As part of this course that I’m currently taking called “Modern and Postmodern,” the challenge of Week 4 was starting and finishing Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary in the space of a few days. Mission completed, with the help of channeling my old bookworm days of being immobile on the couch. I don’t think I’ve ever had the pleasure of reading any important French novel (does The Little Prince count?), not even Proust. I’m hoping to save that for sometime in the distant future when I can actually read the original version.
Madame Bovary was assigned in the context of the Enlightenment, when the concepts of reason, science, and literature rose to new heights of importance, as well as the subsequent transition into Romanticism, when reason was then rejected for a new abandonment to emotion, conflict, and expression. What I loved most about this novel was the language that Flaubert used to tell this tragic story. He strove to write “the perfect sentence,” placing emphasis on the form of writing in order to depict social reality, and I’d say he damned well succeeded.
The text is riddled with slight yet vivid details which bring much significance to what is not directly being said, and which also make reading the novel so enjoyable. The characters are so cliche yet tangible, so ridiculous yet believable, because in real life we do see such extremeness of character and similar sad dialogues. All of them seem to have a caricaturistic role to play: Rodolphe is the aristocratic, cruel womanizer; Homais is the pathetic and egotistical philosopher; Charles is the frumpy and boring, clueless husband; and Lheureux is the typical swindling businessman who entraps vain women into bottomless debts.
Madame Bovary herself is the passionate, self-destructive female who is incapable of establishing a true relationship with anyone because of the increasing void which her fulfilled desires create. She lives her menial life in hopes for something better, grander, unreal, and she spends her days in search of a fantasy that could never exist. Bovary is a walking Romantic cliche, and yet, there seems to be more than a spirited Romanticism lurking in the depths of her being. She is extremely unhappy, lost, heartless. She is difficult to identify with and easy to hate because of her inability to value anything that isn’t merely superficial. It’s Romanticism to the point of a cynicism that obliterates real life.
The reader really doesn’t sympathize with any of the characters at all, at least I didn’t. Perhaps the only one who is moving in his goodness is Charles Bovary, but he, too, is just another cliche of blind devotion. All the same, I was so enraptured with the unfolding of Bovary’s adulterous and despicable lifestyle, the way you can’t turn away when you witness a cinematographic downhill plunge into destruction. In a way, I think she uses Romantic notions to justify her complete lack of direction and conviction in life. She strives to heighten the sense of drama and gets into affairs with different men because she enjoys the idea and the image of herself having secret lovers, not because it brings her any sense of happiness or freedom.
There was a particular passage that resounded strongly with me:
He had so often heard these things said that they did not strike him as original. Emma was like all his mistresses; and the charm of novelty, gradually falling away like a garment, laid bare the eternal monotony of passion, that has always the same forms and the same language. He did not distinguish, this man of so much experience, the difference of sentiment beneath the sameness of expression. 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.
This passage struck me first because of memories of a young adult novel we had read in grade school called Tunes for Bears to Dance To by Robert Cormier, which takes its title from this passage by Flaubert. I was moved by the passage while reading, and when I reached the end of it, a light bulb suddenly went off in my head, and I was taken back to grade school when we read Cormier’s rather somber book. I don’t remember too much of it, but I think we were asked to think about what the title meant. The short novel centers around manipulation and the loss of innocence in the life of a young adolescent boy when he loses his brother and moves to a new town, which is not unrelated to the themes at the heart of Madame Bovary.
I think the idea of the inadequacy of human language in expressing a person’s exact needs and wishes is such an important concept to Flaubert’s novel. Madame Bovary has no idea about what she really wants, and she is unable to put into words or communicate with anyone how trapped she feels. Her escapades are only illusions of freedom because at no point does she ever stop pretending to be someone else, that adulterous woman from her childhood novels. The passage really illuminates for us what Madame Bovary’s issue really is; that she’s transformed into an empty shell of a woman whose “exaggerated speech” and lifestyle hide her lack of feeling for anything worthwhile. Her life is exactly that, an empty metaphor. She longs for so much more than that, yet she doesn’t know what it is and how to obtain it.
And it’s really sad because I think the novel also underlines how limited the world was for women during her time. She couldn’t very well have communicated these thoughts to her husband or asked for a separation. Her duty was foremost to be a wife and mother, even if it made her miserable, even if she was horrible at it. The inability to make any choices towards happiness because of her inability to know herself — I think that is the tragedy of Madame Bovary.