Classic Book Review: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

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A fine work of least matter

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert (1856, 352pp)

Madame Bovary is far more than just the unhappy marriage between Charles and Emma Bovary. As a work of literature it transcends mere story-telling to become a work of art, each action and character depicted in precise and skilful brush strokes. It is a masterpiece that Flaubert spent 5 years writing, in a prose style that is as close to poetry as one could get. It is a book that recently came second in a poll of authors’ favourite books, beating War and Peace, Hamlet and A la recherché du temp perdu, and was voted for by writers such as Peter Carey, Julian Barnes, Paul Auster, Norman Mailer and David Lodge.

Flaubert took writing to a level where a sycophant would declare it indistinguishable from music. This style has, however, proved a nightmare for translators over the years. Take the second sentence of the French original: ‘Ceux qui dormaient se réveillèrent, et chacun se leva comme surpris dans son travail.’ Note the end-rhyming and matching rhythm of ‘dormaient’ and ‘réveillèrent’; the ‘K’ sounds in ‘chacun’ and ‘comme’ and the nasal sounds in those and ‘dans son’, which also sustain an ‘S’ repetition from ‘supris’. This is a sentence which flows with a grace and lyricism which the English cannot match, not without losing the sense. Eleanor Marx Aveling and Paul de Man translate this sentence as: ‘Those who had been asleep woke up, and everyone rose as if surprised at his work’ which is about the best we’re going to get.

Much later on, at the start of part two, Flaubert gently introduces the reader to Yonville-l’Abbaye in what can only be described as zooming in: from a broad perspective, as though looking down at a map, he then follows the route of the Bovary’s coach as it enters the village, picking out the scene, zooming into a statue of Cupid ‘his finger to his lips’ and then continuing through to the graveyard. On the surface this is a well-constructed piece of exposition, describing the environment to the reader, getting the tone and temperament of the place as you would the clothes and mannerisms of any other character. But underneath is an intricately crafted piece of writing filled with portents, symbolism and a masterly command of language. The story of Emma Bovary is here in this one passage, everything that happens is written into this introduction like a Russian doll, the whole made miniature within the main body. The cupid is the affairs she will have, the graveyard her eventual destination. The passage: ‘farming is so costly because so much manure is needed to enrich this brittle soil, full of sand and stones’ points to the rampant, empty consumerism which Emma will over-indulge in, desperate to escape her dull, provincial marriage in a dull, provincial town.

This same passage brings in the realism espoused by Balzac – the scientific observation of the world – with the subjectivity of the human observer. Flaubert recognised that the act of observation cannot be merely impressionistic, or solely scientific: it must be both. To this end he includes sentences which exemplify this technique:

‘Before us, on the verge of the horizon, lie the oaks of the forest of Argueil, with the steeps of the Saint-Jean hills scarred from top to bottom with red irregular lines; they are rain tracks, and these brick-tones standing out in narrow streaks against the grey colour of the mountain are due to the quantity of iron springs that flow beyond in the neighbouring country.’

The red lines are at first scars, wounds in the earth which bleeds before us. Then they are explained by the mineral deposits and water movement. Does this add or detract from the poetic enjoyment of the novel? I think it brings a quality of description made richer by the inclusion of both the objective and subjective, allowing the reader to experience the fictional world with knowledge and emotion. Flaubert knows that we don’t view the real world as either purely factual or purely impressionistic – there is always a trace of both, and so there is such within the text.

Realism is immensely important to Flaubert who went to extraordinary lengths to ensure the verisimilitude of Madame Bovary. He set it in and around Rouen, in north east France, where he grew up, borrowing the description of Ry for his fictional village. He takes the events of the life of an old school friend, Eugène Delamare for that of Charles Bovary, changing the personality completely: Delamere was a local politician and an authoritarian husband.

Most alarmingly, however, it is possible he tried arsenic to improve his description of Emma’s suicide. In a letter to Hippolyte Taine in November 1866, Flaubert writes ‘When I wrote the description of the poisoning of Mme Bovary I had the taste of arsenic so much in my mouth, I had taken so much poison myself that I gave myself two bouts of indigestion one after the other – two real bouts for I threw up all my dinner.’ The depiction was so powerful and vivid for him, the verisimilitude so overwhelming, that it triggered a psychosomatic reaction in the one person who knows for certain that it is mere make-believe.

The structure of the book rejects the conventions of a fictional work with the title character at the centre, in favour of a more realistic depiction of the text-world, since for much of the book Emma is not included. The text begins by introducing Charles as a schoolboy, following him through medical school and his first marriage and only then bringing in Emma as the daughter of a patient of Charles’s. After her death the novel continues , beyond the death of Charles and the situation of their daughter, only finishing when the chemist of Yonville has achieved his goal of winning the Legion of Honour. Why push the narrative so far beyond the story of the titular character? Because that is life: it began before and continues after. The marriage of the Bovarys only makes sense when viewed through Charles’s past, and the impact of Emma’s suicide is felt long after she has gone from the text.

Through all this realism and pitch-perfect language there is yet another side of Madame Bovary, one which raises it above the well written and into the satirical and humorous. Flaubert had a hatred of people with ‘received ideas’, i.e: those that repeated, parrot-like, phrases or statements without knowing fully what they implied, or applied them to the wrong subject. He gathered these types of phrases and their incorrect usage into the Dictionary of Received Ideas, published in 1911. Rodolphe, Emma’s first lover, and a cad, sees through the romanticised speeches which Emma delivers, taken from her favourite books:

‘Because lips libertine and venal had murmured such words to him, he believed but little in the candour of hers; exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fullness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make bears dance when we long to move the stars.’ (Part 2, Ch. 12)

The language she uses is far in excess of the emotion that she has, but she makes her ‘exaggerated speeches’ because that is what seems appropriate. Flaubert steps in after the semicolon to argue the opposite side, that sometimes language cannot contain the ‘fullness of the soul’, that it is a ‘cracked tin kettle’ – cheap and useless, an ineffective vehicle to transmit our true emotions, or express our minds completely.

It is obvious to see that such a master of language as Flaubert would be offended by cheap and ill-thought out sentiments. From a more important perspective, a lack of wisdom in communication is a worthwhile object of disdain, since language is primarily used for expressing ideas. Such despair at verbal idiocy colours his depiction of the Yonville locals – unfortunately the context of those received ideas is now lost from the zeitgeist and would take too long to resurrect.

In a letter to Louise Colet on January 16, 1852, Flaubert writes: ‘The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result.’ This is not a book about events and action, but one of thought and language. As such it is the supreme example and rightly deserves its place as one of the world’s most revered and influential of books.


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