The exploration of naturalistic themes in Flaubert's novel.

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[The wind-tower] was a giant, standing with its back to the plight of the ants. It represented in a degree . . . the serenity of nature amid the struggles of the individual— nature in the wind, and nature in the vision of men. She did not seem cruel to him then, not beneficent, not treacherous, not wise. But she was indifferent, flatly indifferent.”

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This famous passage from Stephen Crane’s short story “The Open Boat,” which focuses on four men in a small dinghy struggling against the current to make it to shore, is often quoted as an apt expression of the tenets of naturalism, a literary movement that emerged in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries in France, America, and England. Writers included in this group, such as Crane, Emile Zola, and Theodore Dreiser, expressed in their works a biological and/or environmental determinism that prevented their characters from exercising their free will and thus controlling their fates. Crane often focused on the social and economic factors that overpowered his characters. Zola’s and Dreiser’s works include this type of environmental determinism, coupled with an exploration of the influences of heredity, in their portraits of the animalistic nature of men and women engaged in the endless and brutal struggle for survival. In Madame Bovary, completed in 1856, Gustave Flaubert’s treatment of the main character in Madame Bovary, proves the novel to be an important precursor of the naturalist movement. As Flaubert explores the environmental and biological forces that shape Emma Bovary’s character and experience, he raises important questions about how much influence we have over our destinies.

Two biological factors help determine Emma’s fate: her innate sensuality and her romantic imagination. Her sensuality becomes apparent as soon as Charles meets her. As he watches her sew, she pricks her fingers on the needle. Immediately she raises them up to her mouth and sucks them. Later, when they are drinking liquor, she drains her glass and licks, with the tip of her tongue, the final drops. Her passionate nature could have been allowed full expression in marriage and thus resulted in a satisfying relationship and a contented life for Emma. However, Charles’s “placid dullness” quickly dampens her passion. She notes that if Charles had been receptive to her spirited nature, “a sudden overflow would have poured from her heart as the ripe fruit falls from a tree when one lays hand to it.” She expects him to “initiate [her] into the forces of passion . . . but he taught nothing . . . knew nothing, desired nothing.” As a result, Emma could only wonder “just what was meant, in real life, by the words felicity, passion and intoxication, which had seemed so beautiful to her in books.”

Emma turns to sentimental novels, with their dashing heroes, in an attempt to imaginatively live the passionate life she desires. Her imagination recreates these fictional figures into two men, with whom she enters into adulterous affairs. Her attraction for Léon turns to love one afternoon as she gazes at him and at the same time conjures an image of Charles as she has seen him so many times in the past. When the juxtaposition of the images of these two men causes her to compare them, Léon emerges as the superior. Thereafter, Léon becomes the focal point for her marital boredom as he reappears in her imagination “taller, more handsome, more polished, more indistinct” than he actually is. Thus, by the time the two are reunited, Emma is primed to fulfill her romantic dream of a passionate relationship with him.

Her imaginative vision of the opera singer becomes the final determining force that propels her into an affair with Léon. As she listens to the singer, his voice “seemed to her no more than the echo of her own consciousness and the illusion which cast its spell over her, something out of her own life.” When she sees Léon at the opera, she transfers her feelings for the singer to him, making their union inevitable.

Emma’s affair with Rodolphe is sparked by her evening at La Vaubyeeard, where, for the first time, she experiences the intoxicating world of the upper class, a world she wants desperately to make her own. The evening is capped by her waltz with a viscount, which embodies for her the “luxurious life which she must soon abandon.” Later, as Rodolphe tries to convince her to give in to her desires, she recalls images of the viscount and of Léon. The juxtaposition of these images with the presence of Rodolphe and his amorous words causes an imaginative fusion for Emma, who is now ready to allow herself to be seduced.

Emma’s fate is determined not only by her nature and her vivid imagination. These biological forces combine with environmental factors that help propel Emma to her tragic end. Flaubert notes the social reality of the world Emma is so desperate to enter as he describes the gentlemen seated at the dinner table at La Vaubyeeard: “in their indifferent glances was the serenity of passions daily gratified.” Their “brutality” emerges “in fairly unexacting matters where force is employed and in which vanity takes pleasure: the handling of blooded horses and the society of abandoned women.”

Rodolphe recognizes Emma as one such “abandoned woman.” He callously manipulates her feelings after he determines that she is “gaping for love like a carp on the kitchen table for water.” Thus he knows that he will be able to seduce her with loving words and attention. Revealing his self-serving nature, he worries about “how to get rid of her afterwards.” Her affair with Rodolphe initially brings her the fulfillment she lacked in her relationship with Charles. However, soon Rodolphe decides that “Emma was like all mistresses; the charm of newness, slipping down little by little like a garment, revealed unclothed the eternal monotony of passion.” As a result, he abandons her, leaving her more despondent than she had been before the affair.

Emma’s financial situation exacerbates her depression, causing her to spend more extravagantly and thus increasing her debt. Her vision of herself enjoying the comforts of the upper class prompts her to surround herself with artifacts from that world. She notes the lack of control she has over their financial situation and over her romantic imagination when she decides that she would rather have a boy than a girl, since “a man, at least is free . . . but a woman is continually restrained.” She insists that a woman is governed by “the fragilities of the flesh and the restrictions of the law. Her will . . . flutters in every wind; there is always some desire urging her on, some convention restraining her.”

As in the situation that the men in Crane’s open boat discover for themselves, no benevolent force comes to Emma’s aid. She feels a sense of abandonment after she tries to talk to the local priest but cannot make him understand her desperate plight. When she tries to explain her unfulfilled needs to him, he insists that all one requires is to be warm and well fed. After Rodolphe leaves her, she again searches for spiritual solace “but no sensation of rapture descended to her from heaven, and she would rise, her legs wearied, with a vague consciousness of having been vastly cheated.” Susanna Lee, in her article on the novel for Symposium, writes that “God’s absence or indifference . . . is a foundational event in Madame Bovary, the explicit reason for Emma’s contaminated existence.”

Emma’s passionate nature and her vivid imagination combine with the social forces of her age to determine her fate. As Emma faces the disintegration of her love affair with Léon and the humiliation of her financial situation, she desperately searches for some form of salvation, but can find none. As a result, she determines that her only escape can be through death. Flaubert’s compelling portrait of a desperately unfulfilled woman in Madame Bovary places the novel firmly in the naturalist tradition as it engages readers in a tragic study of free will and determinism.

Source: Wendy Perkins, Critical Essay on Madame Bovary, in Novels for Students, The Gale Group, 2002.

Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary

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Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4532

Questions of gender in recent French literary criticism have generally been posed by feminist critics. Writers such as Hélène Cixous, Julia Kristeva, and Luce Irigaray have pointed out that men do not need to pose such questions, as they are already in possession of the dominant language system. “What does it mean to write as a woman or to read as a woman?” has been a common question in feminist criticism whether one speaks of a feminist critique, a Female Aesthetic, gynocritics, or gynesis. Male critics have indeed rarely felt the need to formally pose such a question, but with the rise of gender theory, the comparative study of sexual difference, men have felt empowered to ask: “What does it mean to write as a man or to read as a man?” All of this is complicated by the question of essentialism and the debate over whether or not critics should distinguish between male and female modes of writing and reading. All anti-essentialist feeling rejects biological sex as the determining factor in writing or reading. Yet even after one eliminates biological sex as a consideration, the masculine/feminine opposition does not disappear. Feminists in particular continue to struggle with the question of whether it is best to assimilate or differentiate feminist views from the mainstream, whether to identify an “écriture féminine” or aspire to an “écriture” that would be equally accessible to women. The most fruitful avenue of exploration seems to be to raise questions of gender, both biological and non-biological, and asking such questions may, after all, be the most significant contribution of feminist criticism to the study of literature.

Writers as diverse as Jean de Meung, Christine de Pisan, Marguerite de Navarre, Rousseau, Stendhal, and Balzac have debated various influences— positive and negative—of women writers and readers in particular. The twentieth century has expanded and heightened the discussion, in both intellectual and emotional terms. In this paper, I will examine Gustave Flaubert’s thinking about the problem of masculine versus feminine writing to show that many of the questions pertinent today were being asked over a century ago by an author whose misogyny today’s feminists would find reprehensible. While Flaubert was concerned with maintaining a “masculine” style, a stylistic study of his writing yields less than a thematic one. It is in the very threads of Flaubert’s story that we find categories of sexual difference which give rise to the questions we are highlighting here. A brief examination of considerations of gender in Madame Bovary will show how Flaubert attempted to put his views into literary practice and will underline the importance of the questions raised for twentieth-century gender criticism.

In a letter to his longtime lover, Louise Colet, Flaubert declares: “Je suis un homme-plume. Je sens par elle, à cause d’elle, par rapport à elle et beaucoup plus avec elle.” “Homme and “plume” are key words in the formulation of Flaubert’s aesthetic, for they represent the author in his entirety. The man—and I think we must read the masculine into this term rather than the generic “man”— would not exist without the pen—this is a common thread throughout Flaubert’s correspondence. But just as importantly, the pen’s existence depends on the man, the essentially masculine man who controls the language system. Flaubert was keenly aware of the role of gender in writing, and he used male images to describe the writing process: “Cet homme qui se dit si calme est plein de doutes sur lui-même. Il voudrait savoir jusqu’à quel cran il peut monter et la puissance exacte de ses muscles. Mais demander cela, c’est être bien ambitieux, car la connaissance précise de sa force n’est peut-être autre que le génie.” This notion of strength is seen in Flaubert’s development of an impersonal style: “Rappelons-nous toujours que l’impersonnalité est le signe de la Force.” “Homme” and “plume” thus become inextricable forces in an aesthetic based on the assumption of male ownership of the pen.

Flaubert’s correspondence reveals him to be a misogynist, his reflections on women and sex consisting mainly of vulgarities transmitted to male friends and condescending homilies sent to Louise Colet. Sartre points out that for Flaubert, “comme pour ses amis, la copulation est éminemment publique; les filles sont propriété collective, on partouse, on se raconte grossièrement les parties de jambes en l’air, on se communique les bonnes adresses.” Despite such stereotypical male attitudes, however, and perhaps because of them, Flaubert was deeply concerned with questions of gender difference when it came to literary creation. He writes, “j’aime les phrases mâles et non les phrases femelles comme celles de Lamartine”, and though we can imagine what he means, Flaubert never specifically spells it out.

Ironically, the most powerful character to emerge from this fundamentally masculine enterprise was a female, Emma Bovary. In creating his heroine, Flaubert was forced to examine how a male creates a female character and how much transference took place between himself and Emma. Baudelaire immediately recognized the male in Emma, calling her androgyny her greatest strength as a literary character, “une âme virile dans un charmant corps féminin.” While Emma is indeed androgynous, we can say the same for her creator. While he has infused his character with a masculine part of himself, he has in turn assumed a certain female sensibility in his characterization and even his most sacredly impersonal language. Paradoxically, then, Flaubert would seem to be the kind of androgynous writer feminist theorists have idealized yet without any of the sensibilities feminists attach to their notion of such a writer.

Flaubert was acutely aware of his emotional involvement with his character, and he occasionally found himself almost physically ill after a difficult passage. He writes to Louise Colet:

Il faut t’aimer pour t’écrire ce soir, car je suis épuisé. J’ai un casque de fer sur le crâne. Depuis deux heures de l’après-midi, j’écris de la “Bovary.” Je suis à la Baisade, en plein, au milieu. On sue et on a la gorge serrée. Voilà une des rares journées de ma vie que j’ai passée dans l’Illusion, complètement, et depuis un bout jusqu’à l’autre. Tantôt à six heures, au moment où j’écrivais le mot “attaque de nerfs,” j’étais si emporté, je gueulais si fort, et sentais si profondément ce que ma petite femme éprouvait, que j’ai eu peur moi-mâme d’en avoir une.

Flaubert has invested himself in the novel through identification with Emma. He is polymorphic as well as androgynous. The fictive illusion captures him as do the fictive illusions of Emma’s reading. Yet the misogyny remains very much in evidence in a term such as “ma petite femme.” There exists at once sameness and difference, and the feminine Other Flaubert finds within himself bears no resemblance to the other woman Hélène Cixous describes: “There always remains in woman that force which produces/is produced by the other—in particular, the other woman . . . Text: my body—shot through with streams of song; I don’t mean the overbearing, clutchy “mother” but, rather, what touches you, the equivoice that affects you, fills your breast with an urge to come to language and launches your force . . . that part of you that leaves a space between yourself and urges you to inscribe in language your woman’s style.” Everything is different/difference here between Flaubert’s Other and Cixous’s as well as between their conception of “force” in writing. And the difference does not stem solely from biological considerations but is seated in the fabric of writing itself. Flaubert is concerned with the preservation of the dominance of male over female, whether in the conception of a Romantic heroine or the formulation of a writing style. Cixous, on the other hand, proposes that a woman can write with a force equal to the male’s. Flaubert’s “androgyny,” then, is a false one, as his incorporation in his character remains incomplete. Yet we must be careful not to dismiss the emotional input of the author, for it is significantly sexually inflected, and it raises questions of gender in our minds as well as Flaubert’s.

Emma’s well-documented projection into the literary characters she envies is not accompanied by any of the defenses Flaubert provides for himself when he projects himself into his character. In her utter reliance on the validity of literature, she loses herself in the illusions of metaphor, what René Girard calls “external mediation.” Despite Flaubert’s complete dispersal of self into every element— human and natural—of his scene, he is still conscious of the fiction: “Mais je redoute le réveil, les désillusions des pages recopiées.” Taken into the seduction scene during the act of creation, Flaubert the artist still realizes he must go through the work of revision. After allowing the restraints of self to be broken, Flaubert returns to assert his mastery over the written word. The illusion of immediacy and immersion is broken. Fiction is no longer authentic life; he is no longer seduced by the metaphor. This is the ultimate masculine act, the immersion in language, the realm of the Father.

Emma, whose lack of gender definition has been noted, finds her downfall in her inability to leave fiction, especially a fiction she has entered after the very seduction scene Flaubert has just described writing. Lucette Czyba has noted this dichotomy between Flaubert’s and Emma’s relation to fiction. Czyba sees the writing of Madame Bovary as a “dépassement” of Flaubert’s romantic youth. “Le texte ne reproduit pas en effet passivement les thèmes anesthésiants de l’idéologie dont l’héroïne est victime mais les présente de façon à produire activement les conditions d’une lecture démystificatrice.” Emma’s attitude, however, is “‘romantique’ car elle conserve l’illusion d’éprouver des désirs spontanés alors qu’ils sont en fait médiatisés.” Emma’s incorporation into fantasy is a complete metamorphosis. Her present and her past are part of the metaphor. Yet her fictive world eventually disintegrates. The very scene in which her mental illusions are destroyed is also, like the seduction scene, one which demonstrates Flaubert’s dispersal into the novel.

Rejected by Rodolphe, ignored by Léon, all Emma has left is the memory of her loves. Forced into recognizing that her literary models have failed her, she experiences an attaque de nerfs that resembles Flaubert’s own nervous attacks which began in early 1844. In a letter to Hippolyte Taine, Flaubert described those attacks as “une maladie de la mémoire, un relâchement de ce qu’elle recèle. On sent les images s’échapper de vous comme des flots de sang.” Flaubert’s description of Emma’s attack echoes his own: “elle ne souffrait que de son amour, et sentait son âme l’abandonner par ce souvenir, comme les blessés, en agonisant, sentent l’existence qui s’en va par leur plaie qui saigne.”

Association between the open wounds and death is deliberate on Flaubert’s part; if Flaubert’s own attacks signaled a possibility of literal death, Emma’s attacks correspond to the death of her fictional self. The distinct images of Emma’s memory explode “à la fois, d’un seul bond, comme les mille pièces d’un feu d’artifice.” She is fragmented, a disassociated body. Her memory has become divorced from herself, and without her fictive models or her memory, she no longer has the assurance of identity. Emma’s body is divorced from the body’s experience and from language. Lacan’s theory of the fragmented body describes this process at separation: “This experience (when the body senses its split from the Real) can neither be included in the Imaginary, the realm of illusory wholeness, nor can it be part of the Symbolic, the domain which grants a conditional identity. The traumatic moment can thus return in psychosis as the experience of the ‘fragmented body’, unique for every subject, remainder and reminder of this fracture, appearing in art as images of grotesque dismemberment.” Emma feels herself fragmenting, and language fails to prevent it from happening. Without the prerogative of the masculine, i.e., writing, Emma is condemned to fragmentation.

Critics such as Michal Peled Ginsburg see Emma’s downfall more in her inability to narrate than in her immersion in literary reverie. If Emma were able to tell her story as other Flaubertian characters have (Mémoires d’un fou, Novembre, La Tentation de Saint Antoine), she would be conscious of the repetitive nature of her experience and would then have the power to escape the complete immobility in which she finds herself. Ginsburg writes: “Emma dreams not too much but too little— too little not in terms of the practical welfare of a provincial woman but in terms of the possibility of creating fiction, of coming into being as a narrator.” Flaubert thus keeps Emma in a woman’s place, in silence.

Marguerite Duras generalizes this idea of men imposing silence on women: “The silence in women is such that anything that falls into it has an enormous reverberation. Whereas in men, this silence no longer exists . . . Because men have established the principle of virile force. And everything that emerged from this virile force—including words, unilateral words—reinforced the silence of women. In my opinion, women have never expressed themselves.” Yet Emma’s silence has repercussions that go beyond the simple recognition of women’s silence. Emma is not simply a woman who does not write; she is a fictional character whose creator does not permit her to do so. By looking at some of her attempts to write, we may better understand Flaubert’s motives.

Emma, while dreaming of becoming a famous novelist, writes only letters to her lovers. As Naomi Schor has pointed out, Emma’s letter writing goes through three stages. At first, Emma writes letters in order to receive letters from her lovers. She takes “pleasure in the communication forbidden, impossible on the speech plane.” Emma later uses her correspondence in an attempt to revive a waning passion: “. . . dans les lettres qu’Emma lui envoyait, il était question de fleurs, de vers, de la lune et des étoiles, ressources naïves d’une passion affaiblie, qui essayait de s’aviver à tous les secours extérieurs.” Finally, when Emma sees in Léon only the same emptiness she found in her husband, she attempts to remystify him in writing: “. . . en écrivant, elle percevait un autre homme, un fantôme fait de ses plus ardents souvenirs, de ses lectures les plus belles, de ses convoitises les plus fortes.” Emma the writer thus remains as ineffectual as the women Hélène Cixous describes who write in secret because they are ashamed, because writing is “reserved for the great—that is for ‘great men’.” By the end of this third stage, Emma no longer writes in hopes of having a letter in return; she writes to purge herself of the monotony of her life.

Schor concludes her analysis of Emma’s writing by claiming that on one level, at least, Emma triumphs over Homais and comes to represent Flaubert’s view that writing has a feminine sex:

It is not by chance that the writing apprenticeship and the "virility apprenticeship," if I may call it that, follow paths which ultimately converge at the time of Emma’s affair with Léon, for their affair marks the triumph of the imaginary over the real, this being the precondition of all writing. If, insofar as the effect on the real is concerned, Homais' writing surpasses Emma’s; considered in terms of the "reality effect," it is without any doubt Emma’s (Flaubert’s) writing that surpasses Homais’ for the "reality effect" can only be achieved through a total renunciation of any real satisfaction, can only be the just reward of sub- limation, i.e., castration. For Flaubert writing thus has a sex, the sex of an assumed lack, the feminine sex.

If we reconsider “the triumph of the imaginary over the real” as an essential precondition of writing, Schor’s conclusion can be brought into question. It the imaginary is seen as stemming from the collection of experiences each author has in his or her memory, then we could say that the triumph of memory over the real is the essential precondition of writing. And since Emma’s memories focus largely on works of literature, for her—and I submit for Flaubert—writing retains the masculinecoded connotation it has traditionally had. Writing thus does not represent a lack, but a fulfillment in the transformation of memory into language. Flaubert’s desire to write “des phrases mâles” is representative of his desire to translate his memories into writing.

Flaubert, unlike Emma, captures his memories and activates them in his literary creation. According to Charles Bernheimer, Flaubert creates “with the blood issuing from the wound of memory, be it Emma’s, his own, or the accumulated archival memory of the nineteenth century.” Flaubert thus escapes the fate he has prepared for his main character. By dispersing himself throughout his fiction, Flaubert becomes an integral part of each work. He becomes his own reader as he grapples with his memories, and in a sense becomes the hero of his own work. Victor Brombert surely speaks for many readers when he writes: “A curious symbiotic relationship exists between Flaubert and his heroine. The novelist . . . draws his fictional creature toward himself, and discovers himself in Emma even more than he projects himself into her . . . [Flaubert] is to some extent playing hide and seek with himself.” This relationship between author and character is not as curious as it seems when one takes gender into account. Flaubert is fascinated by Emma’s femaleness, just as he endows her with a certain maleness. As we have seen, he does not allow Emma to win the game of hide and seek that he is playing not only with himself but with her, but if he did not let her play, she would lose much of her force as a character.

If Flaubert is the hero of his own work, then he must necessarily be a reader of himself, creating a new relationship between author and reader. Marcel Proust’s observation “En réalité chaque lecteur est quand il lit le propre lecteur de soimême” remains true, but the author has added himself to our numbers. By doing so, he allows the reader to share his memories, and in a sense to become a collaborator of the work. Fusion of author and character results in a fraternity between author and reader which allows the reader to find truth and beauty in the universal. For Flaubert, this universal is decidedly masculine-tinted for it can be attained only through the strength of masculine prose (presumably, Lamartine would be excluded).

Reader/writer/participant/reader once again— these are all facets of the man who was in constant pursuit of truth, beauty, and self-understanding. Flaubert never allowed his character to escape her bovarysme because he never allowed her to discover the unifying process of the artist. In 1852 he sent this very Baudelairian statement to Louise Colet: “Ne faut-il pas pour être artiste, voir tout d’une façon différente à celle des autres hommes?”. Flaubert’s characters were among the “autres hommes” whose view of the world and whose goals were often different from the artist’s. Their search for self-understanding was invariably derailed by an equally strong desire for happiness, a goal of second rank in Flaubert’s hierarchy: “Ne sens-tu pas qu’il y a quelque chose de plus élevé que le bonheur? que l’amour et que la Religion, parce qu’il prend sa source dans un ordre plus impersonnel? . . . Je veux dire l’idée.” The artist is able to accomplish what his characters cannot: he can transfer his memories and personal preoccupations into writing, and by reading the idea of himself which he has created, he can better understand himself.

This last statement must, however, be viewed in the context of Flaubert’s own terminology as it pertains to gender, for otherwise it would be incomplete. He writes of these “autres hommes,” a group into which I have placed his characters, including Emma Bovary. Although I have attributed to her certain masculine traits, she is decidedly female. Going one step further, if we ignore the physical sex of these “autres hommes” for a moment, is Flaubert not indeed referring to those who are not artists and therefore not controllers of language, i.e., females? Is not the list of things that Flaubert disdains—happiness, love, and religion—an enumeration of interests that nineteenth-century French society assigned primarily to women? And finally, in distancing himself from anything personal, is Flaubert not trying to eliminate the feminine from his writing? Flaubert was a man writing with the force of a man for an audience of men who presumably would best understand his work. (He always had his male friends, Alfred Le Poittevin or Louis Bouilhet, critique his work, rather than Louise Colet. He preferred to critique hers.) Yet his encounter with Emma Bovary clouded the waters somewhat for him, and he was forced to reexamine his position, even though he did not fundamentally change it.

Flaubert’s notion of the idea (“Idée”) is clearly linked to his fascination with the power (“Force”) of writing, the strength so closely gender-identified with the masculine. His correspondence describes this “Idée” not as an idea, for Flaubert even writes that he is not much interested in ideas, but rather as an integral part of style: “. . . l’âme courbée se déploie dans cet azur, qui ne s’arrête qu’aux frontières du Vrai. Où la Forme, en effet, manque, l’Idée n’est plus.” The composing of Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s conscious attempt to eliminate all but “la Forme,” to write his “livre sur rien.” Even though he is unable to succeed in such an undertaking, it is important that he was always conscious of his stated goal. Even if Emma Bovary shares some of herself with Flaubert, and even if the text writes its author as much as the author writes it, Flaubert never ceased to write the masculine, attempting to eliminate “les phrases femelles” and all attachment to anything outside the cherished “Idée.”

Flaubert’s concept of writing presents a direct contrast to modern-day feminist theories of feminine writing. For Hélène Cixous, for example, “l’écriture féminine” is located in a realm where all difference has been abolished. There are no rigid boundaries of style because writing is a never-ending process:

The book—I could reread it with the help of memory and forgetting. Start over again. From another perspective, from another and yet another. Reading, I discovered that writing is endless. Everlasting. Eternal.

Writing or God. God the writing. The writing God.

Although there is no difference here, it is still the realm of the omnipotent, represented for Cixous by the omnipotent mother. Thus it is that writing, while emanating from a sexless world, can, for Cixous, be gender-identified as feminine; hence the appellation “l’écriture féminine.”

In light of definitions of “l’écriture féminine,” what then is the place of Flaubert’s “écriture masculine” in the history of literary criticism? Certainly, since the rise of feminist criticism, style based solely on a masculine conception of strength has been roundly condemned. And yet some of the more forceful proponents of a new writing that might be considered genderless call for just such a strong language, but one that will not be limited to males. Kristeva speaks of a “spasmodic force” of the unconscious which disrupts women’s language because of their strong links with the pre- Oedipal mother-figure. Yet it is actually disrupting the traditional male-dominated system of language and, far from weakening feminine writing, strengthens it from within the system. “For Kristeva . . . there is a specific practice of writing that is itself ‘revolutionary’, analogous to sexual and political transformation, and that by its very existence testifies to the possibility of transforming the symbolic order from the inside.” An author’s biological sex is thus secondary to the subject position she or he takes up in determining revolutionary potential.

Certain patterns appear throughout the feminist aesthetic which help shed light on our discussion of Flaubert’s view of language in relation to twentieth-century critics. First, we see as a given of feminist theory a rejection of the appropriation of language. The goal is to carve out a place for women’s writing, inside or outside of the established order. Second, women’s writing squarely places itself in the sociopolitical arena. One cannot discuss women’s writing without examining its revolutionary effects outside the world of literature. Finally, for Kristeva and others, gender distinctions disappear. There is no longer any “écriture féminine” or “écriture masculine,” only “écriture.”

We seem to have come full circle here. For it could be argued that before feminist criticism there was only “écriture.” The radical difference, of course, is that this previous writing was generally written by males for a public subsumed in a maledominant society. Literature by and for females could not be taken quite as seriously. Flaubert wrote according to that essentially male model, but he was not totally comfortable with the assumption of the masculine in his writing. He had to prove constantly to himself that his language was sufficiently “male,” so that he would not fall into the trap of Romanticism, into the “female” phrases of Lamartine. Flaubert would certainly have been aghast at the feminine writing proposed by Cixous, for he was fighting to conserve and perfect the traditional Symbolic order.

It would be an injustice to see Flaubert as simply a proponent of male dominance. While he stands for the system feminists are resisting, he was open to questions of gender in the creative process. From a non-gender-identified writing came a style that was consciously male. At the same time, he became aware of the dangers of such a fundamental strategy. Emma Bovary taught him the power of the feminine and allowed him to see himself as he never had before. Flaubert opened a debate that would soon be taken up by Zola in his criticism of Hugo and would continue throughout the Naturalist and Symbolist periods.

Flaubert’s world, a world of men, by men, and for men, is not likely to return, precisely because male ownership of language can no longer be taken for granted. Yet through his struggle to preserve that domain, Flaubert necessarily gained consciousness of its arbitrariness. By posing questions concerning gender, Flaubert unwittingly contributed to the evolution of viable alternatives to writing the masculine.

Source: William C. VanderWolk, “Writing the Masculine: Gender and Creativity in Madame Bovary,” in Romance Quarterly, Vol. 37, No. 2, May 1990, pp. 147–56.

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Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert