separation, since she had not the courage to do it herself.

She none the less went on writing him love letters, in keeping with the notion that a woman must writer to her lover. (p. 211)

Recommendation: Very highly recommended. The book, however, does not have the characteristic found in the greatest novels, like those of Austen or Dickens, namely, the capacity to be read lightly or deeply, as you please -- it demands your full attention all the time. It was, however, quite enjoyable.


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