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Gustave Flaubert (pronounced [gystaːv flobɛːʁ] in French) (December 12,
1821 – May 8, 1880) was a French writer who is counted among the
greatest Western novelists. He is known especially for his first
published novel, Madame Bovary (1857), and for his scrupulous devotion
to his art and style.
Early Life and Education
Portrait by Eugène GiraudFlaubert was born on December 12, 1821, in
Rouen, Seine-Maritime, in the Haute-Normandie region of France. He was
the second son of Achille-Cléophas Flaubert (1784–1846), a surgeon, and
Anne Justine Caroline (née Fleuriot) (1793–1872). He began writing at an
early age, as early as eight according to some sources. He was educated
in his native city and did not leave it until 1840, when he went to
Paris to study law.
In Paris, he was an indifferent student and found the city
distasteful. He made a few acquaintances, including Victor Hugo. Towards
the close of 1840, he travelled in the Pyrenees and Corsica. In 1846,
after an attack of epilepsy, he left Paris and abandoned the study of
After leaving Paris, Flaubert returned to Croisset, close to Rouen, and
lived with his mother. Their home near the Seine became Flaubert's home
for the rest of his life. Flaubert never married. From 1846 to 1854, he
had an affair with the poet Louise Colet (his letters to her survive).
According to his biographer Émile Faguet, his affair with Louise Colet
was his only serious romantic relationship. He sometimes visited
prostitutes. Eventually, the end of his affair with
Louise Colet led Flaubert to lose interest in romance and seek platonic
companionship, particularly with other writers.
With his lifelong friend Maxime du Camp, he traveled in Brittany in
1846. In 1849-1850 he went on a long journey to the Middle East,
visiting Greece and Egypt. In Beirut he contracted syphilis. He spent
five weeks in Constantinople in 1850. After 1850, Flaubert lived in
Croisset with occasional visits to Paris and England, where he had a
mistress. He visited Carthage in 1858 to conduct research for his novel
Flaubert was a tireless worker and often complained in his letters to
friends about the strenuous nature of his work. He was close to his
niece, Caroline Commanville, and had a close friendship and
correspondence with George Sand. He occasionally visited Parisian
acquaintances, including Émile Zola, Alphonse Daudet, Ivan Turgenev, and
Edmond and Jules de Goncourt.
The 1870s were difficult. Prussian soldiers occupied his house during
the War of 1870, and in 1872, his mother died. After her death, he fell
into financial straits. Flaubert suffered from venereal diseases most of
his life. His health declined and he died at Croisset of a stroke in
1880 at the age of 58. He was buried in the family vault in the cemetery
of Rouen. A monument to him by Henri Chapu was unveiled at the museum of
In September 1849, Flaubert completed the first version of a novel, The
Temptation of Saint Anthony. He read the novel aloud to Louis Bouilhet
and Maxime du Camp over the course of four days, not allowing them to
interrupt or give any opinions. At the end of the reading, his friends
told him to throw the manuscript in the fire, suggesting instead that he
focus on day to day life rather than on fantastic subjects.
In 1850, after returning from Egypt, Flaubert began work on Madame
Bovary. The novel, which took five years to write, was serialized in the
Revue de Paris in 1856. The government brought an action against the
publisher and author on the charge of immorality, which was heard during
the following year, but both were acquitted. When Madame Bovary appeared
in book form, it met with a warm reception.
In 1858, Flaubert traveled to Carthage to gather material for his
next novel, Salammbô. The novel was completed in 1862 after four years
Drawing on his childhood experiences, Flaubert next wrote L'Éducation
sentimentale (Sentimental Education), an effort that took seven years.
L'Éducation sentimentale, his last complete novel, was published in
He wrote an unsuccessful drama, Le Candidat, and published a reworked
version of La Tentation de Saint-Antoine, portions of which had been
published as early as 1857. He devoted much of his time to an ongoing
project, Les Deux Cloportes (The Two Woodlice), which later became
Bouvard et Pécuchet, breaking from the obsessive project only to write
the Three Tales in 1877. This book comprised three stories: Un Cœur
simple (A Simple Heart), La Légende de Saint-Julien l'Hospitalier (The
Legend of St. Julian the Hospitaller), and Hérodias (Herodias). After
the publication of the stories, he spent the remainder of his life
toiling on the unfinished Bouvard et Pécuchet, which was posthumously
printed in 1881. It was a grand satire on the futility of human
knowledge and the ubiquity of mediocrity. He believed the work to be his
masterpiece, though the posthumous version received lukewarm reviews.
Flaubert was a prolific letter writer, and his letters have been
collected in several publications.
Work and legacy
More than perhaps any other writer, not only of
France, but of modern Europe, Flaubert scrupulously avoids the inexact,
the abstract, the vaguely inapt expression which is the bane of ordinary
methods of composition. As a writer, Flaubert was nearly equal parts
romantic, realist, and pure stylist. Hence, members of various schools,
especially realists and formalists, have traced their origins to his
work. The exactitude with which he adapts his expressions to his purpose
can be seen in all parts of his work, especially in the portraits he
draws of the figures in his principal romances. The degree to which
Flaubert's fame has extended since his death presents an interesting
chapter of literary history in itself. He is also accredited with
spreading the popularity of the color Tuscany Cypress, a color often
mentioned in his chef-d'oeuvre Madame Bovary.
Flaubert was fastidious in his devotion to finding the right word
("le mot juste"), and his mode of composition reflected that. He worked
in sullen solitude - sometimes occupying a week in the completion of one
page - never satisfied with what he had composed, violently tormenting
his brain for the best turn of a phrase, the final adjective. His
private letters indeed show that he was not one of those to whom
correct, flowing language came naturally. His style was achieved through
the unceasing sweat of his brow. Flaubert’s just reward, then, is that
many critics consider his best works to be exemplary models of style.
Flaubert's lean and precise writing style has had a large influence
on 20th century writers such as Franz Kafka through to J.M Coetzee. As
Vladimir Nabokov discussed in his famous lecture series:
The greatest literary influence upon Kafka was Flaubert's. Flaubert
who loathed pretty-pretty prose would have applauded Kafka's attitude
towards his tool. Kafka liked to draw his terms from the language of law
and science, giving them a kind of ironic precision, with no intrusion
of the author's private sentiments; this was exactly Flaubert's method
through which he achieved a singular poetic effect.
This painstaking style of writing is also evident when one compares
Flaubert’s output over a lifetime to that of his peers (see, for example
Balzac or Zola). Flaubert published much less prolifically than was the
norm for his time and never got near the pace of a novel a year, as his
peers often achieved during their peaks of activity. The legacy of his
work habits can best be described, therefore, as paving the way towards
a slower and more inspective manner of writing.
The publication of Madame Bovary in 1856 was followed by more scandal
than admiration; it was not understood at first that this novel was the
beginning of something new: the scrupulously truthful portraiture of
life. Gradually, this aspect of his genius was accepted, and it began to
crowd out all others. At the time of his death he was widely regarded as
the most influential French Realist. Under this aspect Flaubert
exercised an extraordinary influence over Guy de Maupassant, Edmond de
Goncourt, Alphonse Daudet, and Zola. Even after the decline of the
Realist school, Flaubert did not lose prestige in the literary
community; he continues to appeal to other writers because of his deep
commitment to aesthetic principles, his devotion to style, and his
indefatigable pursuit of the perfect expression.
He can be said to have made cynicism into an art form, as evinced by
this observation from 1846:
To be stupid, and selfish, and to have good health are the three
requirements for happiness; though if stupidity is lacking, the others
His Œuvres Complètes (8 vols., 1885) were printed from the original
manuscripts, and included, besides the works mentioned already, the two
plays, Le Candidat and Le Château des cœurs. Another edition (10 vols.)
appeared in 1873–1885. Flaubert's correspondence with George Sand was
published in 1884 with an introduction by Guy de Maupassant.
He has been admired or written about by almost every major literary
personality of the 20th century, including philosophers and sociologists
such as Pierre Bourdieu and Jean Paul Sartre whose partially
psychoanalytic portrait of Flaubert in The Family Idiot was published in
1971. Georges Perec named Sentimental Education as one of his favorite
novels. The Peruvian novelist Mario Vargas Llosa is another great
admirer of Flaubert. Apart from Perpetual Orgy, which is solely devoted
to Flaubert's art, one can find lucid discussions in Vargas Llosa's
recently published Letters to a Young Novelist.
Sentimental Education is surely one of the greatest novels yet
written, possibly even the greatest triumph in literary realism
ever accomplished. It is a novelist's novel: though at first
condemned as immoral by the Parisian reviewers on its
publication in 1869, it was greatly admired by younger aspiring
novelists. In the early twentieth century it stood as the
measure to be matched by James Joyce and Ezra Pound. Flaubert
was a tremendous laborer in his craft, obsessively preoccupied
with the exactitude of every detail of social observation, as
well as with literary style. He was the mythical master
novelist, devoted beyond comprehension—the modern novelist,
writing to a commercially imposed deadline, is the complete
Sentimental Education follows Frederic Moreau, an idle young man
living on a grand inheritance. His ambitions and principles are
discarded and dimmed in a thrillingly observed satire on the
mentality of affluent consumers in a mid-nineteenth-century
Paris defined by its ubiquitous exhibition of luxury goods and
attitudes. But this is also the Paris of the July revolution of
1848. Frederic drifts through the uprising, scintillated by
death on the barricades as much as he is by a proprietorial
relationship with a courtesan chosen to help him forget his true
passion for another man's wife.The novel is at once gigantic in
its historical perception, and minutely attentive to the slow
suffocation of emotional and political idealism in a single
The Temptation of Saint Anthony
Flaubert sought to write an epic of spiritual torment that might
provide for French literature something of the centrality and
quality that Goethe's Faust has for German literature. The
work's dramatic form influenced the development of modernist
play-texts in the novel, notably the "Circe" section of Joyce's
Ulysses, while its catalog of borderline states and delirious
imagery prefigured Lautreamont and Surrealism. It is perhaps the
most successful novel that might also be called a prose poem.
Its critical contrast between early Christianity and the poetics
of modern fiction exemplifies the modernist dialogue between
ancient and modern worlds.
The work portrays the reflected, inner life of a fictionalized
Saint Anthony, based on the fourth-century Christian anchorite
who lived in the Egyptian desert. Anthony undergoes trials of
the mind, the temptations of sexuality and sensuality, and the
torments of dialogue with Hilarion, the voice of scientific
reason. Hilarion is followed by a cast of biblical proportions,
from the Queen of Sheba to the Sphinx. With Flaubert's
encyclopedia of biblical and profane imagery, the novel explores
the language and meaning of religious, philosophical, and
literary skepticism. Engaging with the delusions brought only
hunger and feelings of sin, the novel is a must for inyone
interested in religion, hallucinations of the modernist poetics.
Bouvard and Pecuchet
On a hot summer's day, two clerks named Bouvard and Pecuchet
meet on the Boulevard Bourdon in Paris, and discover that they
have not only written their names on exactly the same spot on
their hats, but they have the same liberal political opinions,
and most importantly, the same yearning for knowledge. Thanks to
an inheritance, they retire to the countryside, where they
propose to test all existing theories in all areas of knowledge.
As they challenge the received ideas, the protagonists become
more and more aware of inconsistencies that are spread
everywhere in their manuals. From their first experiments in
agronomy, Bouvard and Pecuchet enter into a repetitive cycle o.
events: they consult numerous encyclopedias and monographs,
apply their knowledge, fail catastrophically in their
experiments, regret the falsity and defects of their chosen
field, and move on to a new one. They investigate all topics,
from archaeology to theology, before giving up their quests and
deciding to become copyists again.
This "grotesque epic," unfinished and published posthumously,
stands out in the history of the novel. It encapsulates a
dramatic passion for knowledge, embodied by the heroes'
enthusiasm for the most practical or philosophical problems.
Conveyed in I Hubert's economical style, Bouvard and Pecuchet's
episodic enthusiasms, earnest endeavors.
Madame Bovary is a revelation; almost one-hundred-and-fifty
years old, it feels as fresh as if it were tomorrow's novel.
Readers who are accustomed to think of nineteenth-century novels
as rambling, digressive, plot-driven stories, will have a shock
when they encounter a novel from that long century that is
digressive and has a compelling plot but which wraps ail these
up in a prose style so exquisite the book feels fragile and
sturdy all at once.
Flaubert takes the story of adultery and presents it as banal,
an unheroic element of the unheroic provincial petit bourgeois
world he is immersed in. But he also makes it beautiful, sordid,
melancholy, and joyous, revels in emotions run amok and the mess
of feelings that cliches can neither hide nor contain. Emma
Bovary, a beauty confined to a marriage which bores her, yearns
for the gigantic and gorgeous emotions she finds in the romance
novels she devours. Her life, her husband, her imagination is
not enough; she takes a lover and then another, but they too
fail to sate her appetites. She shops, using an array of
material objects as a means of fulfilment; when these also give
way before the depths of her yearning, she finally kills
herself, in debt and in despair.
Flaubert does not mock Emma Bovary; neither does he
sentimentalize, moralize, or treat her joy or desperation as
heroic. The impersonal, prosaic narrator, a monster of precision
and detachment yet endearing, almost charming, mocks all with
his aloofness, and cherishes all with his lavish and meticulous
attention to detail. The result is a rich context—not just for
Emma Bovary but for the novel, for writing itself. For so much
scrupulous care to be given to something, that something must be
precious. Flaubert makes this novel precious.
Type of Work: Novel
Author: Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)
Type of plot: Psychological realism
Time of plot: Mid-nineteenth century
First published: 1857 (English translation, 1886)
This masterpiece of realism is an in-depth psychological study of
a beautiful but bored and restless woman whose romantic fantasies and
yearnings lead her to seek diversion from the monotony of her married
life. Madame Bovary was one of the first novels of its kind to come out
of France and caused a great deal of controversy among contemporary
readers and critics; some were shocked at the presentation of the
spoiled, romantic adulteress, while others saw the novel as moral and
applauded Flaubert's skill and honesty of treatment.
Emma Bovary (e'mabo-va-re'), a sentimental young woman whose foolishly
romantic ideas on life and love cause her to become dissatisfied with
her humdrum husband and the circumstances of her married life. Her
feeling of disillusionment leads her first into two desperate, hopeless
love affairs and then to an agonizing and ugly death from arsenic.
Filled with fiery, indefinite conceptions of love which she is capable
of translating only into gaudy bourgeois displays of materialism, she is
unable to reconcile herself to a life of tedium as the wife of a country
doctor. In her attempt to escape into a more exciting world of passion
and dreams, she drifts into shabby, sordid affairs with Rodolphe
Boulanger and Leon Dupuis. The first of these lovers, an older man,
dominates the affair; the second, inexperienced and young, is dominated.
Because Emma brings to both of these affairs little more than an
unsubstantial and frantic desire to escape from her dull husband and the
monotony of her life, the eventual collapse of her romantic dreams, the
folly of her passionate surrender to passion and intrigue, and her
death, brought on by false, empty pride, are inevitable.
Charles Bovary (sharl bo-va-ă¸'), Emma's well-meaning but docile and
mediocre medical husband. An unimaginative clod without intelligence or
insight, he is unable to understand, console, or satisfy the terrible
needs of his wife. Every move he makes to become a more important figure
in her eyes is frustrated by his inadequacy as a lover and a doctor, for
he is as much a failure in his practice as he is in his relations with
Emma. Her suicide leaves him grief-stricken and financially ruined as a
result of her extravagance. Soon after her death, he discovers in the
secret drawer of her desk the love letters sent her by Rodolphe and
Leon, and he learns of her infidelity for the first time. When he dies,
the sum of twelve francs and seventy-five centimes is his only legacy to
his small daughter.
Rodolphe Boulanger (ro-dolf boo-lan-zha'), Emma Bovary's first lover. A
well-to-do bachelor and the owner of the Chateau La Huchette, he is a
shrewd, suave, and brittle man with considerable knowledge of women and
a taste for intrigue. Sensing the relationship between Emma and her
husband, he makes friends with the Bovarys. sends them gifts of venison
and fowl, and invites them to the chateau. On the pretext of concern for
Emma's health, he suggests that they go riding together. He finds Emma
so easy a conquest that after a short time he begins to neglect her,
partly out of boredom, partly because he cannot see in himself the
Byronic image Emma has created in her imagination; she never sees
Rodolphe as the loutish, vulgar man he is. After he writes her a letter
of farewell, on the pretext that he is going on a long journey, Emma
suffers a serious attack of brain fever.
Leon Dupuis (la-oan' du-piie'), a young law clerk infatuated with Emma
Bovary but without the courage to declare himself or to possess her.
With him she indulges in progressively lascivious behavior in her
attempt to capture the excitement and passion of the romantic love she
desires. Leon, because he lacks depth and maturity, merely intensifies
Emma's growing estrangement from her everyday world. When Leon, who
never realizes the encouragement Emma offers him, goes off to continue
his studies in Paris, she is filled with rage, hate, and unfulfilled
desire, and a short time later she turns to Rodolphe Boulanger. After
that affair she meets Leon once more in Rouen, and they become lovers.
Oppressed by debts, living only for sensation, and realizing that she is
pulling Leon down to her own degraded level, Emma ends the affair by
Monsieur Lheureux (Ice-roe'), an unscrupulous, corrupt draper and
moneylender who makes Emma the victim of his unsavory business deals by
driving her deeper and deeper into debt. Her inability to repay the
exorbitant loans he has made her in secret forces the issue of suicide
on her as her only escape from her baseless world.
Monsieur Homais (ý-ň¸'), a chemist, presented in a masterpiece of ironic
characterization. A speaker in cliches, the possessor of a wholly trite
"Scientific Outlook" on society, he regards himself as a Modern Man and
a Thinker. His pomposity and superficial ideals become one of the
remarkable facets of the novel, as Flaubert sketches the hypocrisy and
mediocrity of Charles Bovary's friend. Homais epitomizes the small-town
promoter, raconteur, and self-styled liberal.
Hippolyte Tautain (¸-đá-let' to-tan'), a witless, club-footed boy
operated on by Charles Bovary at the insistence of M. Homais, who wishes
to bring greater glory to the region by proving the merits of a new
surgical device. Bovary's crude handling of the operation and the
malpractice involved in the use of the device cause the boy to lose his
leg. The episode provides Flaubert with an excellent commentary on both
Homais and Bovary.
Theodore Rouault (ta-6-dor' ăáî-ŕĂ), Emma Bovary's father, a farmer.
Charles Bovary first meets Emma when he is summoned to set Rouault's
Berthe Bovary (bert bo-va-ă¸'), the neglected young daughter of Emma and
Charles Bovary. Orphaned and left without an inheritance, she is sent to
live with her father's mother. When that woman dies, the child is turned
over to the care of an aunt, who puts her to work in a cotton-spinning
Captain Binet (be-ďŕ'), the tax collector in the town of
Justin (zhus-tan'), the assistant in the shop of Mr. Homais. Emma
persuades her young admirer to admit her to the room where poisons are
kept. There, before horrified Justin can stop her, she secures a
quantity of arsenic and eats it.
Madame Veuve Lefran§ois (vcev' la-fraan-swa'), the proprietress of the
inn in Yonville-l'Abbaye. Hippolyte Tautain is the hostler at her
Heloise Bovary (¸-16-ez' bo-va-ă¸'), Charles Bovary's first wife, a
woman much older than he, who had deceived the Bovarys as to the amount
of property she owned. Her death following a severe hemorrhage frees
Charles from his nagging, domineering wife, and soon afterward he
marries young Emma Rouault.
Charles Bovary was a student of medicine who married for his own
advancement a woman much older than he. She made his life miserable with
her nagging and groundless suspicions. One day Charles was called to the
bedside of Monsieur Rouault, who had a broken leg, and there he met the
farmer's daughter, Emma, a beautiful but restless girl whose early
education in a French convent had given her an overwhelming desire for
broader experience. Charles found his patient an excellent excuse to see
Emma, whose charm and grace had captivated the young doctor. His whining
wife, Heloise, however, soon began to suspect the true reason for his
visits to the Rouault farm. She heard rumors that in spite of Emma's
peasant background, the girl conducted herself like a gentlewoman. Angry
and tearful, Heloise made Charles swear that he would not visit the
Rouault home again. Then Heloise's fortune was found to be nonexistent.
A violent quarrel over her deception and a stormy scene between Heloise
and Charles's parents brought on an attack of an old illness. Heloise
died quickly and quietly.
Charles felt guilty because he had so few regrets at his wife's death.
At old Rouault's invitation, he went once more to the farm and again
fell under the influence of Emma's charms. As old Rouault watched
Charles fall more deeply in love with his daughter, he decided that the
young doctor was dependable and perfectly respectable, and so he forced
the young man's hand, telling Charles he could have Emma in marriage and
giving the couple his blessing.
During the first weeks of marriage Emma occupied herself with changing
their new home and busied herself with every household task she could
think of to keep herself from being utterly disillusioned. Emma realized
that even though she thought she was in love with Charles, the rapture
which should have come with marriage had not arrived. All the romantic
books she had read during her early years had led her to expect more
from marriage than she received, and the dead calm of her feelings was a
bitter disappointment. The intimacy of marriage disgusted her. Instead
of a perfumed, handsome lover in velvet and lace, she found herself tied
to a dull-witted husband who reeked of medicines and drugs.
As she was about to give up all hope of finding any joy in her new life,
a noble patient whom Charles had treated invited them to a ball at his
chateau. At the ball Emma danced with a dozen partners, tasted
champagne, and received compliments on her beauty. The contrast between
the life of the Bovarys and that of the nobleman was painfully evident.
Emma became more and more discontented with Charles. His futile and
clumsy efforts to please her only made her despair at his lack of
understanding. She sat by her window, dreamed of Paris, moped, and
Hoping a change would improve her condition, Charles took Emma to
Yonville, where he set up a new practice and Emma prepared for the birth
of a child.
When her daughter was born, Emma's chief interest in the child was
confined to laces and ribbons for its dresses. The child was sent to a
wet nurse, where Emma visited her, and where, accidentally, she met Leon
Dupuis, a law clerk bored with the town and seeking diversion. Charmed
with the youthful mother, he walked home with her in the twilight, and
Emma found him sympathetic to her romantic ideas about life. Later Leon
visited the Bov-arys in company with Homais, the town chemist. Homais
held little soirees at the local inn, to which he invited the townsfolk.
There Emma's acquaintance with Leon ripened. The townspeople gossiped
about the couple, but Charles Bovary was not astute enough to sense the
interest Emma took in Leon.
Bored with Yonville and tired of loving in vain, Leon went to Paris in
order to complete his studies. Brokenhearted, Emma deplored her weakness
in not giving herself to Leon, fretted in her boredom, and once more
made herself ill.
She had not time to become as melancholy as she was before, however, for
a stranger, Rodolphe Boulanger, came to town. One day he brought his
farm tenant to Charles for bloodletting. Rodolphe, an accomplished
lover, saw in Emma a promise of future pleasure. Emma realized when
Rodolphe began courting her that if she gave herself to him her
surrender would be immoral. Nevertheless, she rationalized her doubts by
convincing herself that nothing as romantic and beautiful as love could
Deceiving Charles, Emma met Rodolphe, rode over the countryside with
him, listened to his urgent avowals of love, and finally succumbed to
his persuasive appeals. She felt guilty at first, but later she
identified herself with adulterous heroines of fiction and believed
that, like them, she had known true romance. Sure of Emma's love,
Rodolphe no longer found it necessary to continue his gentle lover's
tricks. He no longer bothered to maintain punctuality in his meetings
with Emma; and though he continued to see her, she began to suspect that
his passion was fading.
Meanwhile Charles became involved in Homais' attempt to cure a boy of a
clubfoot with a machine Charles had designed. Both Homais and Charles
were convinced that the success of their operation would raise their
future standing in the community. After weeks of torment, however, the
boy contracted gangrene, and his leg had to be amputated. Homais'
reputation was undamaged, for he was by profession a chemist, but
Bovary, a doctor, was looked upon with suspicion. His practice began to
Disgusted with Charles's failure, Emma, in an attempt to hold Rodolphe,
scorned her past virtue, spent money recklessly on jewelry and clothes,
and plunged her husband deeply in debt. She finally secured Rodolphe's
word that he would take her away, but on the very eve of what was to be
her escape, she received from him a letter so hypocritically repentant
of their sin that she read it with sneers. Then, in horror over the
realization that she had lost him, she almost threw herself from the
window. She was saved when Charles called to her. She became gravely ill
with brain fever and lay near death for several months.
Her convalescence was slow, but she was finally well enough to go to
Rouen to the theater. The tender love scenes behind the footlights made
Emma breathless with envy. Once more, she dreamed of romance. In Rouen
she met Leon Dupuis again.
This time Leon was determined to possess Emma. He listened to her
complaints with sympathy, soothed her, and took her driving. Emma, whose
desire for romance still consumed her, yielded herself to Leon with
regret that she had not done so before.
Charles Bovary grew concerned over his increasing debts. In addition to
his own financial worries, his father died, leaving his mother in
ignorance about the family estate. Emma used the excuse of procuring a
lawyer for her mother-in-law to visit Leon in Rouen, where he had set up
a practice. At his suggestion she secured a power of attorney from
Charles, a document which left her free to spend his money without his
knowledge of her purchases.
Finally, in despair over his debts, the extent of which Emma only partly
revealed, Charles took his mother into his confidence and promised to
destroy Emma's power of attorney. Deprived of her hold over Charles's
finances and unable to repay her debts, Emma threw herself upon Leon's
mercy with all disregard for caution. Her corruption was so complete
that she had to seek release in pleasure or go out of her mind.
In her growing degradation, Emma began to realize that she had brought
her lover down with her. She no longer respected him, and she scorned
him when he was unable to give her the money she needed to pay her
bills. When her name was posted publicly for a debt of several thousand
francs, the bailiff prepared to sell Charles's property to settle her
creditors' claims. Charles was out of town when the debt was posted, and
Emma, in one final act of self-abasement, appealed to Rodolphe for help.
He, too, refused to lend her money.
Knowing that the framework of lies with which she had deceived Charles
was about to collapse, Emma Bovary resolved to die a heroine's death and
swallowed arsenic bought at Homais' shop. Charles, returning from his
trip, arrived too late to save her from a slow, painful death.
Pitiful in his grief, Charles could barely endure the sounds of the
hammer as her coffin was nailed shut. Later, feeling that his pain over
Emma's death had grown less, he opened her desk, to find there the
carefully collected love letters of Leon and Rodolphe. Broken with the
knowledge of his wife's infidelity, scourged with debt, and helpless in
his disillusionment. Charles died soon after his wife, leaving a legacy
of only twelve francs for the support of his orphaned daughter. The
Bovary tragedy was complete.
Gustave Flaubert's genius lay in his detailed descriptions. Madame
Bovary, so true in its characterizations, so vivid in its setting, so
convincing in its plot, is ample testimony to the realism of his work.
This novel was one of the first of its type to come out of France, and
its truth shocked contemporary readers. Condemned on the one hand for
picturing the life of a romantic adulteress, Flaubert was acclaimed on
the other for the honesty and skill with which he handled his subject.
Flaubert does not permit Emma Bovary to escape the tragedy which she
brings upon herself. Emma finds diversion from the monotony of her life,
but she finds it at the loss of her own self-respect. The truth of
Emma's struggle is universal and challenging.
From the time of Charles Baudelaire to the present, many critics have
noted, either approvingly or disapprovingly, Flaubert's application of
an accomplished and beautifully sustained style to a banal subject
matter in Madame Bovary. In Flaubert's own time, many readers objected
to vulgarity as well as banality in the use of an adulteress as heroine.
Baudelaire, however, offered a telling defense against this criticism in
his acknowledgment that the logic of the work as a whole provides an
indictment of the protagonist's immoral behavior.
Flaubert himself viewed his book as "all cunning and stylistic ruse."
His intention was to write "a book about nothing, a book with no
exterior attachment ... a book which would have almost no subject."
Flaubert's goals, however, were not as purely aesthetic as they might
initially seem in that he did not mean to eschew significance entirely.
Rather, he meant that any subject matter, no matter how trivial, could
be raised to art by language and pattern. Like Stendhal and Honore de
Balzac, he believed that quotidian matters could be treated seriously,
but Flaubert goes further than his predecessors in refusing to provide
narrative guidance and interpretation.
Erich Auerbach has observed that Flaubert seems simply to pick scenes
which are significant and to endow them with a language that allows them
to be interpreted. As a result, many commentators have seen Flaubert as
the first modern novelist, even a precursor of the anti-novelist,
because of his unwillingness to deal with subject matter in the
traditional manner. Certainly, he represents a break with the past to
the extent that the novel had been essentially narration. Although he
does retain the story, he makes the novel over, in his own words, into
"a coloration, a nuance."
At the heart of the novel is a provincial dreamer, a romantic who
distorts her environment and ultimately destroys herself with wish
fulfillments born of the desperate boredom of her circumscribed
situation. Her romantic illusions, however, are not the theme of the
novel so much as they are the prime example of the human stupidity which
dominates all the characters. Charles is trapped by his subhuman
complacency as much as Emma is by her vain imaginings. The surrounding
figures, more types than fully developed characters, represent
contemporary failures—the irresponsible seducer, the usurer, the
inadequate priest, the town rationalist. Each is isolated from the
others by his own obsession or deficiency, and all contribute to the
overwhelming stagnation which smothers Emma.
Martin Furnell has divided the novel into three parts, each of which is
controlled by an action and a dominant image. In the first part, Emma
marries Charles, and the dominant image is in her visit to Le
Vaubyessard. The marriage is the central fact of her discontent, while
the visit ostensibly provides her with a view of the opulent life she so
desperately and nonspecifically craves. In the second part of the novel,
she is seduced by the conscienceless landowner Rodolphe, and the
dominant image is the Cornices Agricoles, the elaborate fair with its
rustic and vulgar trappings. To Emma, as she is succumbing to Rodolphe,
the Cornices Agricoles is the very symbol of the limitations of her
life. Naturally, she is not capable of consciously making such an
interpretation. If she were, her perception might save her. Moreover,
what she does not realize is that her affair is as banal as the fair.
The third part of the novel describes her seduction by Leon, and the
dominant image is the meeting in Rouen Cathedral. The cathedral becomes
both church and boudoir, populated not only by images of saints but also
by a statue of Diane de Poitiers, a notable adulteress. Once again, Emma
reaches out to the grand but is compromised by her own limitations and
those of her situation.
The dominant images, which reveal the ambiguity as well as the
frustration of her predicament, are reinforced and refined by a series
of recurrent minor images. A striking example is the plaster statue of a
cure which deteriorates as Emma is progressively debased. The image is
extended by a contract of the cure's statue with a statue of Cupid: love
and sexuality rise as the holy man disintegrates. Later, the damage to
the cure's foot reminds the reader of Charles's peasant boots, which
resemble a club-foot, and of the amputation of Hippolyte's leg as a
result of Charles's desperate desire to please Emma. As these complex
images recur, they bind together the varieties of stupidity and vanity.
Even more revolutionary than the use of imagery is the point of view,
the series of perspectives from which Flaubert narrates the story. He
does not assume the stance of the distanced observer but repeatedly
shifts the point of view to avail himself of multiple angles of vision.
The narrative begins and ends with scenes focused on Charles. Although
Flaubert never allows Charles a first-person presentation, the reader
sees the beginning of the novel— and, indeed, is introduced to Emma—from
Charles's perspective. The reader finally returns to view the debris of
the conclusion from the vantage point of this uncomprehending victim.
Most of the novel is seen from Emma's perspective, but there is such a
deft playing off of Emma's perceptions against the narrator's control
that the reader is able to analyze her perceptions in a broader context
rather than simply accept them as fact. The details of Charles's eating
habits, for example, become both a sign of his bovin-ity, to Emma and
the reader, and a sign of Emma's discontent, to the reader. Looking out
from Emma's or Charles's eyes, the reader is granted insights that are
beyond the mental capacity of either character: Flaubert presents what
they perceive as a means of representing what they fail to perceive. An
advantage of this method is that, while the reader becomes aware of
Emma's shortcomings, a sympathy develops: The reader recognizes the
oppressiveness of Emma's circumstances, the triviality of her evil, and
the relative sensitivity of her kind of stupidity.
Thus, apparently subjective presentations, controlled and ordered by
Flaubert's selection of image and detail, reveal what the characters
themselves do not understand. Emma's romantic idealism is the prime
example. If Flaubert cannot make tragedy out of these ingredients, he
can quite powerfully describe, in his miniscule characters, personal and
social frustration on a grand scale.