Lawrence Thornton (essay date 1978)

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SOURCE: "The Fairest of Them All: Modes of Vision in Madame Bovary," in PMLA: Publications of theModern Language Association, Vol. 93, No. 5, October, 1978, pp. 982-91.

[In the following essay, Thornton examines the sources of Emma Bovary 's fantasies in a conflation of fairy tales and romantic literature. He notes that "Flaubert presents Emma's fantasy life through a series of tableaux in which her imagination is associated with images of mirrors."]

She had a magic looking-glass and when she stood before it and looked at herself she used to say: "Mirror, mirror, on the wall, who is fairest of us all?" Then the glass replied: "Queen, thou'rt fairest of them all."

"Snow White"


On her first evening in Yonville, Emma Bovary becomes involved in a discussion of esthetics with the local litterateur, Léon Dupuis. "[Q]uelle meilleure chose," he argues, "que d'être le soir au coin du feu avec un livre, pendant que le vent bat les carreaux, que la lampe brûle?"

—N'est-ce pas? dit-elle, en fixant sur lui ses grands yeux noirs tout ouverts.

—On ne songe à rien, continuait-il, les heures passent. On se promène immobile dans des pays que l'on croit voir, et votre pensée, s'enlaçant à la fiction, se joue dans les détails ou poursuit le contour des aventures. Elle se mêle aux personnages; il semble que c'est vous qui palpitez sous leurs costumes.

—C'est vrai! c'est vrai! disait-elle.1

Léon's banalities radiate insights for Emma. Here, at last, is someone who responds as she does to the vicarious pleasures of books. But Emma is a more passionate and engaged reader than the clerk who tests her knowledge of idées reçues. For her, books encapsulate life itself; people, emotions, even objects are significant only to the degree that they validate the discoveries of her reading, and much of her time is spent re-creating her experience to make it conform with the demands of her imagination.

To render this process, Flaubert presents Emma's fantasy life through a series of tableaux in which her imagination is associated with images of mirrors. This imagery always signals a movement toward subjectivity in Madame Bovary, and there is a close relationship here with Tzvetan Todorov's perception about the world of the fantastic, where, he argues, "every appearance of a supernatural element is accompanied by the parallel introduction of an element belonging to the realm of sight. It is, in particular, eyeglasses and mirrors that permit penetration into the marvelous universe." These symbols of "indirect, distorted, subverted vision" mediate between reality and the supernatural, reifying the "marvelous universe" for character and reader alike.2 However, while Todorov's construct offers an illuminating context for Flaubert's imagery, we need to be aware that the motif of the mirror provides only one element in the structure of a marvelous tale (an element whose function is transitional and therefore generally limited in thematic significance), whereas in Madame Bovary it eventually symbolizes Emma's whole subjective life. This is a large claim to make, especially since the initial connection I wish to point out among Todorov's "marvelous universe," Emma's subjectivity, and the mirror motif begins with an examination of the character of the Queen in "Snow White." But the incongruity of this association is superficial, giving way to likeness between novel and fairy tale in both theme and setting.

When the Queen asks her question of the magic mirror, the reader witnesses an act of schizophrenia taking place simultaneously with the unfolding of the dialectic between fantasy and reality. From a psychological perspective, it is not the mirror but her own selfish desires...

(This entire section contains 7566 words.)

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that subvert the Queen's vision and permit her to penetrate the "marvelous universe." While the voice in the mirror originates in the supernatural, what the Queen sees reflected in the mirror is her own subjective conception of herself, which is manifested by projecting an ideal version of herself onto her own image. In other words, the Queen gains access to the subjective equivalent of Todorov's supernatural world by an act of mind so powerful that she can see what she wants to see. Every visual and psychological element in this scene is repeated in the ninth chapter of Part II ofMadame Bovary, where Emma contemplates her own image after having been seduced by Rodolphe. The tableau of the Queen before her mirror covers Emma like a transparency, and these fused images symbolize Emma's life from the moment she enters the convent until her death. Given this congruence, the "mœurs de Province" Flaubert chose to anatomize involve elements one would scarcely attribute, at least at first glance, to the kingdom of the bourgeoisie: magic mirrors, fantastic visions, high adventure in the most ephemeral reaches of the romantic's imagination.

At the same time, more is at stake here than allusions to the world of fairy tales and the marvelous, for these elements lead directly to what I take to be Flaubert's most devastating irony. Just as there is a dialectic in Emma's consciousness, so is there in the structure of the novel itself. The external events of Madame Bovary deal with nuances of boredom exemplified in the lives of those who inhabit the monochromatic countrysides' of Tostes and Yonville. Opposed to the banalities of everyday life in these dusty villages is all that Emma sees, and in the congeries of images cast on her imagination we encounter a beautifully contrived paradox: that which is most vital in the novel is most ephemeral, existing only in the distorted world of Emma's visual imagination. More complex than Todorov's, this world resonates with the syllables of Flaubert's idées reçues, Aristotle's endoxon ("current opinion"),3 Barthes's codes. For each time Emma sees (or hears) something in the depths of her own subjectivity, "one might say that off-stage voices can [also] be heard"—Barthes's cultural codes "whose origin is 'lost' in the vast perspective of the already-written. . . ."4 As I hope the following discussion of modes of vision will show, Emma's universe consists of two equally counterfeit versions of reality: the marvelous, whose elements are derived from her reading, and the endoxal, whose terms are derived from her culture and repeated in the symbols and themes of her reading.

Flaubert discloses Emma's subjectivity in three visual modes, which I call descriptive, hallucinatory, and autoscopic. The descriptive mode provided Erich Auerbach with the materials for his analysis of Flaubertian realism in Mimesis; he begins by citing the following domestic scene:5

Mais c'était surtout aux heures des repas qu'elle n'en pouvait plus, dans cette petite salle au rezdechaussée, avec le poêle qui fumait, la parte qui criait, les murs qui suintaient, les pavés humides; toute l'amertume de l'existence lui semblait servie sur son assiette, et, à la fumée du bouilli, il montrait du fond de son âme comme d'autres bouffées d'affadissement. Charles était long à manger; elle grignotait quelques noisettes, ou bien, appuyée du coude, s'amusait, avec la pointe de son couteau, de faire des raies sur la toile cirée.

Auerbach shows how Emma's subjective responses to Charles are indicated by a series of essentially descriptive images, and since his argument is familiar enough not to require lengthy rehearsal, it should be sufficient to reiterate the main points of his conclusion.

The picture above is not presented for itself; it is subordinated to Emma's despair, which has impressed itself more and more heavily on her soul since her marriage. The drabness of the scene "appears to her, and through her to the reader also, as something that is connected with [Charles] .. . yet she is . . . herself part of the picture, she is situated within it" (Auerbach, p. 427). And Auerbach isolates the major characteristic of the descriptive mode when he tells us that Emma "does not simply see, but is herself seen as one seeing, and is thus judged, simply through a plain description of her subjective life, out of her own feelings" (pp. 427-28). In this sense, visual phenomena can become symptoms of subjective states of being.

The scene at the Banneville groves illustrates how this mode functions, even more clearly than Auerbach's example. After asking herself why she married, Emma begins to think of her companions at the convent, imagining them in the theaters and ballrooms of Paris. The contrast is unbearable: "Mais elle, sa vie était froide comme un grenier dont la lucarne est au nord, et l'ennui, araignée silencieuse, filait sa toile dans l'ombre, à tous les coins de son cœur." With her emotional condition thus established, Flaubert goes on to describe the countryside:

Il arrivait parfois des rafales de vent, brises de la mer qui, roulant d'un bond sur tout le plateau du pays de Caux, apportaient, jusqu'au loin dans les champs, une fraîcheur salée. Les joncs sifflaient à ras de terre et les feuilles des hêtres bruissaient en un frisson rapide, tandis que les cimes, se balançant toujours, continuaient leur grand murmure. Emma serrait son châle contre ses épaules et se levait.

(pp. 42-43)

The movement of the rushes and branches, the swaying of the crowns of the beech trees, the mournful sound of the wind and the onomatopoetic effect produced by the rhymes of "toujours," "leur," and "murmure" present a composite description (with sound effects) of Emma's internal condition, a description, in fact, of the ennui that "filait sa toile" in her soul. Here, as in the Auerbach example, her subjective responses are reported by an omniscient narrator.

In the hallucinatory mode, images of the external world decode subjective images present in the reservoir of Emma's memory, and she frequently perceives images of both sorts simultaneously. It has been suggested that this simultaneity may be related to the hallucinations Flaubert suffered from as a young man,6 and in a letter to Taine, Flaubert records their effects in a way that illuminates a good deal about the function of Emma's memory:

Puis, tout à coup, comme la foudre, envahissement car l'hallucination proprement dite n'est pas autre chose,—pour moi, du moins. C'est une maladie de la mémoire, un relâchement de ce qu'elle recele. On sent les images s'échapper de vous comme des flots de sang. Il vous semble que tout ce qu'on a dans la tête éclate à la fois comme les mille pièces d'un feu d'artifice, et on n'a pas le temps de regarder ces images internes qui défilent avec furie.—En d'autres circonstances, ça commence par une seule image qui grandit, se développe et finit par couvrir la réalité objective, comme par exemple une étincelle qui voltige et devient un grand feu flambant. Dans ce dernier cas, on peut très bien penser à autre chose, en même temps; et cela se confond presque avec ce qu'on appelle les papillons noirs, c'est-à-dire ces rondelles de satin que certaines personnes voient flotter dans l'air, quand le ciel est grisâtre et qu'elles ont la vue fatiguée.7

Or, more simply:

Au contraire, dans l'hallucination pure et simple on peut très bien voir une image fausse d'un œil, et les objets vrais de l'autre.

(Correspondance, II, 96)

This multiplication of images and the ensuing dysfunction of memory occur during Emma's final retreat from Rodolphe's chateau, when she gazes dumbly at the surrounding countryside and sees images "qui défilent avec furie":

Tout ce qu'il y avait dans sa tête de réminiscences, d'idées, s'échappait à la fois, d'un seul bond, comme le mille pièces d'un feu d'artifice. Elle vit son père, le cabinet de Lheureux, leur chambre là-bas, un autre paysage. . . .

La nuit tombait, des corneilles volaient.

Il lui sembla tout à coup que des globules couleur de feu éclataient dans l'air comme des balles fulminantes en s'aplatissant, et tournaient, tournaient, pour aller se fondre dans la neige, entre les branches des arbres. Au milieu de chacun d'eux, la figure de Rodolphe apparaissait. Ils se multiplièrent, et ils se rapprochaient, la pénétraient; tout disparut. Elle reconnut les lumières des maisons, qui rayonnaient de loin dans le brouillard. (pp. 290-91)

In this highly sensitized condition, Emma cannot distinguish the present from the past, reality from hallucination. Fragmented images impinge on her mind's eye for a millisecond before merging in the vortex where everything "tournaient, tournaient" and she is engulfed by the multiple faces of Rodolphe.

Less dramatic situations affect her vision in the same way, as in the following scene from the ball at Vaubyessard:

L'air du bal était lourd; les lampes pâlissaient. On refluait dans la salle de billard. Un domestique monta sur une chaise et cassa deux vitres; au bruit des éclats de verre, Mme Bovary tourna la tête et aperçut dans le jardin, contre les barreaux, des faces de paysans qui regardaient. Alors le souvenir des Bertaux lui arriva. Elle revit la ferme, la mare bourbeuse, son père en blouse sous les pommiers, et elle se revit elle-même, comme autrefois, écrémant avec son doigt les terrines de lait dans la laiterie.

(pp. 48-49)

Immersed in the present splendor of the chateau, she sees herself as she used to be, the intensity of the recovered experience so great that it has tactile as well as visual qualities. Here the omniscient narrator has vanished, and it is Emma herself who links external and internal, past and present. But there is more here than simultaneity. This scene, like the previous one, is epiphanic: there is a "showing forth" of the quintessential Emma Bovary as she exists in two places at once, her visual imagination the node of intersecting planes of time. Not only does the encroachment of the past into the present exemplify the power of her imagination, it also epitomizes the tragedy of a life in which it will become increasingly difficult to distinguish the real from the marvelous, phenomena from dreams, the world of actuality and logical possibility from the world of fantasy and endoxal codes. Emma's problem, as opposed to Flaubert's, is not a "maladie de la mémorie," but a sickness of consciousness in which the ego has been cut loose from its moorings in a stable psyche and allowed to contemplate itself in the "marvelous universe" of its own reflections: the domain of the autoscopic mode of vision, where mirrors abound under the sign of Narcissus.


At the convent Emma is exposed to the virus of romantic literature, whose virulence results from the melding of the marvelous plots of fairy tales with identifiable but unspecified glandular longings. Following an exhaustive catalog of images and codes running through Emma's reading, Flaubert adds that "l'abatjour du quinquet, accroché dans la muraille au-dessus de la tête d'Emma, éclairait tous ces tableaux du monde, qui passaient devant elle les uns après les autres, dans le silence du dortoir et au bruit lointain de quelque fiacre attardé qui roulait encore sur les boulevards" (p. 36). These "tableaux du monde," moving in parataxis through her mind to the rhythm of the "fiacre attardé" (whose "bruit lointain" underscores Emma's sense of mimesis), adumbrate a crucial structure in her imagination. For the only images that ever achieve autonomy are of young women, and in the process of differentiating them from their surroundings, and from the young men who are sometimes present, Emma reveals the cause of her perpetual dissatisfaction with her lovers.

Consider the details of the "tableaux" etched on her memory. Dreaming over Scott's novels, "elle aurait voulu vivre dans quelque vieux manoir, comme ces châtelaines au long corsage qui, sous le trèfle des ogives, passaient leurs jours, le coude sur la pierre et le menton dans la main, à regarder venir du fond de la campagne un cavalier à plume blanche qui galope sur un cheval noir" (p. 35). Here the focus of her attention is disclosed in the perspective of the "tableaux." Compared to the detailed description of the composite chatelaine occupying the foreground of the scene, the knight is only an impressionistic blur in the middle distance, a catalyst, as it were, for rêverie. But this fantasy is only the first in a series that includes a "culte de Marie Stuart et des vénérations enthousiastes à l'endroit des femmes illustres ou infortunées." Emma is equally fascinated by "ladies anglaises à boucles blondes qui, sous leur chapeau de paille rond, vous regardent avec leurs grands yeux clairs" (p. 36), as well as by others "rêvant sur des sofas près d'un billet décacheté, contemplaient la lune, par la fenêtre entr'ouverte, à demi drapée d'un rideau noir." The catalog of heroines is completed by "naïves, une larme sur la joue, becquetaient une tourterelle à travers les barreaux d'une cage gothique, ou, souriant, la tête sur l'épaule, effeuillaient une marguerite de leurs doigts pointus, retroussés comme des souliers à la poulaine."

The convent tableaux prefigure Emma's increasingly dangerous fantasies, which begin to turn up shortly after the ball at Vaubyessard. As the weeks following her experience there fade away, "ce fut donc une occupation pour Emma que le souvenir de ce bal" (p. 53). At the center of these memories is an image of the Viscount who "revenait toujours dans ses lectures. Entre lui et les personnages inventés, elle établissait des rapprochements. Mais le cercle dont il était le centre peu à peu s'élargit autour de lui, et cette auréole qu'il avait, s'écartant de sa figure, s'étala plus au loin, pour illuminer d'autres rêves" (p. 54). This light, once shed on the "tableaux du monde," now illuminates Paris as it emerges from her imagination like Mallarmé's flower absent from the bouquets of this world:

Paris, plus vaste que l'Océan, miroitait done aux yeux d'Emma dans une atmosphère vermeille. La vie nombreuse qui s'agitait en ce tumulte y était cependant divisée par parties, classée en tableaux distincts, Emma n'en apercevait que deux ou trois, qui lui cachaient tous les autres et représentaient à eux seuls l'humanité complète. Le monde des ambassadeurs marchait sur des parquets luisants, dans des salons lambrissés de miroirs, autour de tables ovales couvertes d'un tapis de velours à crépines d'or. Il y avait là des robes à queue, de grands mystères, des angoisses dissimulées sous des sourires. Venait ensuite la société des duchesses: on y était pâle; on se levait à quatre heures; les femmes, pauvres anges! portaient du point d'Angleterre au bas de leur jupon, et les hommes, capacités méconnues sous des dehors futiles, crevaient leurs chevaux par partie de plaisir, allaient passer à Bade la saison d'été, et, vers la quarantaine enfin, épousaient des héritières. (pp. 54-55)

A street map; a magazine; novels by Sue, Balzac, and Sand; memories of her convent reading and of the waltz at Vaubyessard; a green cigar case—this is a reasonably accurate inventory of the data that nurtured the Parisian rêverie. In the paragraph preceding that fantasia the Viscount is momentarily the brightest star in Emma's constellation, but his image soon fades; the aureole emanating from him is first diffused and then reconstituted in the dream of Paris that emerges slowly in her imagination. The subject of the rêverie is not the Viscount, but rather the aureole he bears, which irradiates details of the larger dream of Paris. And it is important to see that in both examples the Viscount cannot maintain his position at the center of Emma's imaginative circle. Although the fantasy begins with her memory of him, he is absorbed into the mirrored images of the Parisian drawing rooms and the women who move among them. Compared to these "pauvres anges" with "robes à queue, de grands mystères, des angoisses dissimulées sous des sourires," pale faces and delicate petticoats, the men Emma imagines remain undifferentiated abstractions. Clearly, the Viscount has become another of the disappearing men, reduced to a charge of light shed on bright images of women.

Vaubyessard "avait fait un trou dans sa vie" (p. 52) by juxtaposing the dreariness of village life with the ambience of chateaux; at the same time, it provided Emma with an experience whereby she could synthesize the disparate images that had crowded her imagination since adolescence, when solitary heroines in stylized attitudes of melancholy longing became her emblem of love. Moreover, it is in the nature of her fascination with these heroines that their significance to her own personality and to the mirror motif becomes apparent. As a girl, Emma perceived an embryonic ideal of herself in these women, which she realizes in her maturity, and, I have tried to show, it is always the avatar of herself that survives in Emma's fantasies. Men function exclusively as catalysts in the process of her self-discovery, vehicles for her journeys toward herself. Consequently, her narcissism goes beyond the self-love normally associated with the word to infatuation with women in general and particularly with women as erotic objects. Emma's attraction to herself thus participates in a larger attraction to her own sex.8 And it can be argued, I think, that the dialectic formed by the phenomena of the disappearing men and the photographically envisioned women at least partially explains Emma's dissatisfaction with Charles, Rodolphe, and Léon. This aspect of Emma's character is examined below in detail, following a discussion of her response to herself after she has been seduced by Rodolphe. At this point, it should be sufficient to say that narcissism ultimately displaces infidelity as the source of her most intense erotic experience.


The Parisian fantasy marks the end of the first stage of Emma's voyage into the "marvelous universe." Afterward, she is conscious of nothing for days on end but the gap in her life, and during the last weeks she spends in Tostes, ennui settles over her soul as if it were dust raised by carts passing in the street below her window, where she sits for hours waiting for something to happen. Occasionally it does:

Dans l'après-midi, quelquefois, une tête d'homme apparaissait derrière les vitres de la salle, tête hâlée, à favoris noirs, et qui souriait lentement, d'un large sourire doux à dents blanches. Une valse aussitôt commençait, et, sur l'orgue, dans un petit salon, des danseurs hauts comme le doigt, femmes en turban rose, Tyroliens en jaquette, singes en habit noir, messieurs en culotte courte, tournaient, tournaient entre les fauteuils, les canapés, les consoles, se répétant dans les morceaux de miroir que raccordait à leurs angles un filet de papier doré. . . . [L]a musique de la boîte s'échappait en bourdonnant à travers un rideau de taffetas rose, sous une griffe de cuivre en arabesque. C'étaient des airs que l'on jouait ailleurs, sur les théâtres, que l'on chantait dans les salons, que l'on dansait le soir sous des lustres éclairés, échos du monde qui arrivaient jusqu'à Emma. Des sarabandes à n'en plus finir se déroulaient dans sa tête, et, comme une bayadère sur les fleurs d'un tapis, sa pensée bondissait avec les notes, se balançait de rêve en rêve, de tristesse en tristesse. Quand l'homme avait reçu l'aumône dans sa casquette, il rabattait une vieille couverture de laine bleue, passait son orgue sur son dos et s'éloignait s'un pas lourd. Elle le regardait partir. (p. 61)

Adumbrating the transformational qualities of her mirrors, Emma's window gives onto a scene that illustrates how the marvelous and endoxal worlds are fused in her imagination. Set against a mirrored background, the figures in the organ-grinder's "petit salon" are symbolic of that congeries of idées reçues apprehended in Emma's society magazines and childhood books. Moreover, these miniatures move in time to music played in imaginary theaters and drawing rooms, and the melodies she hears become "échos du monde," audible equivalents of the pictures already examined. The configuration of an ironic pattern emerges here, for the images of the "petit salon" parody the content of the Parisian rêverie just as that scene parodied the "tableaux du monde" of the convent, and hereafter Flaubert's ironic rendering of Emma's consciousness depends increasingly on the repetition of such images.

Up to this point in the novel, Emma has passively looked on at the imaginary actions unfolding in her mind. In the next phase of her development, soon after she realizes that she is in love with Léon, she projects herself into this world:

Mais plus Emma s'apercevait de son amour, plus elle le refoulait, afin qu'il ne parût pas, et pour le diminuer. Elle aurait voulu que Léon s'en doutât; et elle imaginait des hasards, des catastrophes qui l'eussent facilité. Ce qui la retenait, sans doute, c'était la paresse ou l'épouvante, et la pudeur aussi. Elle songeait qu'elle l'avait repoussé trop loin, qu'il n'était plus temps, que tout était perdu. Puis l'orgueil, la joie de se dire: «Je suis vertueuse», et de se regarder dans la glace en prenant des poses résignées, la consolait un peu du sacrifice qu'elle croyait faire.

(p. 101)

The images and music of the world apprehended in the "petit salon" are replaced by her own image and voice as she stands before her mirror. But though she experiences the "joie de se dire: «Je suis vertueuse»," she is only repeating the statement of some sloe-eyed heroine of her reading. And it is that remembered utterance, in turn, which triggers the mime of "poses résignées" practiced before the mirror. The source of the phrase and gesture is less important than the remarkable change taking place, for in the mirror, that symbol of distorted vision, Emma sees herself in a "tableau du monde." Little wonder that she should feel consoled by what she sees; it is as if she had entered that green world of her youthful reading. As if. The identification with a phantom figure in her reading flickers out quickly, never having quite freed itself from conscious analogy. Not until the advent of Rodolphe will Emma become one of the women she has so longingly gazed at in her imagination.

The fastidious comportment that limited her relationship with Léon to exchanges of cactus plants and definitions from the Dictionnaire des Idées Reçues is undermined by Rodolphe at the agricultural fair, finally collapsing before his strange smile and comic-opera clenched teeth. Freeing herself from Charles on the night of her seduction, Emma rushes upstairs to her bedroom:

D'abord, ce fut comme un étourdissement; elle voyait les arbres, les chemins, les fossés, Rodolphe, et elle sentait encore l'étreinte de ses bras, tandis que le feuillage frémissait et que les joncs sifflaient.

Mais, en s'apercevant dans la glace, elle s'étonna de son visage. Jamais elle n'avait eu les yeux si grands, si noirs, ni d'une telle profondeur. Quelque chose de subtil épandu sur sa personne la transfigurait.

Elle se répétait: «J'ai un amant! un amant!» se délectant à cette idée comme à celle d'une autre puberté qui lui serait survenue. Elle allait donc posséder enfin ces joies de l'amour, cette fièvre du bonheur dont elle avait désespéré. Elle entrait dans quelque chose de merveilleux où tout serait passion, extase, délire; une immensité bleuatre l'entourant les sommets du sentiment étincelaient sous sa pensée, l'existence ordinaire n'apparaissait qu'au loin, tout en bas, dans l'ombre, entre les intervalles de ces hauteurs.

Alors elle se rappela les héroines des livres qu'elle avait lus, et la légion lyrique de ces femmes adultères se mit à chanter dans sa mémoire avec des voix de sœurs qui la charmaient. Elle devenait elle-même comme une partie véritable de ces imaginations et réalisait la longue rêverie de sa jeunesse, en se considérant dans ce type d'amoureuse qu'elle avait tant envié. (pp. 151-52)

Personae metamorphose with lightning rapidity in these four brief paragraphs, where a by-now-familiar process is once again at work. Emma sees Rodolphe, feels the pressure of his arms, hears the rustling of the leaves. And then self-absorption reveals the real source of her ecstasy. "Mais," Flaubert writes, "Mais en s'apercevant dans la glace": the simple conjunction signals an act of mind that soon relegates Rodolphe to a linguistic category. From an image he is changed into a word: "amant." As Emma confronts her transfigured image in the mirror, Rodolphe becomes another of the disappearing men, his essence subsumed by Emma's vision of herself. He is more important as a concept than as a person, and "amant," that linguistic talisman of her imagination, easily leads Emma to the endoxal world zoned by its synonyms—"passion, extase, délire." Rising into the fantastic blue space that these words create (an apotheosis is taking place here), the reality of her illusions is confirmed by a choir of "héroines des livres qu'elle avait lus"; and accompanied by "la légion lyrique de ces femmes adultères," Emma moves into the marvelous world of the mirror: "Elle devenait ellemême comme une partie véritable de ces imaginations et réalisait la longue rêverie de sa jeunesse, en se considérant dans ce type d'amoureuse qu'elle avait tant envié." Like Rodolphe, Emma has been changed into a verbal substance, a character in a novel, the fairest of them all.

While Emma's fulfillment is achieved through linguistic manipulation (first, her culture's, whereby emotions are debased to serve the definitions of Romantic Love; second, her own, whereby the eviscerated words are made to correspond to her imaginative life), it is also language that leads to her destruction. Todorov's comments about the function of words in the genre of the fantastic explain precisely what takes place here and in virtually every other scene given over to Emma's dreams of love: "the fantastic has what . . . appears to be a tautological function: it permits the description of a fantastic universe, one that has no reality outside language: the description and what is described are not of a different nature" (p. 92; italics mine). The language of the fantastic, I submit, is only a dialect of Romanticism—Emma's mother tongue—and her fate stems from believing that the words she reads, speaks, or thinks describe palpable realities, whereas in fact they are signifiers with no referable matrix for the signified. Such language becomes literally destructive because it sets up an irresolvable opposition between reality and fantasy.9

Thus, Emma's narcissism, in which the language of the fantastic is deeply implicated, exacerbates an already difficult situation. Scrambled and fragmentarily articulated as it may be, thought almost always precedes feeling for Emma, and this sequence is central to an examination of her narcissism because she has ideas both about the kinds of emotions appropriate to a given situation (a set of beliefs that amounts to a complicated taxonomy) and about herself experiencing those emotions. Whenever she is in her lover's arms, Emma is most fully aware of herself and what she feels in circumstances recapitulating the data of her reading, but this goes considerably beyond the extrapolation of a personality from the texts of Romantic Love: her erotic life is equally borrowed, equally linked to imagination. If we look back over the course of her involvement with Rodolphe and Léon, it is easy enough to see that the passionate sensations she experiences during her visits to La Huchette or the Hôtel-de-Boulogne are relatively mild compared to her erotic fantasies about what takes place. This is true, not because Flaubert was prohibited from frank sexual description, but rather because Emma simply feels more when she imagines erotic sensations. The emphasis Flaubert placed on the autoscopic nature of Emma's sexuality—a sustained and often devastatingly ironic emphasis—can be illustrated by juxtaposing three scenes that enclose the central mirror epiphany.

After settling into Yonville, Emma confronts Léon's coded sensitivities, against which she is defenseless:

Elle était amoureuse de Léon, et elle recherchait la solitude, afin de pouvoir plus à l'aise se délecter en son image. La vue de sa personne troublait la volupté de cette méditation. Emma palpitait au bruit de ses pas: puís, en sa présence, l'émotion tombait, et il ne lui restait ensuite qu'un immense étonnement qui se finissait en tristesse. (p. 100)

Three years later, when she is having an affair with him, she feels compelled to write letters. Although the task seems wearisome at first, something strange begins to happen as she joins word to word:

Mais, 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; et il devenait à la fin si véritable, et accessible, qu'elle en palpitait émerveillée, sans pouvoir néanmoins le nettement imaginer, tant il se perdait comme un dieu, sous l'abondance de ses attributs. Il habitait la contrée bleuâtre ou les échelles de soie se balancent à des balcons, sous le souffle des fleurs, dans la clarté de la lune. Elle le sentait près d'elle, il allait venir et l'enlèverait tout entière dans un baiser. Ensuite elle retombait à plat, brisée; car ces élans d'amour vague la fatiguaient plus que de grandes débauches. (p. 270)

In addition to presenting variations of the disappearing-man motif, both examples bring forward into Emma's erotic life the central predilection of her adolescent fantasies. However, more is revealed here than the continuation of an imagery pattern, for two sentences condense the essence of her sexuality:

La vue de sa personne troublait la volupté de cette méditation.

Ensuite elle retombait à plat, brisée; car ces élans d'amour vague la fatiguaient plus que des grandes débauches.

Given the ultraromantic nature of her character, how can "élans d'amour vague" be more satisfying than the actual pleasures of the boudoir? The answer is there in the pendant noun of the first sentence, "méditation," for narcissism is a contemplative affliction that cannot be actualized; the self can only be experienced imaginatively. If, like Emma, one has not been able to make the shift from ego-to object-libido, one's fullest erotic sensations must take place in fantasies, because that is where the inward-turning libido has no competition. The homoerotic aspect of Emma's narcissism becomes clear when we realize that her erotic fantasies are always linked to a female avatar born of her reading.

This process is confirmed at the opera, where she gives herself up to the melodies, costumes, scenery, actors, and "toutes ces imaginations qui s'agitaient dans l'harmonie comme dans l'atmosphère d'un autre monde" (p. 208). These "imaginations" once furnished the images of the "tableaux de monde" of the convent; now they are transformed into a tableau vivant on the rickety stage of Rouen's opera house, where Emma begins to see herself in Lucie, who "se plaignait d'amour .. . demandait des ailes." Primed by the words of the libretto, Emma is overwhelmed by Lagardy's appearance and "se penchait pour le voir, égratignant avec ses ongles le velours de sa loge." Unrivaled in the suspension of disbelief, Emma is drawn to Lagardy "par l'illusion du personnage" as she slips once again into the world of Romantic Love:

Ils se seraient connus, ils se seraient aimés! Avec lui, par tous les royaumes de l'Europe, elle aurait voyagé de capitale en capitale, partageant ses fatigues et son orgueil. . . . Chaque soir, au fond d'une loge, derrière la grille à treillis d'or, elle eût recueilli, béante, les expansions de cette âme qui n'aurait chanté que pour elle seule; de la scène, tout en jouant, il l'aurait regardée. Mais une folie la saisit: il la regardait, c'est sûr! (pp. 210-11)

Emma has created a demanding role for herself as Lucie of Yonville, and after the curtain "elle retomba dans son fauteuil avec des palpitations qui la suffoquaient." These palpitations are the result of experienced sensuality, of passionate emotion; the problem, of course, is that Emma has all along been communing with herself in the image of another woman.

This brings us full circle to Todorov's perception that the fantastic "has no reality outside language," and I think the same can be said about Emma's erotic life. With Rodolphe and Léon she acts out her ideal of herself, but the pleasures available are of herself involved in the pleasures of her reading. In this sense, she reminds one of Roland Barthes, who takes pleasure in a "reported pleasure" by making himself the text's voyeur.10 But Emma is really a step ahead of Barthes. In page after page of Madame Bovary, we see her emotionally engaged in a special kind of voyeurism. Since her imagination has developed in such a way that the women in her texts all become versions of herself, Emma is her own voyeur: the perfect narcissist, meditating on successions of . . . words.


Regardless of her efforts, that world of words and mirrors cannot survive in the world of unpaid bills assumed to buy time and the furnishings of dreams. Eroded by a series of collisions with reality, the marvelous, whose perfect expression occurred when Emma realized the "longue rêverie de sa jeunesse," deliquesces during her last visit to Rodolphe's chateau.

Although she takes arsenic to avoid any further confrontations with reality, habits persist even on the deathbed, where Emma gazes at herself one last time:

En effet, elle regarda tout autour d'elle, lentement, comme quelqu'un qui se réveille d'un songe, puis, d'une voix distincte, elle demanda son miroir, et elle resta penchée dessus quelque temps; jusqu'au moment où de grosses larmes lui découlèrent des yeux. Alors elle se renversa la tête en poussant un soupir et retomba sur l'oreiller. (pp. 301-02)

Suddenly Flaubert's scathing irony is vividly before us in the synecdoche of the dream metaphor. Awakening into life, Emma requests the mirror that gave form to her dream of life only to discover that the magic is gone. Like the Queen's in "Snow White," Emma's mirror now tells the truth, and what she sees at last is herself—not Rodolphe's mistress, not Léon's, not Lagardy's imaginary lover. The avatar of the "amoureuse qu'elle avait tant envié" has vanished, and the face looking back at her is no longer the fairest of them all: it is now her memento mori.

The significance of the mirror motif and the destructive power brought into play by autoscopic vision are reinforced by the projected ending of an early draft of Madame Bovary. Wearing the Croix de la Légion d'Honneur, Homais was to have walked up and down in a room full of mirrors, admiring himself. The ensuing crisis, and the probable reason for Flaubert's canceling this ending, bears importantly on Emma's final vision. Here is the text:

Le jour qu'il (l') reçue n'y voulut pas croire. Mr. X deputé lui avait envoyé un bout de ruban—le met se regarde dans la glace éblouissement.—. . . .

Doute de lui—regarde les bocaux—doute de son existence (délire, effets fantastiques, la croix répétée dans les glaces, pluie foudre de ruban rouge)—"ne suis-je qu'un personnage de roman, le fruit d'une imagination en délire, l'invention d'un petit paltoquot que j'ai vu naître/et qui m'a inventé pour faire croire que je j'existe pas/—Oh cela n'est pas possible, voilà les fœtus, (voilà mes enfants, voilà, voilà)

Puis se résumant, il finit par le grand mot du rationalisme moderne, Cogito, ergo sum.11

Christopher Prendergast, rightly calling Homais "the supreme incarnation of the endoxal," takes this scene as an illustration of the existential "néant" (p. 212). While it is easy enough to see how such an ending would have appealed to the pessimist in Flaubert, to have concluded Madame Bovary with Homais's crisis and his relatively easy resolution of that crisis would have deflected, even muted, the carefully wrought irony inhering in the mirror motif. It would also have repeated, with much less force, the insight Emma achieves on her deathbed. While her initial response is to the ravaged features reflected in her mirror, the dream metaphor suggests a discovery that goes beyond Homais's brief moment of doubt. Awakening to reality during the last moments of her life, she discovers the nature of the dream she has lived, "le fruit d'une imagination en délire," and the horror of that realization cannot be avoided by uttering a Cartesian dictum whose terms have been responsible for her own misapprehension of the world. Emma is all too aware of the gap between who she is and what she has thought.

That awareness begins with her contemplation of herself in the mirror, and it is completed when she hears the beggar's voice beyond her window as he stridently sings of love and seduction:

—L'aveugle! s'écria-t-elle.

Et Emma se mit à rire, d'un rire atroce, frénétique, désespéré, croyant voir la face hideuse du misérable, qui se dressait dans les ténébres éternelles comme un épouvantement. (p. 302)

At the peak of her imaginative powers, what Emma perceived in her mind's eye and in her mirrors were "tableaux du monde" that graphed a culture's myths. As her life flickers out, these pictures are replaced by her own death mask and the image of the beggar's "face hideuse" looming out of the eternal darkness. Emma is demystified, and while the world of the mirror paradoxically brought her to the threshold of reality, death spares her the agony of living with her newly acquired knowledge.


1 Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Paris: Garnier, 1961), p. 78: hereafter cited in the text by page number only.

2 Tzvetan Todorov, The Fantastic: A Structural Approach to a Literary Genre, trans. Richard Howard (Cleveland: Press of Case Western Reserve Univ., 1973), p. 121.

3 I am endebted to Christopher Prendergast' s fine study of idées reçues in "Flaubert: Writing and Negativity," Novel, 8 (1975), 197-213. Prendergast offers an elaborate definition of endoxon as it applies to Madame Bovary: "The consensus of received opinion which a given society assumes and offers as Reality .. . is what Aristotle called endoxon ('current opinion') and, following Aristotle, we may perhaps call the discourse which repeats and reinforces consensus knowledge the endoxal discourse, the language of common-sense, the language of the stereotype, whose function is to cover a world historically produced with the mantle of the universal and the permanent and of which the classic forms are the maxim, the proverb, the platitude, the idée reçue" (p. 207).

4 Roland Barthes, SIZ: An Essay, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), p. 21.

5 Erich Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard Trask (New York: Doubleday, 1953), p. 426.

6 John C. Lapp explores this congruence in "Art and Hallucination in Flaubert," French Studies, 10 (1956), 322-44.

7 Gustave Flaubert, Correspondance. Supplément, ed. R. Dumesnil, J. Pommier, and C. Digeon (Paris, Conard, 1954), II, 94-95.

8 Robert Rogers, in A Psychoanalytic Study of theDouble in Literature (Detroit: Wayne State Univ. Press, 1970), makes a similar observation about Narcissus' self-love (p. 20). He also defines narcissism in a way I have found useful: "Narcissism is a kind of love, but it is misleading to translate the concept into what is known commonly as 'self-love.' Self-love in the everyday sense of 'egotism' is a metaphorical expression. In narcissism the self-love is literal. The only difference between this kind of love and the erotic love of another person is in the object. Narcissism paradoxically involves a relationship, a relationship of self to self in which one's self is regarded as though it were another person" (p. 18). In addition, Romanticism and Consciousness, ed. Harold Bloom (New York: Norton, 1970), contains several outstanding essays that touch on the relationship between narcissism and Romanticism. Bloom's "The Internalization of Quest-Romance" (pp. 3-24) is especially good on the Freudian view of this subject. See also J. H. Van den Berg's "The Subject and His Landscape" (pp. 57-65) and Paul de Man's "Intentional Structure of the Romantic Image" (pp. 65-77).

9 This is true not only for Emma and her prototype. Don Quixote, but also for Conrad's Lord Jim, Ford's Edward Ashburnham, Fitzgerald's Jay Gatsby. Each character's death is closely linked to this aspect of the language of Romanticism. For more on this connection, see my "Ford Madox Ford and The Great Gatsby" in Fitzgerald/Hemingway Annual 1975, ed. Matthew J. Bruccoli (Englewood, N.J.: Microcard Editions Books, 1975), pp. 57-74, and "Escaping the Impasse: Criticism and the Mitosis of The Good Soldier," Modern Fiction Studies, 21 (Summer 1975), 237-41.

10 Roland Barthes, The Pleasure of the Text, trans. Richard Miller (New York: Hill and Wang, 1975), p. 17. Here is the relevant prose: "How can we take pleasure in a reported pleasure (boredom of all narratives of dreams, of parties)? How can we read criticism? Only one way: since I am here a second-degree reader, I must shift my position: instead of agreeing to be the confidant of this critical pleasure—a sure way to miss it—I can make myself its voyeur: I observe clandestinely the pleasure of others, I enter perversion: the commentary then becomes in my eyes a text, a fiction, a fissured envelope. The writer's perversity (his pleasure in writing is without function), the doubled, the trebled, the infinite perversity of the critic and of his reader."

11 Jean Pommier and Gabrielle Leleu, Madame Bovary, nouvelle version (Paris: Corti, 1949), p. 129. Quoted in Prendergast.


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Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert

The following entry covers criticism of Flaubert's novel Madame Bovary from the late 1970s to the present. See also, Salammbô Criticism.

Madame Bovary, first published in 1857, is considered Flaubert's masterpiece and one of the most influential French novels of the nineteenth century. Through painstaking attention to detail and constant revision, Flaubert created a highly accurate rendering of his characters' motivations and personalities, achieving an exquisite prose style that has served as a model for numerous writers. A meticulous craftsman, Flaubert attempted to create a narrative "as rhythmical as verse and as precise as the language of science." The novel has significantly influenced literary criticism; since its publication, Madame Bovary has been one of the most frequently discussed books in the history of world literature. Many scholars have concurred with Paul de Man's assertion that "contemporary criticism of fiction owes more to this novel than to any other nineteenth-century work."

Biographical Information

In 1849, Flaubert completed the first version of his novel La tentation de Saint Antoine (1874; The Temptation of Saint Antony). Flaubert's friends Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet declared the work a failure and persuaded him to abandon historical subjects in favor of a novel that would be contemporary in content and realistic in intent. Flaubert subsequently began Madame Bovary. Although he had contempt for his bourgeois subject, he nevertheless strove to achieve stylistic perfection in the novel by working slowly and carefully for more than five years, often producing only one page in several days. Various sources have been cited as possible inspirations for the novel's plot, among them an anecdote related by Maxime Du Camp, and the autobiography of Flaubert's friend Louise Pradier, wife of the painter James Pradier. Other critics have concluded that Flaubert's imagination was in fact the primary source for the novel, pointing to the author's famous declaration: "Madame Bovary, c'est moi." Madame Bovary—Flaubert's first published novel, despite having previously completed several other manuscripts—initially appeared in installments in La Revue de Paris from October 1 through December 15, 1856. Although critics recognized the novel as a work of immense significance, the French government was of a different opinion: Flaubert, his printer, and his publisher were all tried for blasphemy and offense against public morals. All were eventually acquitted, however, and Madame Bovary acquired an elevated notoriety as a result of the publicity generated by the trial. Despite the novel's success, biographers have noted that Flaubert came to resent the fame of Madame Bovary, which greatly overshadowed his subsequent works.

Plot and Major Characters

Madame Bovary is often described as a satire on romantic beliefs and the ineffectual lives of the provincial bourgeoisie of nineteenth-century France. The novel relates the story of Emma Bovary, a bored, frustrated housewife whose dreams of romantic love—primarily inspired by popular novels of her time—are unfulfilled through her marriage to a simple country doctor, Charles Bovary. She attempts to realize her fantasies through love affairs with a local landowner and a law clerk and, later, through extravagant purchases. Unable to pay her debts and unwilling to tolerate or to conform to bourgeois values, she ultimately commits suicide by poisoning herself. Charles is comfortable with his bourgeois simplicity, in contrast with his wife's rage and frustration at the limitations of her life. Throughout the story, Charles becomes increasingly happy and content with his married life, as Emma secretly grows to hate him. Although affectionate and loyal, Charles is portrayed as an obtuse character, oblivious to the sources of his wife's unhappiness and completely naive concerning her affairs. Even the revelation of financial ruin and his wife's infidelity does not alter his adulation for Emma. Her suicide sends him into a devastating episode of grief and seems to contribute to his death at the novel's conclusion. The character Homais, the village pharmacist and champion of scientific progress and traditional patriarchal values, has been viewed by some critics as the novel's most prominent symbol of bourgeois conventionality. While depicted as the focus of satire due to his frequent use of platitudes, Homais also proves to be the most successful figure at the culmination of the plot. Geoffrey Wall has remarked: "Homais becomes ever more powerful in the final chapters, now that .. . the wifeless Charles is fading away with grief. He is enthroned as 'the happiest of fathers, the most fortunate of men'. His public apotheosis comes in the book's closing sentence, as he is awarded the Legion of Honour."

Major Themes

Social and historical themes are among the most frequently discussed motifs of Madame Bovary. Read as a social commentary, the novel depicts Flaubert's view of the conventionality and banality of the French middle class during the nineteenth century. Rosemary Lloyd has stated: "From the opening pages, with their depiction of the way in which both children and teachers impose on individuals patterns of behaviour they are obliged to copy slavishly, to the concluding lines, which record Homais's reward for conforming to the image of the successful man, Madame Bovary reveals the mechanisms of middle-class society, the way in which it creates a form of fatality." The portrayal of gender roles has also received attention in recent years. Several critics have emphasized the novel's depiction of a society in which women received a relatively useless, "ornamental" education, with Emma Bovary's largely superfluous social position being viewed as one of the sources of her malaise and unhappiness. Tony Williams has commented: "The fictional world of Madame Bovary is marked by the over-differentiation of the sexes which characterizes patriarchal society." Other important themes in the novel include the blurred relationship between fantasy and reality and the duplicitous nature of language and meaning. Emma's fruitless search for the heightened passion that she has read about in novels illustrates a dichotomy between language and real-life experience. Many critics have therefore interpreted the novel as a skeptical commentary on the escapist Romantic literature of the era, emphasizing Flaubert's demystification of Romantic and sentimental stereotypes. Others, however, have offered a more ambiguous reading of Flaubert's commentary on the Romantic imagination. A product of the Romantic temperament in conflict with practical, conventional bourgeois society, Emma Bovary can be interpreted as a victim both of her banal circumstances and of her own impressionability.

Critical Reception

Much recent criticism of Madame Bovary has evidenced a feminist or historicist perspective. Several critics have taken a feminist interest in Emma's position in a patriarchal society, interpreting her existential malaise and obsession with fantasy as a product of her limited role in bourgeois society. Tony Tanner, for example, has argued that "[Emma's] sickness must be connected to the vagueness of her position in society: after being a daughter (and thus entirely defined by the father . . . ), she exists on the threshold in a sort of pronominal limbo." Also examining the novel's portrayal of gender roles, Janet Todd has perceived a conflict between Emma Bovary's conventional feminine role and increasingly powerful "masculine" urges which ultimately undermine her social position and contribute to her suicide. Reading Madame Bovary through a historical perspective, Rosemary Lloyd has argued that "the novel draws largely on three main currents of thought: the sentimentalism prevalent in the eighteenth century, which leads into the Romanticism of the 1820s to 1840s; the analytical explorations of love that develop, in part, from other eighteenth-century writers; and the pragmatism of bourgeois thought, which had grown increasingly dominant since the 1830 revolution." Another major focus of critical interest has been the problematic relationship, suggested by Flaubert's narrative techniques, between language, meaning, and reality. "The division between language and experience is a major concern of the novel," Nathaniel Wing has remarked. Exploring the juxtaposition of imagination and reality, Lawrence Thornton has emphasized Emma Bovary's subjective responses to "two equally counterfeit versions of reality": the "marvelous," derived from romantic stories, and the conventional cultural codes of behavior that are defined by her middle-class society.

Tony Tanner (essay date 1979)

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SOURCE: "Flaubert's Madame Bovary," in Adultery in the Novel: Contract and Transgression, The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1979, pp. 233-367.

[In the following excerpt, Tanner links Emma Bovary's vague but persistent mental unease and unhappiness with her male-defined and largely superfluous role in society. He then examines "why Emma's story should start with Charles Bovary 's somewhat inauspicious entry into a schoolroom" and connects this scene with the larger theme of language and meaning in the novel.

The Fog in Emma Bovary's Head

"Ah yes!" returned Félicité. "You're like old Guérin's daughter, the fisherman at Le Pollet, that I knew at Dieppe before I came to you. She was that wretched, you'd think to see her standing in the doorway there was a funeral pall hung up over the door. It seems she'd got a soft of fog in her head, the doctors couldn't do a thing with her, and no more could the curé. When she got it real bad she'd go off by herself long the beach, and the coastguard often used to find her there on his rounds. Stretched flat out on the shingle she'd be, crying her eyes out. . . . They say it went when she got married, though."

"But with me," replied Emma, "it didn't come on till I was married."1

(p. 122)

—Ah! oui, reprenait Félicité, vous êtes justement comme la Guérine, la fille au père Guérin, le pêcheur du Pollet, que j'ai connue á Dieppe, avant de venir chez vous. Elle était si triste, si triste, qu'à la voir debout sur le seuil de sa maison, elle vous faisait l'effet d'un drap d'enterrement tendu devant la porte. Son mal, à ce qu'il paraît, était une manière de brouillard qu'elle avait dans la tête, et les médecins n'y pouvaient rien, ni le curé non plus. Quand ça la prenait trop fort, elle s'en allait toute seule sur le bord de la mer, si bien que le lieutenant de la douane, en faisant sa tournée, souvent la trouvait étendue à plat ventre et pleurant sur les galets. Puis, après son mariage, ça lui a passé, dit-on.

—Mais, moi, reprenait Emma, c'est après le mariage que ça m'est venu.

(P. 154)

The "sort of fog" in the head of Guérin's daughter is imprecise, indefinable, unamenable to the diagnoses and the remedies of the constituted secular and sacred authorities who can supposedly analyze and aid the maladies of body and spirit. It is not something indistinct that can be brought into focus with superior modes of definition—it is indistinctness itself as a presence in the head. The effects of this malady of oppressive interior indistinctness are notable. Standing in the doorway, she gives the impression of having been transformed into a funeral pall, into cloth ("drap") that wraps up the dead body, so this fog can cause an apparent loss of substance, a deformation or translation of flesh into material. As a response to these attacks, she would make her way alone to the edge of the sea, fall prostrate, and weep. This instinctive withdrawal from society to the point where the land dissolves into the sea, accompanied by the abandonment of the upright or vertical posture of the body and the internal dissolving intimated by weeping, is an act of obvious archetypal significance, a symbolic gesture of thalassic regression, and of devolutionary collapse, that indicates that life within the city, governed by the rules of the fathers (note that this girl is not named, she is "la fille au père Guérin"), has become insupportable, unlivable. Then the indistinctness in the head prompts the body toward the undifferentiation of the sea, as though it offered the only possible "cure": the name of the father contains the pun guérir, to "cure"—and this touches on the whole problem of sickness and cure, which recurs in many contexts and is central to the book. Who is to decide what is to be classified as sickness, and who is to dictate what shall constitute a cure? In this little vignette it is quite clear. For when the unnamed girl seeks some kind of cure for her unnamable illness in a solitary movement toward the sea, she is found by le lieutenant de la douane—coastguard, or literally lieutenant of customs—who is making his rounds ("faisant sa tournée"). It is almost as if it is his presence on the beach that prevented her total abandonment to the sea, and the fact that the guardian of the customs (to rephrase his title only slightly) is always "making his rounds" suggests that it is precisely this motion, his constant "circulation" as it were, that both prevents the girl's self-annihilatory escape (he is effectively between her and the sea) and helps to facilitate her restoration to society where the "cure" is completed by her "marriage." Thus, in brief, her life is determined and defined by three males—her father, the lieutenant, and the husband. Between being daughter and wife she (simply "elle") suffers from the fog of interior indistinctness. Her sickness must be connected to the vagueness of her position in society: after being a daughter (and thus entirely defined by the father—she was "la Guérine"), she exists on the threshold ("sur le seuil") in a sort of pronominal limbo. And indeed what will she become when she crosses the threshold of her father's house? All the problems of liminality, both those connected with crossing thresholds in the stages of the individual chronological life and those involving literal and lateral movement from edifice to edifice within the governing architecture of society, are adumbrated in the girl's sad hovering on the threshold of her father's house, at which point ontologically she seems more like cloth than flesh. She is there, but what is she? Hence the fog in the head. And the flight to the beach. And the repudiation of human identity that is implicit in that most primitive of gestures, the negation of the upright position by an act of self-prostration. But the customs man finds her and . . . after her marriage the fog went away. She has been renamed, redefined, absorbed back into society. For if there is one thing that the guardians of society—including "le pére," "les médecins," "le curé," and "le lieutenant de la douane"—seek either to check or to dispel, it is that nameless fog of indistinctness that threatens the whole edifice of consciousness of the individual and by implication the architecture of society itself. For one of the governing impulses in any society is, and must be, a terror of indistinctness. At its most extreme this can manifest itself as suppression of all deviation and diversity. But even in societies that may tolerate a very high degree of variety, something of that dread must still be there. "La Guérine" is thus cured by marriage. Her life story, as compressed in this one apparently casual paragraph, recapitulates a comparatively orthodox process of socialization and initiation, and her temporary sickness is the understandable result of the temporary nonidentity of adolescence. The fog in the head then can be seen as a by-product of that ontological lacuna in her life when she can no longer identify herself with her father but has not yet been initiated into a new identity as a wife. It is indeed a critical period of great sadness and may even produce suicidal moods. But, as we may say, she was rescued by "custom." This is indeed a conventional pattern of life in bourgeois or petit-bourgeois terms.

But what, then, of Emma, for whom marriage was not the cure but, much more worryingly, apparently part of the cause of that "manière de brouillard qu'elle avait dans la tête"? In trying to sense the connections between marriage and the fog in the head in the life of Emma Bovary I think we can begin to discover what Flaubert was doing in what is, after all, the most important and far-reaching novel of adultery in Western literature. Rather than trying to approach the problem of Emma Bovary directly, I want first to consider select aspects of the various men who in one way of another make up the male context within which she must articulate her life, or have it shaped and defined for her. . . .

Charles Bovary Goes to School, Drops His Cap, and Tries to Say His Name

Why Emma's story should start with Charles Bovary's somewhat inauspicious entry into a schoolroom is a matter that prompts some careful consideration. We should note, first of all, that the title of the book, Madame Bovary, does not refer unequivocally to Emma, since there are three Madame Bovarys2 in the book and two of them, Charles's mother and his first wife, are encountered in the first chapter. Emma is, initially, Emma Rouault, and one of the matters the first chapter concentrates on is the origin, or more accurately the transmission, of a name. Whatever else he is, Charles is the bearer of the name of Bovary; it is not the least of the burdens that he has to carry. (The name itself, of course, suggests bovine qualities, indeed it could be said to contain both something of the bullock and the cow since bouveau is "bullock" and bouverie is "cowshed." The name can also be almost heard as Beau-voir-y, a latent cunning irony given the marked absence of both beautiful views and perceptive vision in the book—and it can hardly be a textual coincidence that the Bovarys stay at a hotel in "la place Beauvoisine" (French—p. 290) on their visit to Rouen to go to the theatre—an excursion that proves to be the final undoing of Emma. It is not an idle exercise to point out the presence of such latent puns and homonyms, as I hope to show in a later section.) But the first thing he is described as carrying is a large desk ("un grand pupitre" [p. 21]), and it is to his initial appearance in the book, which is also his initial (and initiatory) appearance in the school, that I want to turn.

The first word of the novel is nous, a nonspecific "we" that is dropped after the first chapter. It would be possible to make endless speculations about the implications of this, but whatever else we (as readers) understand by the we we read, the first scene reveals that we comprises the staring, mocking, speaking, aggressive communality into which "le nouveau" is introduced. Charles is of course not named in the opening paragraph but is "a new boy dressed in 'civies'" (p. 15) "un nouveau habillé en bourgeois" [p. 21]). The word nouveau is italicized every time it occurs in the opening paragraphs, and while it of course implies "the new boy," it also has more unrestricted connotations meaning simply—the new. It is an adjective used as a noun, suggesting that this new presence is as yet only a quality and not an entity. That is to say that we (not "they," since we as readers, in possession of the language, are also implicated) are watching the introduction into the schoolroom of some unnamed "newness," a presence, an object, a phenomenon, that can be classified by its clothes, but as yet has no social identity. The schoolroom will do very well for a paradigm of society, since it is there that we study ("Nous étions à l'étude" [p. 21]) the texts and discourses that will constitute us (no matter how imperfectly) in later life. The Headmaster ("le Proviseur") who leads this nouveau into the classroom incorporates the male authority that sanctions the imposition of the particular forms of study and work ("l'étude" and "travail") of society. So, that entering "newness" is already encumbered with a desk, the epitomous object of the socializing and enculturating process. It is the first of many ambiguous containers and containing objects that we will encounter in the book. Carrying one's own desk is the ultimate secular inversion of Christ carrying his own cross. What we are watching is the painful insertion of "le nouveau" into "nous"; or, to put it another way, the incorporation or absorption of "le nouveau" by the "nous." This involves the placing of "le nouveau" in the "ranks," or rows and lines, by which a school operates (the master has to direct him toward the others, toward us—"le maître d'études fut obligé de l'avertir, pour qu'il si mît avec nous dans les rangs" [p. 22]). It is a difficult and harsh moment of transition, and as I shall suggest, it would seem to be intimately involved with the general trauma of entering language itself and the more specific trauma of nomination, which that process necessarily involves.

But before considering that part of the process, we must consider that famous cap that is given to us in such legible detail before we hear the name of the bearer of the cap. In a book in which we will everywhere encounter the primacy of clothes and garments of all kinds—particularly hats and shoes—over the wearers, it is entirely appropriate that we should be given a detailed account of how le nouveau was "habillé" before we learn how he has been named. But the cap has a special priority over any other garment in the book in the length and detail of its description, and this in itself is an exhortation to consider it very carefully. Certain features of the cap are very well known—for instance, that it contains elements of a fur hat, a lancer's cap, a bowler hat, an otterskin cap, and a night cap; this in itself suggests a deterioration in social roles, from the military and the hunting hat, down through the business hat, ending in the night cap, and there is no doubt that such degenerative hints are intended. But I want to look at the cap once again in its entirety. And the first thing that becomes apparent is that it is impossible to visualize this cap. It is lisible but not visible. It is as if, from the start, Flaubert is demonstrating that there can be written verbal constructs that the other senses cannot translate: language can create impossible objects that can be read and deciphered, but not seen and experienced. This potentially dangerous and disproportionate power of language over the senses is, in fact, a key part of Emma's dilemma. The cap itself is an assemblage of decontextualized quotations; a combination, or rather a weird tressage, of anomalous and incongruous fragments from other areas of experience; a cluster of signs taken from other fields of reference. The transposition of elements from the wild-animal kingdom and from the military ethos and business ethos to a schoolboy's cap is one obvious example of this, as though nature and history were dwindling into a random assortment of sartorial echoes. But there is even more going on in that "composite" cap ("une de ces coiffures d'ordre composite" [p. 22]), as begins to emerge when you try to figure out—literally—what is being described in the second long sentence dedicated to it. It requires quoting in full. "An oval splayed out with whale-bone, it started off with three pompons; these were followed by lozenges of velvet and rabbit's fur alternately, separated by a red band, and after that came a kind of bag ending in a polygon of cardboard with intricate braiding on it; and from this there hung down like a tassel, at the end of a long, too slender cord, a little sheaf of gold threads" (p. 16). ("Ovoïde et renflée de baleines, elle commençait par trois boudins circulairs; puis s'alternaient, séparés par une bande rouge, des losanges de velours et de poils de lapin; venait ensuite une façon de sac que se terminait par un polygone cartonné, couvert d'une broderie en soutache compliquée, et d'où pendait, au bout d'un long cordon trop mince, un petit croisillon de fil d'or, en manière de gland" [p. 22].) Brought together here in a very strange way—the cap is a nexus of incongruities!—are words of shape (oval, circular, lozenge, polygon, etc.) with words connected with construction (renflée implies "swollen" or "stretched out": boudins is a particularly difficult word in this context, since it can mean "torus," "flange," "spiral," as well as "pudding"; croisillon refers to a "crosspiece" or "brace," etc.). These fairly firm, even rigid words of shape and construction are mixed in with words referring to all kinds of soft material (velvet, cardboard, even gold, which is a very soft metal), just as we have the firm bones of the largest animal in nature (baleines—"whale bone") conjoined in the same artefact with the soft fur of one of the reputedly most timid, the rabbit ("de poils de lapin"). The cap is a mélange of processed nature and produced material, of architecture and embroidery, and the most disparate shapes, qualities, and material converge in it. And there is one more aspect to the cap that is hard to define and isolate, since it shimmers evasively somewhere within the unfolding of this whole mélangerie, but it seems to me undeniably to be there. I can perhaps approach it indirectly by pointing out that the word sac is also used for the amniotic sac; the word cordon is also used for the umbilical cord; and the word gland, while undoubtedly meaning "tassel," as the standard translations indicate, is also used in anatomy to refer to the glans and is even now used colloquially to refer to the testicles (hardly surprising, since it also means acorn). What the cap seems to contain among all the other things mentioned is a fragmented recapitulation of the period in the womb and the birth process. These fragments, or echoes, are mixed in with the fragmentary references to animals existing at a much earlier evolutionary stage than man (whales, otters) and an animal renowned for its timidity and fecundity alike (the rabbit); with references to earlier professions and roles; and references to various shapes, containers, materials. Thus the cap is a tissue of ontogenetic, philogenetic, and epigenetic hints. It is exactly a composite object "ou l'on retrouve les éléments," not where you can find the elements or basic constituents, but where you can find them again—displaced from their original context, which range widely through time and space, and reappearing in vestigial bits in a particular garment, an irrational collation of shapes, textures and materials, a "casquette" that seems to carry within it barely distinguishable memories of immemorial realms and times but that now serves to contain the head of a schoolboy. The putting on of the cap thus represents a kind of second "birth" into a confusion of signs. If we accept that traditional initiation tends to fall into the three stages of baptism, chrism, and communion (confirmation), we can recognize that in this grotesque parody of initiation into the prevailing culture, the cap plays the chrismal role—when it is placed on the head, le nouveau is annointed with incoherence.

We have then these two objects at the start of the book: Le nouveau, unnamed, silent, frightened, volitionless, a piece of manipulable flesh—not yet defined, identified, human; and le casquette, a manufactured object that is an assemblange of displacements, not only from nature into clothing, but from thing to sign. Indeed it is only because everything has been transformed to the status of sign that the cap can be "written" at all. In the cap the whalebone has lost its whaleness, just as the hint of lancer's cap brings with it no martial echoes. Everything meets and merges at the level of costume. Whatever else the cap means, it bespeaks the homogenization of initially utterly disparate elements, and this is possible because these elements have been treated as disposable and displaceable signs. All cultures necessarily employ this process in some way or another, even if only by turning animals into food and skins into clothing, etc. The point about this cap, with the absurd miscellaneousness and unvisualizable overabundance of its signs, is that it operates here as the representative object of the kind of bourgeois culture Flaubert was writing about. This is the object that is put over the head of le nouveau; it sums up the enculturation process by which le nouveau is initiated into and prepared for the established society. Such an object, and all that it implies, instead of making for a clarification and enrichment of consciousness, works to produce its confusion and obfuscation. How it does this is one of the issues that the book explores.

The fact that "nous," the boys already established within the school, like to throw their caps under their seats and against the wall—to leave their hands freer—may indicate some initial disinclination to rest easy under the allotted headgear of their society. Le nouveau is certainly uncertain in his relationship with his cap, and his hold on it is of the most tenuous, as is made clear when the master tells them all to stand up and "he" stands up, letting his cap fall to the ground. ("Il se leva; sa casquette tomba" [p. 22].) When he tries to pick it up, his neighbor knocks it to the floor again with a blow of the elbow ("un coup de coude" [p. 22]—I will return to these words later on) and "he" is still fumbling for it when the master makes his pedantic joke—"Débarrassez-vous de votre casque" ("Disburden yourself of your helmet" in the Penguin translation, p. 16). Inasmuch as how and whether a person in that society can disburden him or herself of the helmet or hood that society has clamped over him or her becomes a basic concern of the book, the "joke" sends prophetic echoes through the following text. But at this point it serves as a prelude to the ordeal of nomination, or the traumatic entry into language, that le nouveau now has to undergo. Significantly, he does not know what to do with his cap—hold it, put it on his head, or put it on the ground. He leaves it lying on his knees, as yet having established no relationship with it. As long as le nouveau remains le nouveau, he will never comprehend what to do with the cap. For the essence of the cap is precisely to eliminate the nouveauté of le nouveau and turn it into part of the existing "nous." He will know what to do with his cap once he has entered the given circuit of discourse, which is why he first has to say his name in front of all the others, in front of "us." And in the ensuing description Flaubert compresses the painful stages by which le nouveau enters into la condition linguistique. It must be quoted in full.

"Stand up and tell me your name."

The boy stammered out some unintelligible noise.


The same halting syllables, smothered by hoots from the class.

"Louder! Louder!"

This time the new boy plucked up his courage, opened his mouth to an enormous width, brought out at the top of his voice, as if he were hailing someone, the word Charbovari.

(Pp. 116-17)

—Levez-vous, reprit le professeur, et dites moi votre nom.

Le nouveau articula, d'une voix bredouillante, un nom inintelligible.


Le même bredouillement de syllabes se fit entendre, couvert par les huées de la classe.

—Plus haut! cria le maître, plus haut!

Le nouveau, prenant alors une résolution extrême, ouvrit une bouche démesurée et lança à pleins poumons, comme pour appeler quelqu'un, ce mot: Charbovari.

(p. 23)

The master's summons, a summons to verticality, to speech, to self-nomination, is a précis of the imperatives and exhortations by which the child, or le nouveau, is initiated into its social-linguistic identity.3 And the three attempts to comply that le nouveau makes also offer a foreshortened paradigmatic enactment of the difficulties involved in this entry into language. At first he "articulates" in a mumbling voice an unintelligible name—"nom inintelligible." The choice of words is particularly interesting for articuler means "clear utterance," and what is uttered is indeed a "nom." But it is unintelligible to the listeners because of the mumbling voice, "voix bredouillante." It is as though le nouveau can talk perfectly clearly to himself but has not mastered the ability to participate in audible discourse. The voice dissolves into a mumble or stammer. This kind of failure or disintegration of speech implied in words like bredouiller and balbutier ("Stammer") occurs frequently throughout the book, and among other things we may detect in it some trace of the traumatic period spent on the threshold of speech (in it yet not in it, mastered by it yet not master of it) such as is here being described. It is a graphic reminder of how precarious our position is in language. The second attempt to obey the master's imperative results in a significant shift in the description even though it would seem to be a repetition of the same noise. This time there is no "voix" but a "bredouillement de syllabes" that makes itself heard. The initiative seems to have passed from le nouveau (who in the first attempt was said to articulate) to a kind of inchoate speech-noise, or rather to something between the two. That is to say, it is not a voice saying a name, nor is it a totally nonsematic cry or jabber, but rather a kind of trembling of syllables ("syllabes"), a painful midway point between the private lalling of a young child and the full speech act, a point at which—following the implications of this description—the would-be speaker is not the controlling agent but rather the locus or venue where sounds and syllables foregather preparatory to transforming that venue into a public voice. At this point le nouveau is indeed more spoken, or rather half-spoken, than speaking. The pain involved in this period of transition is dramatized by the response of the listeners ("nous"), for those pathetic mumbling syllables trying to make themselves heard are covered or smothered by the hoots of the class ("couvert par les huées de la classe"). Huées ("hooting," "jeering," "booing," etc.), is a nonsemantic noise, but this time indicative, not of the helpless state of the infant (which means literally "without speech"), but of the aggression of "la classe"—or, we may say, society in its mob form, the mocking destructive roar of the deindividualized and thus dehumanized group. The fact that society both imposes the imperative to enter into language (the orders of the master) and can also, as it were, turn on language and negate it, nihilating individual articulation in a smothering communal noise, is a paradox that Flaubert puts before us at the very beginning of his book. We may refer then to the latent double humiliation in language—the painful ordeal of having to speak, and the continual risk of having your speech mockingly denied and erased by the surrounding others ("nous," "la classe," etc.).

The third attempt to obey the master ("Louder! Louder!") results in an almost orgasmic effort on the part of le nouveau, and the result this time is not a "nom intelligible" nor a "bredouillement de syllabes" but a "mot". It is, to be sure, a rather strange word, and I will come to that. But here again let us note just how Flaubert describes this climactic moment when le nouveau finally speaks an audible word. First of all it takes extreme determination, as though the whole being had to concentrate and come together to focus on this one act. Then the description of the opening of a mouth "démesurée" seems to anticipate many of the problems encountered later in the book. For while the word means simply "huge," it does also mean "beyond measure" or "unmeasured." A mouth beyond measure is a very suggestive paradox. Physically it is an impossibility; however big the mouth, it could still be "measured." But when the mouth is seen as the part of the body particularly involved with speech, then the word becomes very suggestive. Here we should note this: although the open mouth is a constant motif in the book (Charles dies with his mouth open) and is of course intimately connected with the whole problem of the satisfying of appetites and the vast amount of simple eating in the course of the narrative, it is in connection with the effort involved in speaking (i.e., not eating) that the mouth becomes an organ "beyond measure"—the unmeasurable dimension of the mouth is not primarily its hunger but its participation in language. That this unmeasurability might readily affect all the other appetites is of course a crucial aspect of the whole book. In a society where the dominant people live by measure of all kinds (number, law, finance—boxing, bottling, labeling—the world epitomized by Homais and his shop), the problems of "une bouche démesurée" may become acute, even unbearable. This will not be the case with le nouveau, but rather with the girl who takes on his name. Two other aspects of the description should be noted. First of all, there is something sexual about it: the full lungs (and Flaubert makes us vividly aware of differences in breathing, or what Dickens calls "the office of respiration," and its effects, throughout), then the release and the "throwing," or hurling, of the word, do suggest (through displacement or isomorphism, or something of both) that the final discharge of the whole being in a thrown word is in some way connected to the release in orgasm. The other point concerns the simile that Flaubert inserts—"comme pour appeler quelqu'un" (as if calling someone). Needless to say, there are no idle similes in this book, but this one brings more into the text than one might think at first glance. For in speaking, one is inevitably involved in "calling" someone. Here the multiple meanings involved in appeler are crucial, since it can refer both to calling out (hailing) and to naming and giving a term to. Once we are in language, we are forever "calling someone," calling for someone to help us, to love us, to answer us, and forever naming and labeling. It is as though in learning to speak, we first become fully aware of our own severance and state of separateness, so Flaubert carefully makes the first utterance of the word (in terms of this book) coeval with the need or compulsion to "call someone." And indeed in many ways they are one and the same act, since in speech there is always involved some element of a desire for connection, a reaching out, an attempt to join. And since the words we speak come from those around us, we are necessarily calling them in using their words. Once you move beyond unintelligibility and syllabic indeterminacy and gain the word, you are doomed forever to be calling someone. No one learns this lesson more thoroughly and painfully than Emma Bovary.


1 Unless otherwise indicated, French and English quotations from Flaubert's novel within this chapter are from Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), and Flaubert, Madame Bovary, trans. Alan Russell (Harmondsworth, Middlesex: Penguin, 1950).

2 The phenomenon of "trebling" or "triplication," is deeply rooted in narrative and has been identified by Vladimir Propp in his classic work, The Morphology of the Folk Tale (ed. Louis A. Wagner, trans. Lawrence Salt, 2d ed., rev. [Austin and London: University of Texas Press, 1968], p. 74). It is a recurrent phenomenon in the book. There are three Madame Bovarys, there are three primary men (i.e., sexual partners) in Emma's life (as there are three men in the life of "la Guérine"): when Rodolphe starts his seduction of Emma at the Agricultural Show, he draws up three, not two, stools; she is buried in three coffins; at her funeral there are three choristers, three batons, and her father sees three black hens and promises three chasubles to the church; and the book itself is in three parts. The phenomenon of triplication is, in this novel, related to the phenomenon of duplication, as I will suggest in another context.

3 It could be said that in this scene Charles Bovary is being forcibly recruited into the dominant ideology of his class. Cf. Louis Althusser: "I shall then suggest that ideology 'acts' or 'functions' in such a way that it 'recruits' subjects among the individuals (it recruits them all), or 'transforms' the individuals into subjects (it transforms them all) by that very precise operation which I have called interpellation or hailing, and which can be imagined along the lines of the most commonplace everyday police (or other) hailing: 'Hey, you there!'" For that parenthetic "other" in this case read "school-teacher." See Althusser's whole essay on "Ideology and Ideological State Apparatuses" in Lenin andPhilosophy and Other Essays (trans. Ben Brewster [New York: Monthly Review Press, 1972]).

Diana Festa-McCormick (essay date 1980)

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SOURCE: "Emma Bovary's Masculinization: Convention of Clothes and Morality of Conventions," in Gender and Literary Voice, edited by Janet Todd, Holmes & Meier Publishers, Inc., 1980, pp. 223-35.

[In the following essay, Festa-McCormick examines how the motif of clothing illustrates Emma Bovary's conflicted experience of her feminine gender role. She notes that "the encroachment of masculinity on [Emma 's] personality stands as a betrayal of her social role, progressively mirrored in the masculinization of her attire. "]

Emma Bovary has long been a favorite character for critics of fiction, analyzed from all angles, praised and vilified in turn, held as a type or treated as an individual, as a free spirit or a product of circumstances, the essence of femininity or the portrait of a man within a woman. We shall study here the problematic aspect of her womanhood in order to show how the encroachment of masculinity on her personality stands as a betrayal of her social role, progressively mirrored in the masculinization of her attire. The corruption of the teachings she has received assumes visible and recognizable manifestations: in the very process of betraying her assigned functions as a spouse and mother, she allows maculinity to intrude upon her appearance. This essay will deal not so much with Emma's feminity "per se," as with her obedience to, or discord with, her role as a woman illustrated through her clothing.

When she is first introduced at the Bertaux's farm, Emma presents a domestic image, quite in keeping with accepted notions of a nubile young woman tending her father's home. "A young woman wearing a dress of blue merino adorned with three flounces welcomed Monsieur Bovary at the front door, and showed him into the kitchen where a huge fire was blazing."1 Critics have pointed out that the first part of the novel is a projection of Charles's visual perception.2 Emma's introduction, therefore, is to be considered as a mirror of her future husband's eye. It is of interest then to notice that Charles's initial impression is dictated not by the girl's striking beauty but by what she is wearing—not by her unusually large eyes, raven hair or tumescent lower lip, but by the color of her dress and its three ruffles.

Beyond Emma's portrait of delicate femininity and coquettishness thus presented, stands a background of domestic warmth: a kitchen with a blazing fire. The stage is clearly set to convey an image in keeping with general expectations where the presence of a maiden is concerned. Emma appears like the embodiment of filial duties, foreshadowing, one is tempted to assume, those of spouse and mother in days to come. The dress is a symbol of the femininity she has perhaps culled in dreams and shaped within the demands of her society. That femininity is both her function and her prerogative, the immaterial evidence of harmony between a chosen path and assigned roles.

The remaining part of the paragraph introducing Emma at the Bertaux establishes the social condition to which she belongs—one that affords her a measure of distinction in a world rooted in work and in pride of possession. "Breakfast for the farm-hands stood bubbling in little pots of different sizes. Wet clothes hung drying within the great chimney-place. The shovel, the tongs, and the nozzle of the bellows, all of gigantic proportions, shone like polished steel, and along the walls were ranged a rich variety of kitchen utensils" (15).3 Emma is the mistress in that well-to-do-farm house: order reigns over the scene, and the shining utensils point to the striking cleanliness of the place. The impression received is that Emma herself has prepared the meal for the farm hands, or at least has been responsible for it, as well as for the spotless decor. That this impression is somewhat called into question when, needing to make bandages for her father's broken leg. "She took a long time, however, to find her needle case" is of little consequence. Her individual weaknesses have hardly any bearing upon her image as a woman and her own private understanding of it—for she has not yet betrayed the premises upon which it stands.

More important is a detail added to Emma's clothing, as if haphazardly, and noticed only a little later: "A pair of shell-rimmed glasses was stuck, masculine fashion between the buttons of her bodice" (17). The deliberate use of the adjective "masculine" here plays a false note in the otherwise well orchestrated feminine details, and points to the latent potential for violation of the feminine quintessence in Emma. The glasses are a warning through which we may later recognize a pattern of deterioration reflected in Emma's raiment and general attire.

The picture of a girl acting in accord with the postulates of her condition is developed in the pages that follow. Emma's "blushing furiously" when her back brushes inadvertently against Charles's arm, is consonant with the "tiny clogs" she wears, or the high heels the spell-bound suitor admires (18). Charles's jealous wife may well resent the fact that Emma looks "like a countess in a silken gown" (19), but it would be preposterous for her to see anything offensive—or masculine—in it.

If Emma's clothing can be used as a code for her adherence to prescribed behavior, it follows that the height of her feminine apparel should coincide with the crowning of her womanhood on her wedding day. "Emma's dress was too long and it touched a little on the ground; now and then she stopped to raise it, and then delicately, with her gloved fingers, she picked off the wild grasses and thistles, while Charles, empty handed, waited for her to finish" (29). The dress falling to the ground seems designed to hide her small shoes, thus removing from view what from the onset was presented as a source of sensuous appeal. White and pure, the bride's overly long gown emphasizes the steps that have led, from provocative postures and the frivolity of ruffles and high heels, to the solemn moment of a woman swearing life-long allegiance to a man. That man, significantly "empty handed" when Emma's arm is removed from his, holds his rightful place by her side.

A period of moderate well-being follows, in which clothing and gestures illustrate at least the simulation of fulfillment. The quiet intimacy of the couple, with their evening meals across from each other, or the walks along the dusky road, finds confirmation in the gentle shadow of Emma's "scalloped night-cap," as she sleeps under her husband's mesmerized gaze. The young bride's fluttering activities in reshaping the order of her new home are corroborated in the soft roundness of her straw hat hanging by the window; as Charles leaves for work in the morning, she steals to the window "wrapped in a dressing gown that fell loosely about her," still evocative of her bridal dress (34-35). The first signs of restlessness in the face of continued monotony assume for Emma the shape of clothing in deep hues and alluring contours. She dreams of faraway places reached by post-chaise with blue silk curtains, next to a husband—alas, so little resembling the Charles at her side—"dressed in black, long-skirted velvet coat, soft leather boots, a pointed hat, and ruffles at his wrist" (41-43). This effeminate, or at least dandyfied, image of a nonexistent husband, could be seen to point, by contrast, to Emma's embryonic "masculinization." The "long skirted coat" she envisions, anticipates the Vicomte's tight waistcoast at La Vaubyessard, the graceful figures floating by on the dance floor, and Emma's first languorous dizziness, during the waltz, in the arms of a man.4

The pattern that began with precious little feet sheathed in high-heel clogs and a frilled skirt with light ruffles, and that had led to the exaggerated discreetness of Emma's wedding gown, is repeated during the intervening months, but in distorted fashion. As she begins to muse about a more glamorous existence than the one she lives, Emma decks herself in "wine red slippers" that show beneath an open dressing gown revealing a pleated bodice adorned "with three gold buttons" (62)—somewhat more obvious and eye-catching than the image at the Bertaux. When Emma's courtesanlike apparel finds no support in outer reality and the actual presence of an adoring cavalier, it is discarded, and the dreamy mood is replaced by despondency. The listless young woman now wears "gray cotton stockings" and is loth to dress (68), implicitly renouncing her natural role in the home along with the more feminine and gauzy wraps of the past. Then, coinciding with her first meeting of Léon when she arrives at the inn in Yonville, the dainty movement of lifting her skirt with two fingers reappears. But the gesture now brings the dress "up to the ankles" and reveals a "foot shod in a little black boot," gingerly extended toward the flames in the fireplace. That same evening, the first slight suggestion of a perhaps discordant element in her travelling costume becomes evident: "She was wearing a small tie of blue silk which held straight, as a stiff ruff, a collar of pleated batiste" (86). Emma is on the look out, half consciously, for the kind of love that would confirm vague expectations, not totally in keeping with connubial fidelity. This mood of anticipation contains the potential for deviation from her womanly role, suggestively the potential for presence of the masculine tie around her neck.

Alison Fairlie, in her sensitive study of the novel, observes that "between the origins and the fulfilment of passion may come the stage of resistance," and that "the mere discovery of love may in itself be so satisfying that there is a momentary pause with no urge to go further."5 Just as "one dreams before contemplating," in Bachelard's words, the contemplation itself is a stage that needs full maturation before it can be translated into action.6 Emma has gone from the dream—which, albeit with a different demeanor, still contained the image of her husband—to the contemplation, which envisages the delicate features of Léon. The first stage was heralded by the presence of red slippers and a provocative negligé, still traditionally feminine if devoid of delicacy; the second is ushered in by a small tie, inconspicuous if vaguely masculine, and blue colored—a masculine symbol that remains obstinately delicate in shade and texture. If this is the first time that Emma's musing about love assumes the distinctive features of a man other than her husband, she is not yet tempted to transgress accepted bonds. This resistance against the "urge to go further" becomes a kind of triumph against the little blue tie she wore on the first encounter, and it is mirrored in the soft folds of her dress in subsequent images: "A dark hue fell on her back from her hair pulled up, becoming gradually paler as it fell in the shadow. Her garment then cascaded over from both sides of the chair, in billows full of pleats and spreading down to the ground" (101). Where bright and suggestive colors had dominated the period of Emma's lustful dreams, somber shades seem to hind her body during the assuaging contemplation of sentiment; where seductive booties had been proffered to the glow of embers, ample folds of material now reach to the ground in sign of demure chastity.

All contemplation of love that is not sublimated, however, leads to musings that unavoidably assume the urgency for fulfilment. When such an exigency is frustrated, chastity is no longer an elevating virtue, but a source of resentment. After Emma has pondered with wonderment on the inebriating flutters of her heart, the love she discerns soon exacts the price of desire. "But she was full of greed, rage, and hatred. The straight folds of her dress concealed a distressed heart, her chaste lips did not tell of the tempest within" (110). The storm of desire that now rages in her has erased all softness in her dress and replaced it with vertical and abrupt lines. Léon then leaves, and the earlier pattern that had gone from vague expectations to despondency after La Vaubyessard is repeated, but in reverse order. The thwarting of inner longings brings a period of misery—which is followed by a phase of self-indulgence and the renewal of feminine elegance, in brooding solitude, behind closed shutters, in the languid poses of an Odalisque (128).

Madame Bovary, Richard Blackmur has poetically written, "is a novel which is the shape of a life which is the shape of a woman which is the shape of a desire."7 It is not the purpose of this essay to measure the energetic femininity that emerges from Blackmur's portrait of Emma, against the virility that ransoms her away from the banality of a woman's universe, in Baudelaire's appraisal. The aim here is to examine Emma's masculinity in the very manifestations of her desires against accepted modes. Emma's eventual flaunting of a freedom which in reality she does not possess, and which is not sanctioned by the morals of her society, can easily be seen as the exasperation of a woman not resigned to boredom at the side of an eminently boring man. But her transgression against the age-old pattern of submissiveness can only be seen as virile; that virility assumes the shape of masculinity in the particulars of her clothing.

In an author such as Flaubert, who left in his composition so little room for spontaneous inspiration, and who carefully pondered over all details with more deliberation than the wariest of generals before a battle, it would be rash to venture that the progressive intrusion of masculine details in Emma's dress is fortuitous. The steps that lead from her chance meeting with Rodolphe in her own kitchen, to her swooning surrender in the fields, are indeed signaled by a movement which, along with the disorder to the senses, points to a crescendo in distance between her and the marks of her femininity. As Emma bends by the kitchen table, she presents to Rodolphe's appreciative gaze a picture of delectable femininity: "her dress (it was a summer dress, with four flounces, yellow colored, long waisted, full skirted), her dress spread around her and over the tiles of the room" (132). The word "dress" repeated three times in the space of these very few lines, and reiterated after the parenthesis with an emphasis that can only point to its intrinsic value, in the face of no grammatical justification—marks the critical point in Emma's role as a woman. She is, and somewhat vaguely senses it, at the threshold. She can still cling, figuratively, to the light flounces and billowing folds that have constituted her realm—or she can step over, into the domain of the forbidden, and affirm her independence from customary principles.

Emma, we know, rushes forward with an impetus that only the long tarrying and period of dejection after Léon's departure explain. Symptomatically, on her way to the agricultural fair, leaning on Rodolphe's arm, the soft roundness of the straw hat hanging by the window latch during the initial days of her marriage, is replaced by an "oval bonnet" (139). Interestingly, a study of the variants shows that a previous version of the text read: "the large oval of her bonnet."8 One may presume that the adjective "large" was subsequently eliminated so as to stress the "ovality" of the hat—and thus prevent all association of the new shape with the previous "roundness" and wide flaps.9 The ensuing picture, with Emma's cavalcade in the woods, reinforces this assumption. On that day so predictably ushering her surrender into Rodolphe's arms, Emma's dress stands literally in the way: "But her dress, too long, hampered her, although she held it up by the train" (163). The image of her holding the dress reappears for the third time—so removed in context, however, from that of the wedding day with the candor of her expectations. The dress is now black, and beneath it there show, as on her arrival in Yonville, little black boots. More to the point, Emma is wearing "a man's hat" (164). Masculinity is the equivalent, with Emma, of a daring out of place, of an empty challenge against the postulates of her condition. She can only be the loser in that challenge, for her condition is indeed that of a woman, whose identity is inexorably bound to recognized canons. Each jolt against the invisible wheel of her destiny leaves a cleft in her integrity as a woman. Circularly, her blemished integrity assumes the shape of masculinity.

Love spelled with a capital L, in the name of which many transgressions have been justified, will not be allowed by Flaubert to assume here redeeming qualities. Love itself is placed within the context of Emma's condition, which is that of a married woman. No romantic eulogizing on her part, no amount of sentiment or passionate endeavor to change the decrees of her lot, can detract from that initial premise. As she violates it, she begins to lose the core upon which rests the collective aspect of her social personality. Modesty—or "pudeur," that untranslatable French word—is the first casualty in the marring of her femininity. Rodolphe, well versed in the games of love, "judged all modesty importunate. He treated it without regard. He made of it something malleable and corrupt" (196). At the mercy of her discovered sensuality, Emma basks in the debasement of all the stipulations that had held her world together. "Her demeanor changed. Her looks became bolder, her talk more unrestrained; she even had the indecorousness of walking with Rodolphe, a cigarette at her lips, as if to flout public opinion" (197). Without any need to indulge in considerations of the symbolic value of a cigarette in the hands of this pre-Freudian heroine, one may nevertheless recall that smoking was strictly relegated to men's use at that time. The public opinion she flouts (and the cursive in the text emphasizes the importance of the statement) is the very foundation for her identity as a woman. The cigarette itself, however, explicit as it might seem in denouncing Emma's process of masculinization—and hence of perversion—pales in import when measured against the slow metamorphosis in her clothing: "finally, those who still doubted did not doubt any longer when they saw her, one day, alighting from the Hirondelle, her waist held tight in a vest, like a man" (197). It is the presence of the close-fitting, man-like garment that removes all doubt and reveals to the shocked bourgeois of Yonville the degree of Emma's abasement. There is no mention of blue color to relieve the masculine aspect of the vest, no description of vast folds in the dress to mitigate its presence by contrast. The very absence of a description of her dress, in fact, underlies the impact of that vest, which points both to Emma's physical and to her moral decline as a woman.

If Emma's downfall is defined by her social reality, it does not necessarily touch upon all aspects of her psychology as an individual. She continues, in fact, to "dream" as a woman. She envisions a Paradise of joy next to her lover, in far-away lands where flowers and maidens in red bodices would salute them. The dream fades when Rodolphe disappears.

When consciousness returns after months of anguish, Emma's first action, in keeping with the thesis of a woman's identity tied to social concepts, is to mend the broken links in her femininity. She could not do this, at this point, simply by reestablishing softness in her dressing; she instinctively turns to social work, in order to restore her social image, and sews "clothing for the poor" (120). Her mother-in-law is not happy with her "knitting little tops for orphans, instead of mending her own dusters" (221). She does not understand that only through improving her public image can Emma come closer to the morality she has lost. Gradually, as the Yonville world begins to accept the decorous image she now presents, Emma can, little by little, remove the milling crowd of well wishers and become once again mistress in her own home. Eventually, she puts on "a dress of blue silk with four flounces" (226), buys a hat (of unspecified shape), gloves, a bouquet of flowers for her outing to the opera in Rouen.

There is, however, no road back, no possibility of reconquering a mystical purity. The blue gown with the flounces underlies at this point the irony, rather than the sincerity, in Emma's efforts—as vacuous as the letter of disengagement she intended to give to Léon on the following day, instead of meeting him. That blue dress and those flounces stand also for the intermission before events continue along the by now predictable road. The only deep resentment Emma nourishes, in reality, is against her marriage. Her aspiration, at least unconsciously, remains tied to the fulfillment of a dream of love that takes no notice of Charles. No amount of lace or silk can undo her longing for the renewal, not the obliteration, of past felicities in Rodolphe's arms. She thinks of marriage as "defilement" ("les souillures du marriage"), while she merely avows "disillusion" in her adulterous relation (p. 230). The frenzy with which she heads toward a new venture reveals in fact that, camouflaged under domestic mien, the corruption of moral standards had been burrowing within her, before bursting anew in visible manifestation.

The three stages that revealed Emma's betrayal of her marital commitment through changes in her clothing—very "feminine" when first meeting Rodolphe, followed by the presence of an "oval" hat and finally by a "man's hat"—are repeated more deliberately during the second time around. The vest, earlier found so shocking and revealing of her corruption by the Yonville society, represented an unambiguous substitution for a more acceptable and feminine bodice. But Emma has since gone a long way in the process of masculinization. She has learned, as all experienced lovers must—and as indeed Rodolphe had done—to be more circumspect in her exhibition of licentiousness. Thus, outwardly, she caters now to a display of femininity: ribbons and lace abound, wide skirts, veils and shawls. Away from the scrutinizing eyes of her society, however, the three phases mentioned take on a more brutal manifestation of masculinity than ever before. They go from the gradual removal of her womanly garments to the outright wearing of a man's costume.

Along the road, Emma now walks discreetly, brushing the walls, her eyes cast down. She usually wears black, and if the dress makes her look taller and more imposing perhaps than women are wont to be, it has nevertheless "folds widening like a fan" (262). But in the hotel room where she steals every Thursday to meet Léon, details of nudity are suddenly revealed that were never mentioned before. "She would even say 'my slippers,' a gift from Léon, a whim she had had. They were slippers of pink satin, trimmed with swandown. When she sat on his lap, her leg, too short then, hung in the air; and the cute shoe, which had no back, held only by the toes of her naked foot" (270). The nakedness of that foot brings to fore what had until now been only suggested eroticism, through high heels or soft leather boots. Booties, we now understand, were alluring for the imagination, but acting as a kind of screen, and hence still feminine in the traditional concept. The precariously balanced satin slippers on the other hand—reminiscent of the "red wine" pair worn earlier, when Emma was half-consciously trying out provocative poses for still nonexistent lovers—suggest their own eventual dropping, and hence the act of undressing and removing a vestige of femininity.

What has been implied with the little slippers about to fall from Emma's bare feet is later amplified and restated in unambiguous terms. Emma's gradual appropriation of men's prerogatives—and Léon has meekly become "her mistress rather than she his" (283)—is mirrored in her attitudes to clothing. The dress, which at her initial outing with Rodolphe was "in the way," is now unceremoniously discarded. "She pulled off her clothes brutally, tearing at the thin lace of the stays in the corset, which hissed around her things like a slithering snake. She went tiptoeing on her naked feet to see once more if the door was locked, and then with a single gesture she let her clothes drop to the floor;—and, pale, without talking, solemn, she threw herself down on his chest, with a prolonged shudder" (228). The violence of Emma's undressing and flinging her clothes to the ground is followed by the taking possession of her lover, and of falling on his supine and receptive body. Clearly, the roles have been reversed and, in the intimacy of the hotel room, Emma has shed all semblance of her past femininity. There is hardly an inkling left of the demure attitudes of the early stages of her loves and dreams, not a bit of that "pudeur" so indispensable to her role as a woman. There is also not a shred of silk or lace, not a dress, not even a slipper.

The last stage in Emma's process of masculinization assumes the unmistakable shape of a complete male costume. The dreams she had nourished before her marriage are hardly even a memory by now. Long gone too are the illusions of her first love with Rodolphe. This final phase no longer holds any respect even for the outward rituals of what had constituted her world. Emma has embraced a moral depravity that recognizes no law outside of her immediate urges. She toys briefly with the temptation of assuring herself of Léon's loyalty, but haughtily dismisses it. "Eh! never mind!" she concludes, "let him betray me, what do I care! does it matter?" (289)—thoughts which would have been inconceivable earlier. Benjamin Bart points out that Emma is defeated not by love but by materialism.10 Her materialism, in fact, is as such a part of her inherited culture (witness the shining utensils in her kitchen at the Bertaux farm) as love and marriage are: all have been corrupted, reduced to grasping and crushing, where caring and holding had been prescribed. The schism that now exists not only between Emma and the world in which she lives, but within herself, finds manifestations in her outward appearance. Moving parallel to her decline, as she reaches the lowest ebb, clothes become once again the denouncing factor.

Emma, who is now oppressed by an "incessant" sense of fatigue (297)—incapable, one may conclude, of sustaining any longer the weight of a femininity she does not in truth honor—assumes the guise of a man. "The day of Mid-Lent, she did not go back to Yonville; she went in the evening to the masked ball. She put on velvet trousers and red socks, a knotted wig and a lantern on her ear" (297). The ostensible masquerade is but a visible evidence of the final shattering of a public image. No longer a gesture of daring, the male costume stands in reality for an act of surrender, confirming Emma's defeat in the dominion of the woman. Symptomatically, the wearing of the velvet pants coincides with a night of orgy and the forsaking of home and family. An ominous air weighs upon the near empty house in Yonville, where the child Berthe, who plays such a diminutive role in the novel, now cries for the absent mother, sensing, perhaps, her irremediable loss. The "red socks" contain all the defiance previously denied by the "gray socks," worn in muted resignation against the plays of destiny. The wig might help confer on Emma the male elegance she had so longed for in a lover; but why "the lantern on her ear"? Maybe all inner light, dulled by now, refuted, could have as substitute only a derisive imitation and the artificial glow of a paper lantern. Emma is in effect "no more," degradation having conquered her.

In death alone will Emma resume the candor of that day long ago, when her womanhood was crowned. Away at last from all temptation that impugned her image as a woman, she is finally restored to that very image: a fey beauty in the filmy white of her gown, laid upon the velvet softness of the casket. Guided by the visionary force of his love, Charles vindicates the very femininity that was at the core of Emma's tragedy: "I want her to be buried in her wedding dress, with white shoes, a wreath. Her hair is to be arranged on her shoulders" (334).


1 All quotations from MadameBovary are taken from the same edition (Paris: Garnier Frères, 1971) and only the page number will be given in parentheses. All translations are mine.

2 See in this connection Jean Rousset's "MadameBovary ou le livre sur rien," Forme et Signification (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1962), pp. 109-133.

3 See Pierre Danger's book, Sensations et Objets dans le Roman de Flaubert (Paris: Librairie Armand Colin, 1973), particularly Chapter V, "Le vocabulaire des objets," p. 160.

4 Victor Brombert points out that the waltz was "considered immoral by the Imperial Prosecutor," The Novels of Flaubert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966), p. 46. The dance itself then is an initial transgression for Emma, and an opening into a forbidden world of sensations.

5 Alison Fairlie, Flaubert: MadameBovary (London: Edward Arnold Publishers, 1962), p. 47.

6 Gaston Bachelard, L'Eau et les Rêves (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1942), p. 6.

7 Richard Blackmur, "Beauty out of Place: Flaubert's Madame Bovary," in Eleven Essays in the European Novel (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1964), p. 48.

8MadameBovary. Nouvelle Version précédée des Scénarios inédits, edited by Jean Pommier and Gabrielle Leleu (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1949), p. 342.

9 That hats play a considerable role in foreshadowing personalities is indicated from the beginning: young Charles's carefully detailed, multi-shaped, multicolored cap presumably stands for incongruity or absence of reason in his character.

10 Benjamin Bart, Flaubert (Syracuse University Press, 1967), p. 319: "Her materialism, not her sensuality, causes her death, although she does not understand it."

Further Reading

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Ahearn, Edward J. "Using Marx to Read Flaubert: The Case of Madame Bovary." In L'Hénaurme Siècle: A Miscellany of Essays on Nineteenth-Century French Literature, edited by Will L. McLendon, pp. 73-91. Heidelbert: Carl Winter Universitätsverlag, 1984.

Argues that "the relevance of Marx for the study of Flaubert" is "formally as well as historically pertinent."

Cascardi, Anthony J. "The Female Quixote: Aesthetics and Seduction." In The Bounds of Reason: Cervantes, Dostoevsky, Flaubert, pp. 159-82. New York: Columbia University Press, 1986.

Considers the depiction of irony and sentimentality in Madame Bovary and Cervantes's Don Quixote.

Church, Margaret. "A Triad of Images: Nature as Structure in Madame Bovary." In Structure and Theme: Don Quixote to James Joyce, pp. 61-80. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1983.

Examines "the means by which Flaubert fashions coherence within and among the three parts of [Madame Bovary], building slowly triadic structures within the larger triad of the book itself."

Collas, Ion K. Madame Bovary: A Psychoanalytic Reading. Geneve: Librairie Droz, 1985, 138 p.

Scrutinizes the text of Madame Bovary "in an effort to discover the deeper cause of the sufferings of its heroine, the mysterious Emma Bovary, whose melancholy moods and tragic death have never been satisfactorily explained."

Culler, Jonathan. "The Uses of Madame Bovary." Diacritics: A Review of Contemporary Criticism 11 (Fall 1981): 74-81.

Discusses how the "celebration of Madame Bovary as the novel of novels is closely connected with the celebration of Emma as a model of human nature" and the "use of Madame Bovary as a model of the post-modern."

Goodwin, Sarah Webster. "Emma Bovary's Dance of Death." Novel 19, No. 3 (Spring 1986): 197-215.

Argues that Emma Bovary's "death-wish" is shaped in the text of Madame Bovary by "the popular motif of the dance of death, transformed and embedded by Flaubert in the novel's structures."

Greene, Robert W. "Clichés, Moral Censure, and Heroism in Flaubert's Madame Bovary." Symposium XXXII, No. 4 (Winter 1978): 289-302.

Discusses Flaubert's satirical use of clichés in Madame Bovary.

Haig, Stirling. "Madame Bovary." In Flaubert and the Gift of Speech: Dialogue and Discourse in Four 'Modern' Novels, pp. 53-105. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1986.

Examines how Flaubert's use of dialogue in Madame Bovary "dramatizes narratorial irony" and also "allows him to reduce authorial presence, thus achieving the ideal of [authorial] objectivity."

——. "The Madame Bovary Blues." In The Madame Bovary Blues: The Pursuit of Illusion in Nineteenth-Century French Fiction, pp. 79-93. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1987.

Argues that "while we are certainly witnessing the deflation of a [Romantic] myth in [Madame Bovary] . . . that deflation in no sense invalidates the myth's urgency or even destroys it."

Hamilton, James F. "Madame Bovary and the Myth of Androgyny." The USF Language Quarterly XIX, Nos. 3-4 (Spring-Summer 1981): 19-22.

Maintains that the "apparent contradictions in [Emma Bovary's] character and conduct . . . reflect the salutary urge to unite the female and male aspects of her being."

Heath, Stephen. Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992, 157 p.

Examines Flaubert's authorial "identification" with Madame Bovary, focusing on the composition process and themes of personal relevance to Flaubert.

Johnsen, William A. "Madame Bovary: Romanticism, Modernism, and Bourgeois Style." Modern Language Notes 94, No. 4 (May 1979): 843-50.

Argues that "Flaubert's attempt to go beyond the derivative romanticism of others [in Madame Bovary] only exposes, once again, his kinship to the bourgeois."

Kelly, Dorothy. "Gender and Representation: Flaubert's Androgynous Representations." In Fictional Genders: Role and Representation in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative, pp. 119-68. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1989.

Argues that the "androgynous mix-up of feminine birthing metaphors and masculine phallo-pens [in Madame Bovary] must lead us away from purely historical and thematic questions to look at gender in relation to the real literary problem of this text: the problem of meaning."

Lloyd, Rosemary. "The Intellectual and Social Background." In Madame Bovary, pp. 21-45. London: Unwin Hyman, 1990.

Focuses on Madame Bovary's "evocation of contemporary convictions and codes of behaviour," arguing that the characters are confined by "a net of beliefs and expectations instilled in them by all the means society has at its disposal for making its citizens conform."

Pascal, Roy. "The French Masters." In The Dual Voice: Free Indirect Speech and Its Functioning in the Nineteenth-Century European Novel, pp. 98-122. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1977.

Offers "a bare and schematic indication of Flaubert's use of free indirect speech, limit[ed] . . . to a few issues that are of the most general significance."

Peterson, Carla L. "The Heroine as Reader in the Nineteenth-Century Novel: Emma Bovary and Maggie Tulliver." Comparative Literature Studies XVII, No. 2 (June 1980): 168-83.

Discusses Emma Bovary in the context of the social position of women in England and France during the nineteenth century.

Reynaud, Patricia. "Economics as Lure in Madame Bovary" In Money: Lure, Lore, and Literature, edited by John Louis DiGaetani, pp. 163-74.

Links the erosion of economic value with the decline of linguistic meaning and examines how this concept functions in the text of Madame Bovary.

Schor, Naomi. "For a Restricted Thematics: Writing, Speech, and Difference in Madame Bovary." In Breaking the Chain: Women, Theory, and French Realist Fiction, pp. 3-28. New York: Columbia University Press, 1985.

Argues for a thematic approach to critical interpretation of Madame Bovary.

Wall, Geoffrey, trans. Introduction to Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives, by Gustave Flaubert, pp. vii-xxv. London: Penguin Books, 1992.

Focuses on the biographical context for Flaubert's composition of Madame Bovary and provides an overview of the novel's plot.

Additional coverage of Flaubert's life and career can be found in the following sources published by Gale Research:Nineteenth-Century Literature Criticism, Vols. 2, 10, 19, and 62;Discovering Authors; Short Story Criticism, Vol. 11;World Literature Criticism, 1500 to the Present; andDictionary of Literary Biography, Vol. 119.

Dominick LaCapra (essay date 1982)

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SOURCE: "Aspects of the Novel," in Madame Bovary On Trial, Cornell University Press, 1982, pp. 169-208.

[In the following excerpt, LaCapra argues that "Madame Bovary is not simply a 'tragedy of dreams' that places responsibility for Emma's fate' on her reading of romantic novels." He focuses instead on "how modifications in narrative perspective provide a nonlinear subplot" which he relates to the novel's theme of temporality.]

Do not speak to me about modern times, with respect to the grandiose. There is not enough there to satisfy the imagination of a feuilletonist of the lowest order.

Flaubert, June 7, 1844

It's equally fatal for the mind to have a system and to have none. It will simply have to decide to combine the two.

Friedrich Schlegel,

Athenaeum Fragments (1798)

Approaching more general aspects of the novel, I shall enlarge the focus on narrative perspective to include other dimensions of Flaubert's novelistic practice, for his "dual style" affected other standard components of the novel: themes, plot, characterization, and setting or context. While my treatment of these issues may in certain respects be anticipated given the preceding discussion, it is nonetheless useful to render more explicit the manner in which Madame Bovary recast the traditional novel.

In the analysis of cliché, irony, and stupidity [presented in Madame Bovary on Trial], I intimated that Madame Bovary lends itself to thematic unification up to a point but also provokes a questioning of the very thematic lines or leads it holds out to the reader. The trial centered its readings upon the themes of the family and religion. Associated with them was the theme of the novel itself in influencing behavior in "real" life. The prosecution and the defense were in agreement on the ability of fiction to trigger "mimetic" effects in ordinary life, for good or ill. They both assumed that readers would read Madame Bovary as Emma herself read novels, and, in attributing great importance to this theme, they joined literary critics who present Emma's own quixotic attempt to live what she reads as the unifying explanation which the novel seems to furnish in accounting for her life.

It might, however, be argued that within the novel itself the explanation of Emma's "fate" through the reading of novels has only a limited validity. It is in no sense a total or univocal explanation of her life. That Emma attempts to lead her life as if she were living a novel and that her actual reading of "romantic" novels as a girl helped to shape her conception of life are blatantly apparent postulations of the novel itself. But they are mediated, qualified, and dislocated by other considerations in a complex of relations that is not entirely coherent. There is, for example, a tension between Emma's more transcendent aspirations toward an absolute and her earth-bound, indeed vulgar, desires: both are in some sense "romantic," but they cohabit uneasily. Nor is there any simple coincidence between Emma's romantic excesses and her financial imprudence. Love and money are two forms of impropriety in her life, and they combine to help undermine the status of the bourgeois family. But they do so from different directions that intersect only at certain points (gifts for her lovers or expenditures for the planned escape with Rodolphe). What they share is an extremely transgressive relation to conventional norms of bourgeois respectability, but the mode of transgression is not unitary: there is little romance in Emma's financial problems. A similar relation holds between erotic dreams and conventional religious inclinations in Emma, for they merge in mawkish amalgams that attest to the implausibility of their combination. Indeed Emma, in paradoxical contrast to her idealizing romanticization of secular love, takes too literally the image of a celestial lover and the belief that material practices are the path to true religious faith.

In all these senses, Madame Bovary is not simply a "tragedy of dreams" that places responsibility for Emma's "fate" on her reading of romantic novels which create "mimetic" desire in her. One telling defect of this interpretation is that it does not inquire into the way in which it is both invited and critically situated by the novel itself. The fact that Emma's mother-in-law offers the reading of romantic novels as the cause of Emma's "problems" is enough to give one pause and to cast a shadow of doubt upon the explanation. The shadow is lengthened by the additional fact that Charles and Rodolphe are the bearers of the belated Greek message that "fate" determined the course of events. Indeed a general problem in offering any given interpretation of a Flaubert novel is to see whether and how that interpretation is already put forth and positioned in the novel itself, for example, which of the characters one sounds like in offering it. One may then find that the trojan horse in which one takes refuge has a rather uncomfortable fit.

On a related level of composition, symbols and images also raise problems in providing agencies of unification or coherent organization that tend to break down or become questionable. We have already mentioned [in previous chapters of this work] Charles's hat—a symbol that manifestly seems to stand for him yet is both too full and too empty for adequate interpretation. The image of the window serves as another remarkable instance of the possibilities and limits of unified thematic interpretation. Jean Rousset begins his famous discussion of Madame Bovary as the "book about nothing" (in which the art of narrative transition is nonetheless crucial) only to have his analysis veer in the direction of making the novel a book about windows.1 This Alice-in-Wonderland metamorphosis from a formalistic reading of the novel as the realization of pure art to a thematic and image-centered reading may be emblematic of the duality of the novel itself in exploring the interplay of opposites without being reducible to them. The window in Madame Bovary does partially lend itself to thematic analysis as an image inducing phenomenological reverie that is more subtle and extensive than Emma's own. The closed window is often related to claustration and self-enclosure, while the open window is the scene of dreams in the provinces—dreams that provide at least imaginary communication with an outside world. Yet there are instances in the novel that block the comprehensive coverage of this interpretation. For in the use of the window with its quivering hook as the father's signal to announce Emma's acceptance of the proposal of marriage to the inarticulate Charles, as well as in the "absurdist" gesticulations of Emma and Binet as perceived by the two old busy-bodies, it is the open window that functions as a barrier to communication and a bar to dreams.

All this is not to say that thematic organization is beside the point. But the text puts into practice a complex interplay between thematic determinacy and indeterminacy, proffering certain consistent lines of interpretation to the reader while simultaneously indicating their shortcomings or possible dead-ends. Jonathan Culler has written extensively about the uses of uncertainty in Flaubert.2 It is important to recognize that it is a question of uses of uncertainty and not simply a provision of "a theory of the indeterminacy of experience."3 The reader may of course attempt to formulate this theory. The novel furnishes certain elements for it and tests the limits of their validity, thereby raising the question of the tenability of such theories in its world and, by implication, in other possible worlds. Here one sees again how Madame Bovary is a novel situated on the threshold between traditional novels and experimental texts. The latter will often leave the furnishing of conventional interpretations or expectations up to the reader rather than inscribe them within the text itself. The Sentimental Education and Bouvard and Pécuchetmove further in this direction. But Madame Bovary is positioned between tradition and its often disorienting critique, and for this reason is accessible to large numbers of readers (or misreaders) and even seems to invite misreading or at least reading on only a relatively "naive" level. This active use of "deviations" that are unremarkable enough to pass unnoticed, yet insistent enough to disconcert once they are noticed or even subconsciously sensed, may also be observed on the levels of plot and characterization.

When one attempts to provide a linear plot summary of Madame Bovary, one invariably begins to echo either the prosecution or the defense at the trial. Rather than repeat the story of adultery in the provinces, I shall try to indicate how modifications in narrative perspective provide a nonlinear subplot—one in which the use of language engages the problem of sense-making and its limits. And I shall relate this story to the role of temporality in the novel.

Chronology in the ordinary sense is not very well defined in Madame Bovary (in contrast to a novel such as The Sentimental Education where the implausible length of Rosanette's pregnancy or the gap between 1851 and 1867 are marked by their contrast to the precise dating of other events). For the world represented in Madame Bovary is that of everyday life in the provinces where plus ça change, plus c 'est la même chose. The events of the novel can be roughly dated as taking place in the late 1830s and the 1840s, and drawing to a close somewhere around 1848. (Why 1848 is not mentioned may be formulated as a problem, and one may suggest that Emma's suicide takes its place.) But dating is possible on the basis of inferences from a few passing allusions, for example, Homais' reference to floods in Lyon and the government's reaction to insurrection in Poland. The novel is definitely not a chronicle of its time in any topical or circumstantially detailed way. It rather brings out the nature of life in a provincial context that is characterized by what recent social historians call la longue durée.

But the proverbial cliché about change and sameness does not fully account for the treatment of time in the novel. On an other than chronological level, the novel treats at least three forms of temporality that are woven together in a fourth dimension of time—that of nonlinear narrative itself. These three temporalities are those of the project, of hollow or deadly repetitiveness, and of reverie.

The time of the project is closest to that of linear plot in the ordinary neo-Aristotelian sense. Plot is itself the comprehensive structure modelled on the project and including specific projects as subplots. Here one's attention is drawn mostly to the story of Emma. Indeed she is distinctive in the novel in that she is the one character who does have some semblance of dynamic projects or goals. (Her closest counterpart in this respect is, paradoxically, Homais who has a sustained will to succeed.) Emma at least wants to escape the constraints of her tedious milieu and will go to any lengths to get what she wants. She creates her men in her image and uses them as crosses on which to nail her dreams. She is in the "active" position, clearly with Léon who is described as her mistress, also with Charles who behaves after their wedding night as the virgin of the day before, and even with Rodolphe who, superficially in control, is a stock figure given substance by Emma's imagination and overwhelmed by her demands.

Emma's projects transcend her environment only in the most evanescent of fashions—just as she is a tragic heroine only in the most equivocal of senses. Indeed another fault in the interpretation of her fate as a "tragedy of dreams" is that tragedy requires substantial oppositions while her dreams and imaginings are as friable as her realities. Her world in general is too messy and low-life for "tragic seriousness" but too pathetic and, in one attenuated sense (that of a displaced metaphysical quest for the absolute), elevated for full absurdity. She is in the zone between the tragic (including Erich Auerbach's modern realistic sense) and the absurd, for her tragic potential is dubious, and the absurdist possibilities in her position have yet to emerge clearly.

Thus Emma has projects—at least projects of escape—but they flare up only to collapse into the repetitive pattern that permeates the world from which she would escape. She moves in a vicious cycle of boredom and hysteria: a situation she cannot stand, a man she cannot tolerate (or who can no longer tolerate her), provoke dreams of another scene, another man. But these dreams deflate after a time only to rise again—repetition as death in life, repetition also as the path frayed to suicide. Emma is of course in love with her own idea of a lover and in this sense in love with herself. The other is never on the level of her projections, imaginings, and dreams. The dreams are emptied of content or compromised in sordid reality, and they retain some semblance of force only on a metaphysical level where desire cannot but meet with frustration in the mundane round of daily life.

This time of empty, deadly repetition is the dominant mode of existence represented in the novel. Things in it may follow one another, but sequence does not add up to progress or even to a promise of renewal. Cliché is the sociolinguistic definition of this social reality, and all life seems consumed by it. Here, for example, is what is written of the days of Emma's life:

So now they would keep following one another, always the same, immovable and bringing nothing new. Other lives, however flat, had at least the chance of some event. One adventure sometimes brought with it infinite consequences and the scene changed. But nothing happened to her; God had willed it so! The future was a dark corridor, with its door at the end shut tight. [45]

The one escape from hollow repetition into a seemingly atemporal realm is provided by extremely fleeting moments of reverie. And Emma is the mistress of reverie. With Charles and the narrator, she is the one "person" allowed these transient experiences of time out of time, especially at her window where she stands framed by her desires of escape. The narrator is closest to Emma at these moments. Yet the longest passage of "pantheistic" reverie is reserved for a narratorial description of nature which displaces the reader's attention from the first sexual encounter between Rodolphe and Emma and is itself rudely interrupted by the depiction of Rodolphe after the event. Dreamlike moments of relief, besides being immediately dislocated, are frustratingly brief: they are not developed with the flow of metaphor that might give them more duration and a greater chance to alleviate daily routine. Indeed Flaubert's practice in revision might anachronistically be termed decidedly anti-Proustian, for he pared down the more protracted figures of oblivion or metaphoric embrace until they no longer even seemed to provide havens of bliss in the lives of his characters or the movement of events. That he was capable of writing those passages is revealed in the Leleu-Pommier edition of variants. That he was aware of their allure is evident in his letters.

It is a delicious thing to write, whether well or badly—to be no longer yourself but to circulate in the entire creation of which one speaks. Today, for example, man and woman together, lover and mistress at the same time, I rode on horseback in a forest, on an autumn afternoon, and I was the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words they spoke to one another, and the red sun that made them half-shut their eyes drenched with love. Is this pride or pity? Is it a silly overflow of exaggerated self-satisfaction? Or a vague and noble religious sentiment? But when I turn over these experiences of bliss, after having undergone them, I am tempted to offer a prayer of thanks to the good Lord, if only I knew he could hear me. Let him be praised for not having me be born a cotton merchant, a vaudevillian, a wit, etc.! Let me sing to Apollo as in the first days, and breathe deeply the cold air of Parnassus; let us strike our guitars and our cymbals, and whirl like dervishes in the eternal clash [brouhaha] of Forms and Ideas. [December 23, 1853]

But that the indulgence of these flights would be at best a minor part of Flaubert's novelistic practice is a matter of record. His whirling dervishes would take other forms. In Madame Bovary, reverie is and remains fleeting—a hinted iridescence in the collapse of projects and the course of empty repetitiveness. Indeed the world represented in the novel seems to be one of almost unrelieved frustration of hope, punctuated by ineffectual reverie (and by the equally evanescent appearance of characters one is tempted to describe as "positive": the adolescent Justin, the old servant Catherine Leroux, and the good doctor Larivière). Insofar as the reader inserts himself into this world through identification, it is plausible to argue that demoralization is the result.

Yet Flaubert's narrative practice does not simply conform to the three modalities of temporality represented in the novel. It binds and unbinds them, as the narrator weaves in and out of the story told. For the time of narration is itself punctuated by the variations of proximity and distance and the inflexions of irony and empathy that we have already discussed at length. And, on this level, the issue of temporality is related to the imbrication of reinforcing, critical, and transformative tendencies in the interaction between what is "represented" in the novel and its mode of "representation" or narration. But here, perhaps more clearly than elsewhere, one has in the foreground the problem of the possibilities and limits of language in coming to terms with things. Insofar as the mode of narration sensitizes the reader to this problem, it does not demoralize him. It confronts him with a range of issues which its own periodicity in the use of language may help to resolve or at least to pose in more articulate ways.

It may be observed that, in discussing plot and temporality, I have also been discussing characterization. This is unavoidable given the mutually implicated parallelism of the two. On a linear level, the story begins with Charles, moves to Emma, and ends with Charles. On a nonlinear level, it involves characters in the temporal movements I have just evoked. Rather than trace this process in detail, I shall attempt to take the discussion of characterization in somewhat different directions.

The relation of narrator to characters at times goes beyond the boundaries of empathy and irony to less sublimated forms of love and hate, and nowhere is this ambivalence more pronounced than in relation to Emma. The narrator-character relationship is even further complicated by the relation of the author to the narrator. "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" is one of Flaubert's most quoted pronouncements. Yet the enigma lies in the nature of the "moi." For Flaubert also said repeatedly that the novel was so difficult for him to write because he put nothing of himself in it and because the characters were so antipathetic to him.

The one thing that is clear in this oscillation between identification and denial is the intensity of Flaubert's investment in the novel. The readiest way to resolve the ambivalence of that investment would be in terms of the dialectic between romantic illusion and novelistic truth.4 Emma is a deluded romantic infected by mimetic desire that is caused by her participatory reading of novels. She tries to lead her own life as if it were a romantic novel. Flaubert, recognizing that this illusion has no future, lucidly reveals its true status and writes fiction ironically and critically serving the interest of a higher truth. That the relationship between "Flaubert" and his "creation" cannot be so simple is bound up with the suspicion that the mutual implication of author, narrator, and characters is more intricate and even bewildering than this scenario allows. Let us raise a few questions that will resurface in the course of our discussion. Does "Flaubert" face problems comparable to those of Emma (as well as of other characters), and can we be altogether sure about whose response is most justifiable or "authentic"? Can we be entirely reassured that "Flaubert" masters the hysteresis unleashed by this "hysterical" woman who fascinates him to the point of identification and denial? These questions may in certain respects be taken as variations of a question raised by the prosecutor at the trial (who is in a position to condemn Emma?), but the point of our inquiry is rather different, for it may generate residual doubts about directions taken by our own analysis. I shall not pretend to eliminate these doubts, but I shall attempt to situate them to the extent that I find it possible.

Emma was the central figure in the novel for both the prosecution and the defense at the trial. She is also the character in whom metaphysical desire for an absolute—desire which ennobles and sets one apart—is endangered, even hopelessly contaminated, by banal and pathetic attempts at evasion that are symptomatic of the milieu they would transcend. She has velleities of purity and a thirst for something better: she makes demands on her environment. Yet she is a narcissistic creature of her romantic dreams and longings with little or no concern for the needs or the existence of others. She oscillates between boredom and hysteria, recognizes only what comes in cliché, and unites the "pleasure principle" with a deadly pattern of repetition. "Incapable .. . of understanding what she did not experience or of believing anything that did not take on a conventional form," Emma "rejected as useless whatever did not contribute to the immediate satisfaction of her heart's desire—being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, looking for emotions, not landscapes" (31, 26).

The narrator who can analyze her ironically and critically is also fascinated with her—as are the other men who come into contact with her. When narratorial fascination reaches the limit of identification, it approaches the emulation of Emma that marks Charles at the end of the novel. The sense that the narrator in relating to Emma is also relating to himself—and beyond his fictive role to the authorial or biographical Flaubert—makes his ambivalence all the more difficult to pin down. Emma is manifestly, as the prosecutor at the trial (who himself courted becoming "involved" with her) observed, the most forceful creature in the book—more forceful perhaps than the author-narrator who gives birth to her. Men cannot handle her; she cannot handle herself. And "Flaubert" threatens to be overwhelmed by her less sophisticated, less sublimated, and in certain respects more powerful desires and demands. She insistently wants something out of life and is willing to take major risks to get it. If one can speak of her "problem," it is in no sense a simple problem, and it is perplexingly bound up with the "problems" of her world.

Indeed the figure of Emma represents a crucial breakdown in the circuits of sexual, socioeconomic, and linguistic exchange and reproduction. Given the interference of these circuits with one another, she also signals a more general short-circuiting in society and culture at large.

Sexually, Emma's position is not fixed: it is far from stable in any regard. She is a woman who refuses to play the traditional woman's role. And, despite her own weaknesses, she is the most active and "masculine" figure in the novel, dominating not only other characters but threatening to dominate the author-narrator as well. For Baudelaire, Flaubert poured his own masculine blood into Emma's veins, while for Sartre, in a kind of reverse transfusion, Emma is Flaubert feminized. This chiasmic criss-crossing of perspectives—each turn of which is equally plausible or equally exorbitant—indicates that Emma's masculinity is not a question of ordinary role reversal and that her relation to Flaubert is implicated in a tangled web of involvements. Indeed Baudelaire saw Emma's hysteria in terms that broached the problem of androgeny:

The Academy of Medicine has not as yet been able to explain the mysterious condition of hysteria. In woman, it acts like a stifling ball rising in the body (I mention only the main symptom), while in nervous men it can be the cause of many forms of impotence as well as of a limitless ability at excess. Why could this physiological mystery not serve as the central subject, the true core, of a literary work?5

The image of a ball rising in the body might suggest that of a cat that chokes "hysterically" on a fur ball caused by licking the self, and it metaphorically links hysteria and narcissism. The relation between impotence—for example, that felt by the epigone—and excess points to the interplay between lack and limitlessness that preoccupied Flaubert in the world he represented and in his own narrative practice.

Emma herself is in character neither for the traditional man nor for the traditional woman, for her desires both exceed and fall short of the expectations of both. She does at times affect masculine dress and behavior, but she does not simply want to be a man in the traditional sense. Nor does she want to have this kind of man, assuming that he exists in her world. The man of whom she dreams transcends ordinary incarnations of "manhood" to the point of becoming vaguely Utopian.

Nor will Emma assume the role of traditional housewife. Her activity in the family departs from the conventional code in an extravagant way. She performs her duties with obsessive finesse, or she abandons them with peremptory negligence. In both cases, she really seems to be elsewhere. She does wish that her child were a boy, and she loses interest in the poor creature who has the misfortune to be born a girl. "George" might have had the chances denied to Emma and provided her with a vicarious sense of fulfillment—at least as long as "George" remained as imaginary as Emma's other longed-for men. The girl child is an absence in the novel, almost a literal figure of castration. Emma takes leave of the role of "mère de famille" before the standard Oedipal triangle has a chance to get started, for the child is a blank in her life. In this sense, even her pregnancy was hysterical, and its product, which is not an object of imaginary investments or narcissistic identification, loses all interest for her.

Equally significant for the rupture of the generational cycle is the fact that Emma's mother is dead as the story opens, and she does not seem to play a significant part in Emma's life. Far from identifying with her mother, Emma escapes motherhood and behaves in a way that establishes an association between the position of her mother and that of her child: both are absences. Indeed the first explicit reference to Emma's mother in the novel comes from the mouth of her father, and it is an analogy between the woman and Charles's first wife. The analogy is situationally ironic, for it is intended to console Charles after the passing of the unlamented Héloïse—herself a widow he had married under false pretenses. The second and last reference to Emma's mother recalls that Emma cried much the first few days when her mother died, and she sent her father a letter "full of sad reflections on life" and requesting that she be buried in her mother's grave (27). This reference is followed by her father's anticlimactic reaction (the "old man" thinks she is ill and comes to see her) and by Emma's own self-satisfaction in attaining "at a first attempt the rare ideal of delicate lives, never attained by mediocre hearts"—an ideal immediately linked to "Lamartine, . . . harps on lakes, .. . all the songs of dying swans, .. . the falling of the leaves, the pure virgins ascending to heaven, and the voice of the Eternal discoursing down the valleys" (28). Thus Emma reduces and assimilates her mother's death to her ordinary romantic musings.

Economically as well as socially, Emma has no productive or reproductive function. She is a pure consumer in a world where commodities tend to be reduced to counters in a largely imaginary game. And her pattern of consumption, which is more heedless and imprudent than wasteful, creates financial difficulties that adulterate the purity of "romantic" fate—the one thing she would like to attain, perhaps even in its more elevated tragic form. In fact, her financial mismanagement is itself paradoxically traditional rather than modern: she behaves like a displaced grande dame in her desire to give gifts, unconcerned with mere money matters, and like a good bourgeoise in her will to possess fully what she has bought. Yet her lack of prudence is capitalized upon by those, such as Lheureux, who are more in tune with existing economic demands in their own small scale and petty fashion. Emma is less a victim of Capitalism than someone whose desires cannot be accommodated within its limits—and perhaps within any limits, even largely technical or formal ones. But the system she chooses to disdain returns to her with a vengeance, bringing her both to the verge of prostitution and to the absurdly virtuous and highly conventional affirmation that she cannot be bought. Emma is a scandal both to the traditional bourgeois family and to its modern economic setting.

Linguistically, Emma herself disrupts the code of realistic representation. Her primary use of language is incantatory. Her magical clichés and rhythmic repetitions create their object—one that can never be attained in the world of mundane realities. Indeed an "other" attains reality for her only when it may be perceived as the incarnation of a memory recast through the imagination. A perverse Platonist, she is also a small-town Proustian avant la lettre. Rodolphe registers as a lover only after the event of seduction when Emma may intone him into imaginary existence through an appeal to an evanescent but transcendent archetype.

She repeated: 'I have a lover! a lover!' delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon a marvelous world where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium. She felt herself surrounded by an endless rapture. A blue space surrounded her and ordinary existence appeared only intermittently between these heights, dark and far away beneath her.

Then she recalled the heroines of books that she had read, and the lyric legion of their adulterous women began to sing in her memory with the voice of sisters that charmed her. [117]

Cliché and stereotype are as much the vehicles of Emma's dreams as they are the powers that help to create them. The one thing they are not is a simple representation of a preexistent reality. Emma herself is both utterly conventional and insistently unconventional—so much so that it becomes difficult to distinguish between what is and is not "ordinary" in her behavior. Her disaffection for her child is the conventional response of a "narcissistic" woman who would have her progeny be what she is not but would like to be. But her reaction goes beyond the limits of convention in its hyperbole. And her various "men" always have something dubious about them: Rodolphe is a hackneyed, hollow phallus that crudely signifies the imaginary; Léon is her mistress; and Charles as fool and saint is both less and more than the average man. . . .


1Formeet signification (Paris: Librairie José Corti, 1962), 109-33. Included in Paul de Man, ed., Madame Bovary (New York: Norton, 1965), 439-57.

2 Jonathan Culler, Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1974).

3 The idea that Flaubert provides such a theory is put forth by Gerald Graff, Literature against Itself (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 160.

4 For this analysis, as well as for a discussion of "mimetic desire," see René Girard, Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque (Paris: Grasset, 1961).

5"Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert" in Paul de Man, ed., Madame Bovary, 341. .. .

Dennis Porter (essay date 1984)

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SOURCE: "Madame Bovary and the Question of Pleasure," in Flaubert and Postmodernism, edited by Naomi Schor and Henry F. Majewski, University of Nebraska Press, 1984, pp. 116-38.

[In the following essay, Porter categorizes Madame Bovary according to the three main types of reading pleasure identified by Roland Barthes in The Pleasure of the Text. Following a Barthian analysis of Madame Bovary, Porter considers the work in relation to its "central theme of the duplicity of language. "]

One of the more interesting developments in narrative theory over the past decade or so has been a renewed interest in pleasure. Subsequent to the structuralist enterprise there have grown up a reader-centered, a psychoanalytic, a new textual, and a feminist criticism which in their different ways have been attentive among other things to the experience of the reader reading a literary text and to the subject positions the reader is required to assume. For those interested in that experience and those positions, the guiding critical questions have been, neither "What does the work tell us, and how well is it made?" (New Criticism) nor "What is the model narrative structure of which this particular work is an example?" (structuralism), but "What does this work do to us as we read it, and how does it do what it does?" (reader response) and, to paraphrase Roland Barthes, "How is this text to be unmade, exploded, disseminated?" (poststructuralism).1 As the result of such inquiry, we have come to appreciate more fully that reading literary works is not like breathing. It is, on the contrary, a complex learned activity with a corporeal and psychic as well as a social dimension, and one that we choose to engage in under certain conditions for a variety of reasons, paramount among which is the pursuit of pleasure. Through an interest in the way a reader is both constituted by and processes a text, we have been led back to ask the question why it is we enjoy reading literary works at all.

Probably the most suggestive account of the varieties of pleasure to be derived from reading, if not the most comprehensive and systematic, remains Barthes's The Pleasure of the Text.2 And I would like in what follows to consider how Barthes's work can help in rethinking the question of pleasure as it relates to a more traditional form of narrative than he once championed. The Pleasure of the Text is, of course, in itself a characteristically allusive piece of writing that raises almost as many questions as it suggests answers. But it is a work that conveniently gathers together much that has been thought about literature in France over the past decade or so and reformulates it with a provocative incisiveness. It has, in fact, something of the character of a manifesto of the postmodernist sensibility that draws on Lacanian psychoanalysis, deconstructionism, and French feminist theory. Consequently, I have chosen to put Barthes's thought to the challenge of Madame Bovary, a novel that for many readers still has a canonical stature as the most fully developed example of classic French realism. The exchange is suggestive not only for the challenge Barthes's book throws down to reread a monument but also for the questions that Flaubert's novel in its turn raises about postmodernist narrative theory.

As far as The Pleasure of the Text is concerned, it will be remembered that Barthes distinguishes there between two major categories of texts, the texte de plaisir and the texte de jouissance, and makes a passing reference to a third category, the texte de désir, that he mentions only to dismiss. Further, a hierarchy of literary value based on these three categories is established whose two extremes are more easily defined than the middle term. The despised texte de désir takes the form of a popular work of erotica or a detective story that represents not so much a scene of sex or violence as its imminence—"its expectation, its preparation, its rise" (p. 92). At the other extreme a texte de jouissance is one which "leaves you in a state of loss, which disturbs . . . which causes the reader's historical, cultural and psychological foundations to wobble . . . provokes a crisis in his relation to language" (p. 25). As for the middle category, the texte de plaisir, the range of sensations encompassed by the word plaisir itself suggests the ambiguity of the concept. Plaisir is the general term which includes the particular experience of jouissance but which also needs to be distinguished from it. In Barthes's scheme, the former generalized concept of plaisir refers to an "excess of the text" and includes such notions as "euphoria, satisfaction, comfort, the sensation of fullness into which culture freely enters." It does not include "shock, agitation, loss" (p. 34), which are exclusive to jouissance. On the one hand, there is, in Stephen Heath's phrase, "a pleasure (plaisir) linked to cultural enjoyment and identity, to the cultural enjoyment of identity, to a homogenizing movement of the ego; on the other, a radically violent pleasure (Jouissance) which shatters—dissipates, loses—that cultural identity, that ego."3

Isolated from Barthes's work, such categories appear to have a peculiarly abstract quality of a kind that one associates with pre-Freudian psychologizing in spite of the obvious Lacanian derivation. They also suffer from the imprecision inherent in definitions founded on the effects of a text on a reader—what is experienced as "euphoria" by one reader may be felt as "shock" by another. Yet in practice Barthes's categories are useful because they go further than any other contemporary critical text in introducing the idea of a range of qualitatively different pleasurable emotions that may be excited in a reader by a work of literature.

From Barthes's point of view, the highest level that a traditional work of prose fiction such as Madame Bovary might attain is that of a texte de plaisir. However, the effort to rethink the responses that Flaubert's novel excites in the light of Barthes's theory shows how at least two of the categories are present at the same time and that there are occasional intimations of the third.4

In the first place, then, Madame Bovary is a texte de désir. That is to say, like popular romantic fiction, it has an erotic theme and engages the reader in the progress of not one but three love affairs—named respectively Charles, Léon and Rodolphe—the second of which is suspended in medias res in order to be resumed in a spirit of intenser expectation after the third has run its predictable course. As in that popular romance which takes the crooked path to coupling or in the detective story that goes the long way round to an unveiling and the reconstruction of an original scene of suffering, Flaubert's novel alternately promises and postpones gratification. Madame Bovary offers an example of the familiar tension-building device of trebling, but it is complicated here by an overlapping—the affair with Léon begins and ends after the affair with Rodolphe—and in each case the author lingers over scenes of anticipation, preparation, and arousal. The titillation of deferment is particularly marked in the affair with Léon, but in each case there is an important element of the suspense that is inherent in narrative structures at all levels and that may be exploited more or less thoroughly. Before they are anything else, the novels of James and Proust are also novels of desire whose complex sentences are paradigms of halting progression toward an anticipated end. And in Madame Bovary many of the celebrated early episodes that involve Emma are designed to arouse desire in a reader through the lingering evocation of female sensuality. But after Emma's wedding there is no representation of the night of love. Moreover, the climactic moments in the subsequent affairs with Rodolphe and Léon are also deliberately elided—the first, in the woods, evokes the sharpness of sensations after the act; and the second, in the closed cab, is represented from outside as grotesque pantomime.

The only scenes which follow Emma through preparation to a kind of consummation are those evoking her suicide and death. In this case, suspense as an unresolved narrative sequence that alternates in the reader fear of the worst and hope for the best sustains reader concentration down to Emma's final paroxysm. Thus Emma is represented in the labor neither of love nor of childbirth but in that of death. Flaubert exploits for his own purposes a strange morality that imposed a taboo on the representation of sex, yet finds no indecency in dying. But more of that later.

At the same time that it is a texte de désir,Madame Bovary is also a texte de plaisir. That this is the case it confirmed early on through scenes that are not simply designed to stimulate desire; they are more than brief stopping places on the journey to fulfillment. The story of Emma is, in fact, chiefly told through the device of matching scenes of expectation with others that represent apparent plentitude and final disillusionment. Those equivalences which in the poetic function of language Jakobson found projected from the axis of selection onto the axis of combination are constituted here by scenes à faire in paired relationships. As a result, the linearity of basic narrative is overlaid in Flaubert's novel by a complex patterning that on the level of the action is cyclical in nature. As she moves from anticipation to fulfillment to disillusionment, Emma is made to repeat herself before the alerted eyes of the reader. Moreover, Flaubert's novel is rich in such equivalences at all levels from that of episode, scene, paragraph, and sentence down to word and phoneme. Consequently, the work's texture is thickened to a point where its linear sequences come close to being overwhelmed by complex cross-references. It frequently happens that the reader ceases to be impelled by the dynamism of the end-oriented forces of desire and is invited to enjoy the play of the text; in Jakobson's terminology, the reader is distracted from the referential function by the pull of the poetic function of language.

It will be remembered that in Barthes's view one sign that we are in the presence of a texte de plaisir is the apparent excess of signifier over signified. And the realist subject matter of Flaubert's novel is not enough to prevent a characteristic indulgence in such excess on a number of fronts. The classic example, in fact, sits astride the entrance to the text and presents its challenge to each fresh critical probe of the work's significance. I refer, of course, to the description of Charles's hat that can, if one is so inclined, be reduced to narrative sense, recuperated by reference to plot and character, but whose verbal extravagance on the printed page always remains uncomfortably in excess both of any signified in the text and of any referent in the world.5

The description of Charles's hat is a verbal pièce montée, which is introduced as "one of those hats of a composite kind."6 In other words, the hat that is produced at this early point in the novel faces the reader with the category of the monstrous. A monster according to the Concise Oxford is: "1 . [A] Misshapen animal or plant. 2. [An] Imaginary animal compounded of incongruous elements." And Charles's hat is just such an imaginary beast. In brief, Flaubert's apparently realist novel begins, not with an "effet de réel," not with the ordinary, but with the extraordinary. Flaubert imagines a hat that is five different hats in one. In its composition, he knowingly confuses a variety of shapes and orders; it is familiar and exotic, organic and inorganic, formless and geometric. The description combines references to three animals—a rabbit, an otter, and a whale—to food, fur, gold, and an acorn. In other words, largely as the result of the juxtaposition of disparate elements, a verbal context is established such that beyond the derived meanings of baleine ("whale-bone stiffners"), boudin ("roll") and gland ("tassel") their concrete sense reasserts itself. The effect is particularly marked in the sentence beginning "Ovoïde et renflée de baleines, elle commençait par trois boudins circulaires" ("Oval and reinforced with whalebone, it began with three circular rolls")—a line of print that manages to combine references to eggs, whales, and blood-sausages. At the same time, because of its exposed position at the opening of the sentence, the peculiar sonority of ovoïde ("oval") forces itself briefly on the reader's attention. Two full-sounded back vowels echo each other across the labio-dental fricative, and the second [o] is followed by a glide into the high thin front vowel, which is terminated by the voiced dental stop consonant, [d]. Further, that prominent ovo anticipates the ova of the mumbled "Charbovari" a few lines later. And it is the spelling of the name which provides a further clue to the ways in which Madame Bovary occasionally promises to transcend plaisir in the direction of jouissance.

Charbovari is a Joycean neologism that contains an ox and a cart and a discordant noise—"un charivari." After a composite hat, a composite word; the monster here is metalingual. The linguistic sign is suddenly made to lose its self-evident discreteness, and the code itself is put into question. Moreover, one might urge against Culler that at the center of the hat paragraph itself Flaubert seems to invite the kind of symbolic interpretation that the object's eclecticism apparently mocks. The passage is a signifier that claims as its signified "la laideur muette" ("the mute ugliness"). By virtue of the following simile, however—"comme le visage d'un imbécile" ("of an idiot's face")—Flaubert makes such interpretation specular. The hat is like the human type of which it is the image. Like a pun or a misspelling, words whose referents seem limited to other words are, I assume, capable of provoking the sudden sense of loss which can follow the collapse of an order. Depending on one's point of view, therefore, speech may appear as beyond culture and thrillingly carnivalesque or shockingly irresponsible. At such moments, one is reminded that Madame Bovary is the product of the same mind that conceived the outrageous figure of the Garçon, bred different monsters in the Tentation de saint Antoine, and typically reinvented an adjective in his youthful correspondence to express the world's outrageousness, "Hénaurme" ("He-normous"). That splendid orthography is in itself an example of the way in which the extravagance of a signifier may lead to one of those vertiginous moments when the word subverts the word. If Flaubert brings classical realist representation to a new level of fullness in Madame Bovary in the celebrated pictorial tableaux, he also subverts such representation by rematerializing his medium.

Similar if less spectacular effects are to be found throughout the novel, including the apparently straightforward episode which describes the operation Charles performs on Hippolyte's clubfoot (part 2, chapter 11). On the level of the signified, the extravagance here is in bêtise made visible in its actions upon others; it is in particular an example of the macabre which begins with the verbal construction of another monstrous object, namely the strangely material box destined to contain the deformed foot: "a kind of box that weighed about eight pounds and in which there was no shortage of iron, wood, metal, leather, screws, and nuts" (p. 633). At the same time, the episode turns out to be a characteristically disturbing and comic example of linguistic self-reflexiveness in which categories are collapsed and cultural identities are blurred. In short, the register of the reader's pleasure alternates between plaisir and jouissance.

As so often in Madame Bovary, long sections of this chapter are constituted of pastiche in one form or another. The narrator's voice is not absent, as was once thought, but it tends to disappear because it is only one voice among many others, a tissue of voices. That hierarchy of discourses which characterizes classic realist narration and which is dominated by the privileged discourse of the narrator is temporarily subverted. The technique used is that of quotation, both direct and indirect, handled in a less obvious way than in the comices agricoles section.

In the form of a foregrounded intertextual exchange that is related to the novel's central theme of the duplicity of language ("La parole est un laminoir"), the chapter begins with Homais reading about the operation and, assisted by Emma, talking Charles into performing it, with Charles reading up on the relevant medical literature and with Homais talking Hippolyte into undergoing the operation: "While he Charles was studying equinus, varus and valgus, that is to say, strephocatopody, strephendodopy and strephexopody (or, more precisely, the different malformations of the foot, downwards, inwards or outwards) with strephypopody and strephanopody (or, in other words, torsion below and straightening above), Mr. Homais used all kinds of arguments in exhorting the boy to undergo the operation" (p. 633). The passage is characteristic above all because it reveals a word-merchant's delight in words as material objects independent of any referent. Thus the page is briefly overwhelmed by the alien wordhoard of the medical lexicon. The echoing Greek syllables in particular amount, in the context of French, to a formidable obstacle for the tongue and are also experienced as a comic cacophony by the ear. Moreover, there is interlinguistic irony in the fact that Flaubert takes the opportunity to turn the tables and make Greek for once seem "barbarous." Such prose in any case may be said to provoke a crisis in the reader's relation to language insofar as it objectifies speech in its material strangeness. It effects a shift out of the geometrical space of theatrical representation or narrative tableaux into nonrepresentative music, Barthean stereophony.

Further, in the rest of the chapter the circulation of words continues, either in the form of dialogues in direct and indirect speech or in the form of musings in discours indirect libre or in the form of reproductions of the written word. Flaubert quotes a nineteenth-century druggist, an incompetent medical man, an unhappy housewife, a parish priest, a chorus of village characters, a medical textbook, and a newspaper article. Yet the voice of his hidden narrator is finally made to emerge from the network of borrowed words in order to confront the reader with the reality of a gangrenous leg: "A livid tumefaction spread over the leg with here and there phlyctena whence oozed a black liquid" (p. 635). The task of the words here is different. It derives from the familiar Flaubertian intention of making his reader feel the material impact of what is evoked or, in other words, to disguise the fact that this reality, too, is only verbal. Moreover, in order to achieve such an effect, Flaubert steps outside the circle of quotations and reverts to realist reportage, employing a privileged narrative discourse that presents itself as the discourse of knowledge. Such sentences are an expression of his continuing trust in the power of words to communicate with the force of experience. Thus, in spite of the fact that so much in this chapter is put into inverted commas, by no means everything is self-reproducing speech. Madame Bovary is not simply an echo chamber in which all combinations of words have the appearance of having come from somewhere else. The conception of the novel itself as a Dictionary of Received Ideas will have to wait for Bouvard et Pécuchet, but Flaubert's first major work sometimes points in that direction.

On such occasions as those just referred to, then, and there are many others, Madame Bovary hints at the form a sustained texte de jouissance might take. From time to time it invites what Barthes has called reading "à la dérive" ("adrift"): "Drifting occurs whenever I do not respect the whole, whenever apparently borne away here and there at the whim of the illusions, seductions, and intimidations of language, like a cork on a wave, I remain still, pivoting upon that intractable jouissance which binds me to the text (to the world)" (The Pleasure of the Text, pp. 32-33).

As far as Flaubert is concerned, the paradox, of course, is in the fact that the great craftsman of fiction, the inventor of the novel as grand poetic design, should have created a work that seems to encourage irresponsible readings, readings which do not "respect the whole," but which dismantle what was so carefully laid together. Yet such insidious encouragements are only intermittent and are perhaps perceptible chiefly to those who share something of our postmodernist sensibility. For the most part Flaubert submits the fragmenting potential of his text to the traditional discipline of end-oriented narrative. Consequently, excess as a characteristic of a texte de plaisir mostly takes quieter forms in Madame Bovary than those mentioned above and is carefully delimited as an episodic unit within an advancing action. A famous passage suggests how:

Elle le reconduisait toujours jusqu'à la première marche du perron. Lorsqu'on n'avait pas encore amené son cheval, elle restait lá. On s'était dit adieu, on ne parlait plus; le grand air l'entourait, levant pêle-mêle les petits cheveux follets de sa nuque, ou secouant sur sa hanche les cordons de son tablier, qui se tortillaient comme des banderoles. Une fois, par un temps de dégel, l'écorce des arbres suintait dans la cour, la neige sur les couvertures des bâtiments se fondait. Elle était sur le seuil; elle alla chercher son ombrelle; elle l'ouvrit. L'ombrelle, de soie gorge-de-pigeon, que traversait le soleil, éclairait de reflets mobiles la peau blanche de sa figure. Elle souriait lá -dessous à la chaleur tiède; et on entendait les gouttes d'eau, une à une, tomber sur la moire tendue. [P. 580]

[She always accompanied him outside as far as the first step of the stairs. When his horse had not been brought up, she waited there. They had said goodbye; no further words were spoken. The open air surrounded her, carelessly lifting the soft little curls at the nape of her neck or raising on her hips her apron strings which twisted in the wind like streamers. Once during a thaw, when the bark of the trees in the courtyard was oozing and the snow of the roofs of the buildings was melting, she stood on the threshold. She went to fetch her sunshade. She opened it. The silk sunshade was pigeon-breast in color, and the sunlight passed through it to illuminate the white skin of her face with shifting hues. She smiled as she stood there at the gentle warmth, and drops of water could be heard, falling one by one on the taut silk.]

At first glance the passage appears to be a tableau of the kind associated with classical realism, namely, a word painting that in its transparency offers itself as an equivalent for a slice of already given reality. It turns out, however, that the passage is an example of the way in which representation may achieve the status of a "text," of a "writable" potential within a "readable" work. Such potential is experienced first of all by a reader as a consciousness of thickened verbal texture, of the materiality of the medium.

On a first reading the passage gives the impression of a plein-air Impressionist canvas. That is to say, it imitates a scene from life that appears to be flooded with light and air. Yet, as we all know, if one comes too close to an Impressionist canvas, the represented scene suddenly disintegrates into a chaos of brush strokes. One step too many leads the observer out of the illusion of a dappled world and into the presence of paint. And a comparable attention to the verbal medium of Flaubert's scene may give rise to a similar effect. The passage is perceived to exist simultaneously on a referential and a material level. A form of play occurs that is dependent on the double nature of the linguistic sign. And it becomes clear at such moments that if Flaubert was, in fact, the first novelist to write as a poet, the first to pay systematic attention to the acoustic substance of words, it is because he was the novelist of the "gueuloir." He put his prose to the test of declamation. In formalist terms, he worked the verbal texture of his fiction so hard his linguistic signs became palpable; by trying out his words in the mouth he foregrounded in his text those sound values that are the units of word-units, thus disclosing phonemic equivalences which communication usually dissimulates.7 On the one hand, therefore, the passage evokes erotic expectation on the representational level. On the other hand, it is a tissue of patterned sounds that generates a concurrent pleasure in the reader, not because of some supposed imitative harmony, of a posited natural connection between sound and sense, but because as we read—and to read Flaubert properly is to read him as he wrote, aloud—we are obliged to play the instrument constituted by our organs of speech. Flaubert's text is a score to be played in the mouth.

Like any texte de plaisir, like the Sarrasine that Barthes analyzes in S/Z, the passage speaks to the reader on a number of levels in the same way as the novel which contains it. From the beginning it displays the referential and sequential qualities of realist narrative, but by the third sentence the complex interrelatedness of the concepts and sounds is clear. Word music begins to subvert word painting.8 Repetition in the form of assonance, alliteration, rhyme, words, and syntactic structures insists on a recognition that impedes the forward momentum of the narrative. The two consciously unremarkable opening sentences suggest a potential for union in the play of the gender-specific personal pronouns and the personal adjective—"Elle le reconduisait" ("She always accompanied him"), "son cheval, elle restait là" ("his horse, she waited there")—a union that takes a grammatical form with the opening "On" ("They") of the third sentence. But it is the second half of that third sentence which reveals how in a texte de plaisir pleasure is located as much, if not more, in the play of the signifiers as in the signifieds, in the decomposition and recomposition of acoustical images in unaccustomed proximity as in the concepts they speak.

". . . le grand air l'entourait, levant pêle-mêle les petits cheveux follets de sa nuque, ou secouant sur sa hanche les cordons de son tablier, qui se tortillaient comme des banderoles" ("The open air surrounded her, carelessly lifting the soft little curls at the nape of her neck or raising on her hips her apron strings which twisted in the wind like streamers.") As is often the case in Flaubert, the semicolon preceding this passage signals the fixing of the attention; it is a sign of the intention to linger and savor sensation through and across words. On this occasion, the author makes use of the capacity of language to isolate a part in the absence of a whole—in painting before cubism a breast was never detached from its body. And Flaubert isolates a part in order to focus with fetishistic relish not so much on a woman as on the nape of a neck and a hip. In such a context the linguistic signs constituted by nuque ("nape") and hanche ("hip") are calculated to excite desire on the conceptual level. But before considering the peculiar power of this passage as erotic scene, I would like to look briefly at its phonetic complexity, paying attention not only to audition but also the production of speech.

The opening clause—"le grand air l'entourait" ("the open air surrounded her")—breaks down into two sequences of three syllables, both of which begin with an [1] and end with an open [ε], either followed or preceded by the liquid [r]. All the phonemes used occur at least once in each sequence with the exception of the [g]—the voiced dental consonant [d] recurs in the unvoiced form [t]. Liquid consonants, open [ε]s and the nasal [a]s dominate. And the same sounds are repeated in the following phrase, "levant pêle-mêle les petits cheveux follets de sa nuque" ("carelessly lifting the soft little curls at the nape of her neck"), the [1] no less than five times, the open [ε] three, the [ ã] once. Moreover, in this phrase the open [ε]s and the [l]s combine in "pêle-mêle" to form a back-to-back rhyme which is introduced by two bilabial consonants, so that a closing of the mouth is followed by an opening of the mouth and a final rise of the tongue behind the teeth. The phrase, "les petits cheveux follets de sa nuque," with the play of the [l]s, is most marked for its series of fricatives . . . and the surprise of the velar positive [k], a new sound. Fricatives dominate in the next phrase, no less than four in the following four words. Also, the word "hanche" which ends the series repeats the open nasal sound before sliding into the palatal [sound]. In the final dozen words of the sentence, the sound texture is chiefly dominated by the phoneme [k] that originally appeared in "nuque," [and] by the voiced and unvoiced dentals, [d] and [t]. . . .

From the point of view of phonetic analysis, the most striking feature of the last three sentences is the frequent repetition of the two phonemes [ε l], either alone or combined with the nasal . . . "ombrelle" ("sunshade")—"Elle était sur le seuil; elle alla chercher son ombrelle; elle l'ouvrit." ("She stood on the threshold. She went to fetch her sunshade. She opened it.") The combination of the two phonemes [ε] and [1] involves, of course, an opening of the mouth followed by a darting forward of the tongue against the teeth. In the word "ombrelle" the production of the two phonemes together is preceded by the full sound of the rounded nasal vowel, a shift forward in the mouth to the bilabial stop consonant [b] and a swift movement back again to the resonant velar [r]. In short, the production of the five phonemes of the word "ombrelle" involves considerable motor activity on the part of the organs of speech, so much so that as a result of repetition the sound values achieve a substantiality we can almost taste. It is at such moments that one is forced to recognize that speaking is, like eating, an oral activity capable of engendering a similar range of pleasures.

That Flaubert is the novelist of the "gueuloir" is confirmed finally by the second half of the final sentence—"et on entendait les gouttes d'eau, une à une, tomber sur la moire tendue" ("and drops of water could be heard, falling one by one upon the taut silk"). Within the space of little more than a dozen short words, Flaubert uses six of the eleven regular vowels of French and two of four nasals, most of them more than once, and one, [y], no less than four times. The effect is the same as that of playing musical notes in sequence at different points on the scale on an instrument whose range of sonorities is unusually wide. If one isolates the phrases beginning "gouttes d'eau, une à une," for example, and concentrates on the vowels, one notes a slide down the rounded back vowels from [u] to [o], followed by a shift forward of the point of articulation to the rounded middle vowel [y]. Further, in this play of similarity and difference, the postponed infinitive "tomber" finds an echo first in the opening nasal phoneme of "moire" and then in the resonant last word of the paragraph "tendue." Moreover, both "tomber" and "tendue" are two-syllable words, and both begin with the unvoiced dental [t] followed by two relatively similar nasal sounds, which in their turn are followed by two consonants pronounced well forward in the mouth, [b] and [d]. And they end with two fairly closely related front vowels, [e] and [y].

If I have concentrated so pedantically on the sounds of what is after all a familiar passage, it is because Flaubert's prose here illustrates so well how the different elements in a text that trigger pleasure begin with motor activity in the mouth. And in this respect the technical terminology of phonetics is suggestive to the extent that it locates speech precisely in the bodily organs—lips, teeth, tongue, and palate—which produce it, and supplies a word for the manner of its production—fricative, resonant, sibilant.

Not only qualities of sound but also most of the other forms of pleasure that I have so far discussed find an analogue in this passage. In the first place, it has the power of a texte de désir insofar as it is a tableau that generates sexual suspense by representing, not an erotic scene, but its preparation; it is on its most obvious representational level a scene of early courtship. At the same time it is a texte de plaisir to the extent that it is suggestively polysemic and, in effect, manages to represent figuratively what it merely looks forward to literally, namely, physical union. The fact that it is only the wind which touches a bare neck or a hip does not prevent the gesture from being read as delicate foreplay. And from that point on the passage moves successively through images of unfreezing and flowing to the offering of an "ombrelle"—a word that both through the shape of its referent and through the combination of two syllables evoking respectively the concept of shadow and of the female gender may be said to suggest the traditional essence of femininity. From "ombrelle" it moves on to refer to a face expressing pleasure—"sourire" ("smile")—humid warmth and the insistence of drops on a taut membrane—"moire tendue." The erotic charge concentrated in that final "tendue," in any case, is unmistakable. And it is an erotic charge that depends for its power on all the verbal factors isolated above, including, finally, the work's emphatic position at the end of a developing narrative sequence.

In brief, the passage is a paradigm of narrative at the level of a texte de plaisir. It moves in a linear fashion from an initial neutral situation to a point of climax via a series of sentences whose syntactic variety is calculated to produce an alternating rhythm of advance and delay. At the same time, like a dream, it embodies effects of displacement and condensation that are, nevertheless, controlled by considerations of secondary revision in the interest of narratability. As a result, it suggests a latent significance that it does not declare; like certain gauzy Victorian portraits of women, it manages both to profess innocence and to invite the spectator's erotic absorption. Insofar as it is a portrait of a woman, it also serves to remind us how in literature as in film women have been traditionally produced by and for the male gaze, within a regime of pleasure, in other words, whose characteristic perversions are voyeurism and fetishism. The effect of such production, as Laura Mulvey has noted in connection with film, is to freeze the flow of the action.9 Where women are concerned, classic realist representation in both the literary and the film media has typically combined spectacle with narrative.

The passage achieves the polysemic suggestiveness of a texte de plaisir, then, but it stops short of jouissance. If jouissance is a symptom recognizable by the loss of self and the collapse of meaning and is produced by the play of detached signifiers, it is not a symptom excited by Flaubert's prose here. His linguistic signs retain for the most part their dual status. They achieve through juxtaposition a new substantiality that one is obliged to stop and taste in the mouth, but they are at the same time under traditional syntactic control, and their location in an unfolding realist narrative limits signification.

In a remarkable passage at the end of The Pleasure of the Text, Barthes refers to "a writing aloud" ("une écriture à haute voix") whose goal is not communication. Instead, it promotes "desiring incidents, it is language hung with skin, a text in which one can hear the grain of a throat, the patina of consonants, the sensuousness of vowels, a whole stereophony from deep in the flesh" (pp. 104-5). It is a passage whose choice of words makes particularly clear how a mouth supplied with appropriate combinations of words is a formidable organ of pleasure-taking. It is also clear that such a noncommunicational goal for the written language is only possible in the form of a nonreferential writing that subverts the traditional order of words by employing such devices as the dislocation of syntax, the absence of punctuation, multiple punning, or calculated misspellings. Under such conditions it is possible to offer the pleasures of sound pigment in place of sense; the written word is made simply material. But this is not the case with the Flaubert passage quoted above. More systematically than any other novelist before him, Flaubert obliges his reader to refer his printed words back to their production by the organs of speech. Yet context is not dissolved in pure auto-referential play. Instead, the reader's attention is solicited now by the scene represented, now by the acoustical material of the linguistic signs. The passage has the status of a Monet canvas, not of a Jackson Pollock; to read it carefully is to be absorbed in a game of now you see it, now you don't.

It could hardly be otherwise, since without such a play of the text between the referential and poetic functions of speech in the sole interest of the latter, the story of Emma would disappear. In short, the price of jouissance is the end of narrative. But it is a price that Barthes, along with other postmodernists, including particularly certain French feminists, has seemed willing to pay. In common with moralists from at least the seventeenth century, Barthes recognizes that novel reading is an erotic activity. However, what he advocates in the theory of jouissance is eroticism with a difference, eroticism that is not end-oriented. The fundamental distinction affirmed in "Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein" between mathematics and acoustics, on the one hand, and geometry and theater, on the other, is finally one between the voice and the look, between stereophony and representation. And it is precisely this distinction which has been taken up by French feminists who, extrapolating from Freud and Lacan, affirm the qualities of (feminine) voice over the phallocentric representation of the (male) gaze.10

In any case, whereas narrative has traditionally been constructed according to principles similar to those which Freud viewed as characterizing normal adult sexuality, a texte de jouissance repudiates such principles. It stands in relation to a texte de plaisir as in Freud's theory the sexual perversions do to the genital aim of the mature sexual norm. In the second of the Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality Freud contrasts infantile sexual life in which "its individual component instincts are upon the whole disconnected and independent of one another in their search for pleasure" with that of the normal adult "in which the component instincts . . . form a firm organization directed towards a sexual aim attached to some extraneous sexual object."11 And Freud goes on to speak of "organization" and "subordination to the reproductive function." As the key terms "organization" and "subordination" make clear, it is a view of sexuality that is both directional and hierarchical in its structure and is, therefore, subject to the same strictures that Barthes applies to the sentence and a fortiori to the form of narrative which is the sentence writ large, namely the novel.

In effect, the theory of textuality as elaborated by Barthes in collaboration with a certain French avant-garde amounts to what was once known as a polymorphous perversity of the written word and has more recently been seen as a feminine form of sexuality, an écriture féminine. In a texte de jouissance the reading aim is diverted from taking pleasure in the parts of a text in the anticipation of an end to a total absorption in those parts—"like a cork on a wave." The goal of writing has become "a definitive discontinuity" (The Pleasure of the Text, p. 79). The new criteria of literary value are founded on such concepts as semantic undecidability, sonic reversibility, and a text's energy in transgressing all taboos, including particularly those which hold that narrative should be both linear and representational. The reader is invited to join in the play of the self-dismantling text in the same way that in the activity of critical deconstruction the text itself is made to collaborate in dethroning its authorial subject and in exposing the failures of authorial intentionality. The ideal of the text is a writing in which nothing is privileged. And a similar purpose is served through the critical subversion of the hierarchies in a canonical text. There is jouissance in a world without categories and identities where everything reverberates with Utopian possibility. The Utopian character—in the sense of desired but unrealizable—of an unlimited textuality is conceded by Barthes himself: "How could art, in a society that has not yet found peace, cease to be metaphysical? that is, significant, readable, representational? fetishist? When are we to have music, the Text?"12

If among nineteenth-century novels Madame Bovary seems particularly receptive to analysis along Barthean lines, therefore, it is in part because Flaubert's novel embodies attitudes that are sympathetic to the postmodernist and post-Freudian sensibility. And this is the case not only in the ways suggested above but also in relation to the work's central themes. Madame Bovary knowingly thematizes the question of the relationship between erotic pleasure and the reading process, both in the novel's content, or in its account of Emma's experience in the world, and in the novel's structure, to the extent that it exploits the mechanisms of popular romance in order in the end to entrap its reader.

First, then, the theme of eroticism and reading is represented directly in a heroine whose experience of life is shown to be less satisfactory than her early novel reading had prepared her for. But this is not simply because men in reality prove to be inferior to the heroic lovers of literature. It is rather because in Emma's case the sharpness of sensations stimulated by the reading activity itself is never quite matched, let alone sustained, in the world. Neither the content of reading-inspired fantasies nor the intensity of feeling aroused by the activity of reading literary romances has, in fact, been suggested with greater precision than in the sixth chapter of Madame Bovary. The sight and touch of "keepsakes" and novels as objects stimulate an anticipatory physiological reaction in Flaubert's adolescent heroine: "Delicately handling their beautiful satin bindings, Emma fixed her dazzled eyes on the names of unknown authors whose signature lay there. . . . She trembled as she lifted with her breath the silk paper of the engravings which rose half-folded back and then fell again gently on to the page." Emma's most important discovery will perhaps be that, though they have much in common, making love turns out in the end to be less exciting than reading or writing it.13 Although she is not let into the secret, it is clear that the only alternative to suicide—the author's alternative—was aestheticism.

Second, the theme of the relationship between erotic experience and reading is embodied in the structure of Madame Bovary. If as was noted earlier, Flaubert consciously employs the mechanisms of a texte de désir, however, he only does so in order to frustrate his reader at the denouement. The promise of fulfillment seems implied by a great many scenes in Madame Bovary; the early representations of Emma particularly excite expectations in the reader—"the rise"—that the text does not satisfy. In the end, however, apart from the clubfoot operation, the only scene which represents directly down to its denouement a physical action carried out by a body on a body is that of Emma's suicide. Instead of a consummating act of generation, Flaubert inflicts on his reader a scene of self-destruction. As the text makes clear, Emma's suicide is the gesture of a révolté in which the means of death is particularly significant. The cramming of arsenic directly from her hand into the mouth is not only a defiantly self-destructive act, it is also a regressive one. It has in itself the force of an anti-Freudian, radical feminist gesture. By that I mean that there is a return to an oral form of gratification which under the circumstances is the essence of perversity,14 in Freud's sense, since it is a return that occurs after the disappointing experience of three male lovers, of sexuality under the regime of the phallus. In other words, the mode as well as the choice of Emma's death constitute a bitter comment on male sexuality. Autoerotic gestures are associated with Emma from the beginning—witness the early incident when she pricks her finger and sucks it and the subsequent reference to the movements of her tongue licking the bottom of a glass. Moreover, such moments knowingly appeal to that voyeuristic reader pleasure which consists in observing someone else taking their pleasure. Nevertheless, the climax of all the rich foreplay of Flaubert's novel is an autoerotic Liebestod that can please nobody. No wonder Lamartine was so upset. The reader gets something significantly stronger than he bargained for. If Flaubert seems for long stretches of his novel to be appealing to the reader of a texte de désir, the denouement reveals that such an appeal is only simulated. Flaubert punishes the reader of Madame Bovary as texte de désir at the same time that he rewards anyone who is responsive to his work as a texte de plaisir.

In short, if in the end Flaubert's first and apparently most traditional novel continues to interest us so much, I suggest it is because a consciousness of the Barthean registers as well as of male desire and female sexuality is embodied in his fiction on a number of levels. Madame Bovary is exemplary because it implicitly acknowledges the existence of the three kinds of reading pleasure that Barthes isolates. It consciously combines the characteristics of a texte de désir and a texte de plaisir and occasionally confronts its reader with the thrilling vertigo of a texte de jouissance. Unlike the latter, however, it always locates its auto-referential digressive elements within a strongly articulated progressive structure. It displays to an unusual degree the features of "organization" and "subordination" that characterize linear narrative, but it does so at least in part because of the powerful centrifugal pull of its parts down to the level of its phonemes. The lesson of Madame Bovary, in fact, is that unlike a run-of-the-mill traditional novel or a nouveau nouveau roman, it manages to maintain a balance of tension such that the reader's interest is invariably divided between local excitements and the expectation of yet greater rewards. The risk run by a texte de jouissance, on the other hand, is similar to that described by Freud in the section of his third essay on the theory of sexuality entitled "Dangers of Fore-pleasure." There is, in Freud's view, "danger" "if at any point in the preparatory sexual processes the fore-pleasure turns out to be too great and the element of tension too small. The motive for proceeding further with the sexual process then disappears, the whole path is cut short, and the preparatory act in question takes the place of the normal sexual aim" (p. 77).

If Madame Bovary continues to exercise a hold over its readers, I would suggest that it is because, in spite of the richness of its preliminaries, "the whole path is not cut short." It still leads its reader on through promise and postponement toward an end. The verbal distractions of Flaubert's text are multiple and operate on the registers of both plaisir and jouissance. Above all, perhaps, the story of Emma is accompanied throughout by a sonorous subliminal buzz, by a stereophony which is registered by the reader as a reading in the body. At such moments the reader enjoys the play of language released briefly from the tyranny of sense and representation. Yet it is this (male) reader's experience that he is not unhappy in being returned to them. Although Madame Bovary submits its reader throughout to the various regimes of pleasure, it comes down in the end on the side of the currently despised phallocentric closure.15 In spite of Barthes, therefore, Flaubert's novel persuades me that the most pleasurable fictional mode my own male difference can learn to love is one which navigates between the shores of désir, plaisir, and jouissance without stopping off at any single one. In the back and forth movement between such loss and reappearance is the Fort / Da of narrative itself.


1 Roland Barthes, Image-Music-Text: Essays Selectedand Translated by Stephen Heath (Fontana: London, 1977), p. 127.

2 Roland Barthes, Le Plaisir du Texte (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1973). With the exception of the Barthes quotations from Image-Music-Text, translations from the French throughout are my own.

3 Barthes, Image-Music-Text, p. 9.

4 Barthes himself is, of course, aware of the provocative originality of Flaubert's writing. He refers in passing to the fact that "a generalized asyndeton takes hold of the whole enunciation so that this very readable discourse is beneath it all one of the craziest one can imagine" ibid., (p. 18).

5 See Jonathan Culler's nice account of how Flaubert's description resists the traditional interpreting process, in Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1974), pp. 91-94.

6 It hardly seems necessary to repeat once more in print what is by now one of the most celebrated artifacts in literature. Yet critical good manners perhaps require it. "C'était une de ces coiffures d'ordre composite, où l'on retrouve les éléments du bonnet à poil, du chapska, du chapeau rond, de la casquette de loutre et du bonnet de coton, une de ces pauvres choses, enfin, dont la laideur muette a des profondeurs d'expression comme le visage d'un imbécile. Ovoïde et renflée de baleines, elle commençait par trois boudins circulaires; puis s'alternaient, séparés par une bande rouge, des losanges de velours et de poil de lapin; venait ensuite une façon de sac qui se terminait par un polygone cartonné, couvert d'une broderie en soutache compliquée, et d'où pendait, au bout d'un long cordon trop mince, un petit croisillon de fils d'or en manière de gland. Elle était neuve; la visière brillait." In Oeuvres complètes, 2 vols. (Paris: Seuil, 1964), 1:575. ("It was one of those headgears of the composite kind in which one can find elements of a fur hat, a shako, a billycock hat, a sealskin cap and a cotton bonnet. It was, in short, one of those poor things whose mute ugliness has the expressive depths of an idiot's face. Oval and reinforced with whalebone, it began with three rolls. There followed in order, separated by a red band, lozenges in velvet and rabbit skin; then came a sort of bag which culminated in a cardboard polygon covered with ornate braid and to which in turn was appended by means of a long, excessively thin cord a tassel of plaited gold. It was new; its peak gleamed.") Subsequent page references in the text are to volume 1 of this edition.

7 The spelling of French shares with English the advantage of often disguising congruences of sound behind graphic difference. From the point of view of the poetic function of speech, therefore, there is pleasure in the surprise of an identity heard but not seen. Spelling reform would be a disaster for poetry.

8 In a typically suggestive essay, Barthes notes aphoristically on Western theater: "Thus is founded—against music (against the text)—representation" ("Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein," in Image-Music-Text, p. 69).

9 "The presence of woman is an indispensable element of spectacle in normal narrative film, yet her visual presence tends to work against the development of a story line, to freeze the flow of action in moments of erotic contemplation. The alien presence then has to be integrated into cohesion with the narrative." "Visual Pleasure and Narrative Cinema," Screen 16, no. 3 (Autumn 1975): 11.

10 "All the feminine texts that I have read are very close to the Voice, are very close to the flesh of the language, much more than in masculine texts" (Hélène Cixous). "Investment in the look is not privileged in women as in men. More than the other senses, the eye objectifies and masters. It sets at a distance, maintains the distance. In our culture, the predominance of the look over smell, taste, touch, hearing has brought impoverishment of bodily relations" (Luce Irigaray). Quoted by Stephen Heath, "Difference," Screen 19, no. 3 (Autumn 1978): 83-84.

11 Sigmund Freud, Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, trans. James Strachey (New York: Basic Books, 1962), pp. 63, 65.

12 Barthes, "Diderot, Brecht, Eisenstein," p. 77.

13 When toward the end of her affair with Léon, Emma feels obliged to conform to her received idea of the role of a mistress by writing letters to her lover, she manages once again to relocate the ideal lover of her fantasy. Once the letter is finished, however, "she collapsed, broken, since these outbursts of vague love tired her more than grand orgies" (p. 672).

14 One is also reminded of Freud's formulation that "poison is nourishment that makes us ill." The New Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis, trans. James Strachey (New York: Norton, 1965), p. 122.

15 Commenting on the relationships between male desire and feminine sexuality, Jane Gallop has noted that they both function in the same dimension of metonymy: "The difference is that desire is metonymical impatience, anticipation pressing ever forward along the line of discourse so as to close signification, whereas feminine sexuality is a 'jouissance enveloped in its own contiguity.' Such jouissance would be sparks of pleasure ignited by contact at any point, any moment along the line, not waiting for a closure, but enjoying the touching." The Daughter's Seduction: Feminism and Psychoanalysis (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1982), pp. 30-31.

Michal Peled Ginsburg (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "Madame Bovary" in Flaubert Writing: A Study in Narrative Strategies, Stanford University Press, 1986, pp. 82-107.

[In the following excerpt, Ginsburg examines how an analysis of Flaubert's early works contributes to an understanding of Madame Bovary. "Instead of beginning a new mode of narration, as most critics claim it does," Ginsburg argues, "Madame Bovary marks a returnwith important modifications—. . . to the early works."]

In the first version of the Tentation, the narrator and his surrogate Antoine disappeared—"died"—and gave their places to a spectacle that faced them as an independent reality. The citational character of the work, its rhetorical order, the conventional, cliché nature of the visions, the emphasis on the problem of incarnation—all contributed to making Antoine a passive and empty figure. In the person of Antoine, the self does not express its original, individual desires through language, but instead is seen as predetermined and passively manipulated by a world of discourse that is exterior and anterior to it. In contrast to the Mémoires or Novembre, where the narration repeatedly reached a narcissistic impasse and had to stop and start afresh (using each time a new mode of narration), the text of the first Tentation flows without interruption and without end: the difficulty in generating the text has been overcome. But this textual richness is accompanied by a psychological poverty; the superabundance of the text is counterbalanced by the emptiness of the self whose story the text is supposed to recount.

How does this analysis of the early works contribute to our understanding of Madame Bovary? Of all the works of Flaubert, Madame Bovary is the one that has always invited analysis in terms of the entire oeuvre. The first of his works to be published and to enjoy recognition, it has always been acclaimed as the first "mature" work, with maturity understood as a break with his previous, so-called romantic view of life and art. Possibly the reason for this view of maturity is to be found within Madame Bovary itself, where characters (Charles or Léon, for example) outgrow romantic, "poetic" dreams and accept prosaic (novelistic, bourgeois) reality. Charles and Léon can thus be seen as deliberate, though ironic, self-portraits. But the parallel evolution of characters and author suggests another possibility: if, as I assume is agreed, characters in a novel "grow" according to narrative constraints, then the process of "embourgeoisement" is in fact determined by narative rather than socio-cultural pressure. Can we not then interpret the development of Flaubert's work—that is to say, the passage from the first Tentation to Madame Bovary—in the same terms? On this interpretation Madame Bovary and Flaubert's realism in general could be seen as growing out of the unsolved problems of the earlier works. In what follows I shall examine Madame Bovary from this particular point of view—as an attempt to remedy the central flaw of the first Tentation. I will claim that where the first version of the Tentation, following the first Education sentimentale, tried to circumvent the narcissistic impasse, Madame Bovary attempts to generate a narration by accepting and radicalizing the narcissistic predicament in order to save a self, even if it is an imaginary one. Instead of beginning a new mode of narration, as most critics claim it does, Madame Bovary marks a return—with important modifications, to be sure—to the early works.

Madame Bovary can be interpreted as an elaboration of those scenes in Flaubert's early works in which the narrator, having eliminated the all-too-menacing mirror image, tries to create a story around a specter that replaces it. Like that specter, Emma is an imaginary character: a character whose life, desire and even body are created and shaped by others. Never allowed to gain life and independence, she remains a character deprived of the capacity to fully become a narrator.

The imaginary nature of Emma's existence can be understood in different but complementary ways. Most obviously, her existence is "doubly bookish."1 Not only is she a fictive character in a book, but as a character—as a desiring subject—she has been created by literature: "And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books" (586; 24; Flaubert's emphasis); "Then she recalled the heroines of the books that she had read. . .. She became herself, as it were, an actual part of these imaginings" (629; 117). The theme of the dangers of reading, the corrupting influence of literature (a cliché theme, of course),2 is the most obvious expression of Emma's imaginary existence.

That a character's desire should be determined by a previous text is not in itself something new in Flaubert. We saw this happen in both the early works and the first version of the Tentation. But in the early works the non-originality of desire was recognized and felt as a menace (by the narrator-hero of the Mémoires or Novembre, by the hero-artist Jules of the first Education), and in the Tentation it was exploited (by the narrator and his various surrogates) as a way of generating a text. What characterizes Madame Bovary and distinguishes it from those works is that Emma—unlike the narrator—is not aware of the borrowed nature of her desire. Her inability to see repetition, to recognize clichés as clichés—her blindness to the fact that her desire is the desire of the other—manifest her narcissism.

On the level of plot Emma's imaginary existence is conveyed by the fact that she is always seen and chosen—created as an object of desire—by others. As most critics have observed, in the first encounter between Emma and the various men who shape her life, we are not given Emma's point of view. Instead of a description of Charles, Léon, or Rodolphe as seen by Emma, we have a description of Emma as seen by the desiring eyes of Charles, Léon, or Rodolphe.3 We are not told what Emma's feelings, impressions, or desires are when she first meets these men. We are told of her feelings toward Charles only after the consummation of their marriage: "Before marriage she thought herself in love. . . . The uneasiness of her new position, or perhaps the disturbance caused by the presence of this man, had sufficed to make her believe that she at last felt that wondrous passion" (586, 587; 24, 28); her love for Léon is described only when she realizes he loves her: "Looking from her bed at the bright fire that was burning, she still saw, as she had down there, Léon standing up. . . . She thought him charming; she could not tear herself away from him. .. . Is he not in love? she asked herself; but with whom? . . . with me!" (608-9; 73); we get a glimpse of her feelings toward Rodolphe only at the end of the Cornices, when, on hearing Rodolphe's words, "something gave way in her. . . . The sweetness of this sensation revived her past desires, and like grains of sand under a gust of wind, they swirled around in the subtle breath of the perfume that diffused over her soul" (624; 106). This fact of narrative technique should not be taken lightly; it means that in terms of the novel, Emma does not exist as a desiring subject before she is made such, first by literature, then by the men who choose her. [Ginsburg notes: "It is rather obvious, and important, that the literature Emma reads is written by men: among the authors mentioned or alluded to in the chapter dealing with her readings, we do not find Madame de Staël or Georges Sand, for example. The heroines of the novels Emma reads are the images of perfect femininity as conceived by men, in response to their desire. When Emma dreams of becoming like one of those heroines, she desires to become the ideal object of a man's desire."] Rather than being an autonomous subject whose desire originates within herself and whose consciousness of herself is independent of other people, Emma exists only as an object of desire created by the others (men and literature). This "inessentiality" is emphasized by her never being the "first one" for any of the men around her: she is Charles' second wife, one of many mistresses for Rodolphe, and Léon's only after he has lost his virginity to some working girl in Paris. She is not even the first victim of Lheureux (who shapes her life financially rather than erotically). Being second means filling in the place left by someone else, fitting into a preexisting slot. Just as the theme of reading shows that the self is produced by the order of language that precedes it and determines it, so the plot inscribes Emma in a circle of exchange where she is not an autonomous subject but an object of substitution.

Emma is, then, in spite of her hyperactivity, as passive as the Saint Antoine of the first version. His temptations, orchestrated by a medieval Devil, were the "clichés" of the old morality plays; her dreams, like his, are stereotypical and banal, and her "temptations" are always controlled by others. Why is it, then, that we feel that Emma is so different from Saint Antoine of the first version, that whereas he is an empty figure, a pretext for the unfolding of images, she is a real woman? The reason is that unlike Antoine, whose attention always moves from one image or temptation to the next without lingering too long on any of them, Emma "succumbs to temptation" and fixes her attention on successive single images.

In the first Tentation constant movement from one image to another, from one "possible life" to another, generated a text, but at the same time prevented it from being the story of a self. A self can come into being as a self (can have a story) only by arresting its attention on one image, fixing its flow at one "possible life." To have an identity, it must be narcissistic, must enter into an exclusive, specular relation with the image that its desire has created or that has created its desire. Emma, like Félicité of "Un Coeur simple" later on, repeatedly tries to anchor her shifting existence in a single image, be it Charles, Léon, Rodolphe, God, or Lagardy. But because the relation that constitutes her as a desiring self is specular and exclusive, its end means her death. Just as the narrator in the Mémoires or Novembre was shaped by the narcissistic cycle and therefore periodically reached an impasse, then had to stop and start afresh, so too in Madame Bovary Emma's life is punctuated by points of rupture, "little deaths," followed each time by a new departure.

But, again, Emma's particularity is her refusal to recognize the repetition in her life. A product of the desire of the other, a fragment in a chain of substitutions that constitutes her as a desiring subject, ironically she experiences each successive desire as something totally new, as something that has not happened before and cannot happen again—hence, as an "original" desire. On the one hand, every new lover is a totally new beginning, and it is as if nothing has existed before; on the other hand, all her lovers tend to collapse into a single image of a lover: "Then something gave way in her. .. . It seemed to her that she was again turning in the waltz under the light of the lustres on the arm of the Viscount, and that Léon was not far away, that he was coming . . . and yet all the time she was conscious of Rodolphe's head by her side" (624; 105-6). What Emma experiences each time as newness and originality is precisely what never stops repeating itself; it is the "virginity" of the prostitute in Novembre—the inability ever to possess what she is possessed by. [Ginsburg observes: "The difference between Emma, who sees every relation as "first," as new and original, and Charles, Rodolphe, Léon, and Lheureux, for whom she is never the first, establishes a binary opposition Emma / men. Charles, however, resembles not only the three other men, but also Emma herself: though he has been married, he is still "virgin" ("It was he who might rather have been taken for the virgin of the evening before"; 584; 21), and his relation to Emma is, like her relation to the other men, so exclusive that her death means his own death. Thus, Charles' position is essentially double and ambiguous. I discuss this topic in greater detail in the next part of the chapter."] But unlike Marie of Novembre, Emma cannot recognize this repetition: she is "not in the least conscious of her prostitution" (678; 225). Thus, though Emma's story is similar to Marie's (both tell of the impossibility of satisfying desire) and also to Helen's in the Tentation (both tell of a growing sensuality, of a gradual "incarnation"4), Emma remains only half aware of her "story" and, unlike the other two, cannot narrate it herself.

Every character in Flaubert is potentially a narrator. But Emma's imaginary existence (her narcissism) prevents her from fully realizing this potential. In the same way that the narrators (of the Mémoires, Novembre, the Tentation) create characters by doubling, by externalizing a part of themselves, magically evoking the other, so does Emma:

But while writing to him, it was another man she saw, a phantom fashioned out of her most ardent memories, of her favorite books, her strongest desires, and at last he became so real, so tangible, that her heart beat wildly in awe and admiration, though unable to see him distinctly, for, like God, he was hidden beneath the abundance of his attributes. He dwelt in that azure land where silken ladders swung from balconies in the moonlight, beneath a flower-scented breeze. She felt him near her; he was coming and would ravish her entire being in a kiss. (672; 211)

Emma creates by doubling herself, by projecting images, spectacles. But she can never go very far in giving these images life and specificity. Even in this passage, which marks the greatest concretization she ever achieves ("he became so real, so tangible"), the image of the lover, the idealized other ("another man"), remains vague and abstract. The description ("he dwelt in that azure land . . .") reminds us of the description of Helen before she became "real" ("I was the moonlight, I penetrated the foliage, I rolled over the flowers, I illuminated with my face the azure ether of summer nights"; 394), before she became specified in time and place, with a body, with a history. The images Emma conjures up do not "come to life" because she cannot let them become concrete, specific, that is, different from and independent of her. 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.

Emma does not understand why her dreams never come true ("Why was her life so unsatisfactory," she asks herself; 670; 206). She tends to blame her unhappiness on "fate" ("If fate had willed it"; 651; 163), her bad luck, her particular situation in time and space—her reality. But we already know that in Flaubert "reality" is whatever has been externalized and differentiated enough to become totally different from the self that gave rise to it. That Emma's dreams do not come to life is therefore the fault not of her reality but of her dreaming. Her dreams could come to life if she let them take on some life. But Emma always arrests her dreams before they become concrete and specific, independent of and different from her, real. Emma's dreams, in other words, do not have plots; the images she projects remain so amorphous, so lacking life and concreteness, that they cannot act at all and so, of course, can neither fulfill her desires nor provide her with a story to narrate. This becomes clear when we compare Emma's dreams with one of the dreams of the narrator-hero in Novembre.

In Novembre the "I" narcissistically doubles itself for the sake of erotic satisfaction: "I called to Love! My lips trembled and went out as if I had scented the breath of some other mouth" (258; 61). But the hero does not stop here. The "double" becomes more and more real, concrete, alive, independent, so that when the hero goes back to the city, he "sees" women who "seemed to smile on me, to invite me to silken loves; ladies in wraps bent from their balconies to see me, saying: 'Love us! Love us!'" (258-59; 62-63). Finally, this generalized femininity becomes even more concrete and particularized when it is incarnated in the figure of Marie: "There was Woman everywhere. . . . When I came to the street at last, after I walked for a century, I thought I should choke. .. . I went forward, forward. . . . Finally I entered a room. .. . A woman was seated. . . . She was wearing a white dress" (259; 63-65). The dream comes true (and the price, as we have seen, will have to be paid).

But Emma's dreams never become stories: "With Walter Scott, later on, she fell in love with historical events, dreamed of guard-rooms, old oak chests and minstrels. She would have liked to live in some old manor-house, like those long-waisted chatelaines who, in the shade of pointed arches, spent their days leaning on the stone, chin in hand, watching a white-plumed knight galloping on his black horse from the distant field" (586-87; 26). This dream, like every other "vision" in Flaubert, is "en abîme": Emma sees herself as a lady of the manor who sees a knight coming toward her. But what is curious about this dream (and characteristic of all Emma's dreams) is its complete immobility; it is a frozen tableau, wholly lacking in action. Emma sees herself, but not, basically, as different from herself. Though the lady lives in an "old manor-house" and wears gowns with "long-waisted" bodices, she shares Emma's predicament and "activity," and spends her day dreaming, looking, expecting someone to come to her, waiting for her dream lover to become real. This in itself is not entirely surprising or new; after all, Saint Antoine, lying passive next to his hut, saw himself lying in a boat. But the similarity in the positions of the two Antoines was complemented by the difference—the activity—of the next relay, where the Saint was seen walking in Alexandria, killing and destroying, conversing with the Emperor. In Emma's dream the lack of action and mobility, the lack of difference, characterizes all relays. The dream lover is seen coming toward the lady but never actually reaching her—he is frozen on his black horse, and no matter how fast he gallops, he never arrives; he never comes true.

In her narcissism, then, Emma can neither see herself as different from herself nor give life to something that is independent of and different from herself. When she looks at keepsakes, what she sees are not different "possible lives," but different settings ("behind the balustrade of a balcony," "in carriages, gliding through parks," etc.; 587; 27) for an activity that is always the same: dreaming, looking, desiring. In her dream of a honeymoon with a dream lover, the only activity she can imagine is that of going toward another place ("to fly to those lands with sonorous names"; 588; 28); and after one arrives (but where?) the only activity possible remains that of desiring: "One looks at the stars, making plans for the future" (ibid). Even when, just before she is to go away with Rodolphe, this dream of a perfect honeymoon seems about to come true, the situation is no different: she dreams about going away, and when, in the dream, they do arrive, nothing actually happens: "They would row in gondolas, swing in hammocks, and their existence would be easy and free as their wide silk gowns, warm and star-spangled as the nights they would contemplate. However, in the immensity of this future that she conjured up, nothing specific stood out; the days, all magnificent, resembled each other like waves; and the vision swayed in the horizon, infinite, harmonized, azure, and bathed in sunshine" (641; 141-42). [Ginsburg contends: "As we can see in this passage, the complete narcissism of Emma's dreams is also conveyed by the "intradiegetic" similes used here, on which Jacques Neef has commented in his "La Figuration réaliste." To a certain extent, in this novel Flaubert shares Emma's need to limit the narration to a reiteration of the same, to suppress developments that are different and differentiated. This is seen most clearly in his reworking of the drafts, where all deviations, all metaphors that were not "intradiegetic," all beginnings of other récits (especially through metaphors), have been ruthlessly eliminated. Flaubert, however, does not just repeat Emma's activity. The relation between implied author, narrator, and character is developed in the next part of this chapter."] Emma can conceive of herself only as what she is: desiring, expecting, going toward something. If she never actually arrives, if her dreams and expectations never come true, it is because she always stops too short: "At the end of some indefinite distance there was always a confused spot, into which her dream died" (594; 41).

Emma's dream about Paris is a particularly striking example of her incapability of generating difference. The dream is divided into distinct pictures, each of which is slightly more animated than the previous one, so that we engage in the typical Flaubertian movement toward materialization and concretization. The world of the ambassadors is simply the world of reflections, with its "polished floors" and "drawing rooms lined with mirrors" (594; 42). The only activity is that of "moving" (going elsewhere?). It is a totally specular world in which nothing can happen to ruffle its surface and break the reflection (hence, it is also a world of mystery and dissimulation). In the world of the duchesses, the women's activity is limited to being pale and wearing English point on their petticoats, and though the men are slightly more active, their activity is marked by futility (they "don't get anywhere"): "The men, their talents hidden under a frivolous appearance, rode horses to death at pleasure, spent the summer season at Baden, and finally, on reaching their forties, married heiresses" (ibid). The world of the "writers and actresses" is clearly more alive (one eats there!) though again its activity is rather close to home: "They were . . . full of ambitious ideals and fantastic frenzies" (ibid.). What comes next? We might expect something more active still, something that will finally become fully alive (will develop into a story, into a plot); but no: "As for the rest of the world, it was lost, with no particular place, and as if nonexistent" (ibid.). This is what always happens to Emma's dreams: they always expire—die into "a confused spot"—when they arrive at a place where an activity other than looking, going elsewhere, dreaming, contemplating, desiring (that is, other than repetition without difference) would allow them to reveal difference and independence, become real. This place where the dream has to expire, that "rest of the world" she cannot bear to make precise, is "all her immediate surroundings" (ibid.). The locus of difference is, paradoxically, not "elsewhere," not far away, but right next to her, within arm's reach. That which surrounds her is what is different from her, independent of her, not subject to her control (hence, antagonistic, hostile); this is "real"—"real" being whatever escapes the control of narcissistic projection.

The reality that is totally independent of Emma is crystallized in the figure of Homais. Though Homais probably speaks more than any other character in the novel, we are very seldom presented with his inner thoughts and feelings, either through direct discourse or through narrative description. This is because Homais, as an incarnation of "reality," cannot be represented as an individual: he does not have an interiority; he is totally empty, desexualized; he is the incarnation of the Dictionnaire des idées reçues.5

As a representation of reality, Homais is totally excluded by Emma. He is the only important character in the novel who does not play a role in her drama, who is entirely superfluous to the main line of the story: her love relations and her gradual entanglement in monetary difficulties. Even at the very end of the novel, when Emma tries to borrow money from Guillaumin and goes so far as attempting to seduce Binet, the possibility of establishing some relation with the pharmacist never occurs to her. Though they live as neighbors and meet very often, they appear to be totally unaware of each other. We never see Homais looking at Emma; we never see her through his eyes (as we do through the eyes of Charles, Léon, and Rodolphe). Occasionally, we hear his "opinion" of her: "You are prettier than ever. You'll make quite an impression [vous allez faire flores] in Rouen" (649; 159; Flaubert's emphasis), or "She is a real lady! She would not be out of place in a sous-préfecture!" (610; 76), but these opinions are always impersonal pronouncements rather than revelations of his private thoughts. About Emma's view of Homais we know even less: we never see him through her eyes; we never hear her opinion of him or her feelings toward him. We do know what Emma and Léon think of Madame Homais (610;75)—because she exists as an object that can conceivably be desired (Léon thinks of this possibility, though negatively; 606; 68). Homais, however, simply does not exist as a subject or as an object of desire.

The independence and autonomy that Homais enjoys, as an incarnation of reality, explain his menacing power—"he was becoming dangerous" (690;251)—and justify his role as the impersonal agent of Emma's death. Even though he is not involved directly and actively in Emma's destruction (as is Lheureux), the poison that kills her has to come from his pharmacy.

It is this menacing quality of reality that explains Emma's refusal to think about or accept what is close to her, though this is the only way to make her dreams come true. And indeed, Homais, as an incarnation of reality, is not only external to Emma's existence and a threat; he is also represented as the place where Emma's desires are fulfilled. Whereas she is frustrated in her desire for a son, he is the father of two; whereas she falls further and further into debt, he is economically successful. He is famous, his name is known to all; he achieves the reputation that Emma would like to have, and that she tries to achieve, vicariously and without success, through Charles: "Why at least, was not her husband one of those silently determined men who work at their books all night, and at last .. . at sixty . . . wear a string of medals on their ill-fitting black coat? She would have wished this name of Bovary, which was hers, to be illustrious, to see it displayed at the booksellers', repeated in the newspapers, known to all France" (595; 44).

Homais fulfills these desires: "He busied himself with great questions: the social problem, the moral plight of the poorer classes, pisciculture, rubber, railways, &c. .. . He by no means gave up his store. On the contrary, he kept well abreast of new discoveries" (690-91; 251-52); "The crowds . . . threatened at times to smash the window of the pharmacy . . . so great was Homais' reputation in the neighboring villages" (617; 90-91); "He has just been given the cross of the Legion of Honor" (692;255).

Emma's failure and frustration are the result of her narcissism, of her imaginary existence, which does not allow any real difference. The only difference Emma can permit is that of scenery, of setting, so that although she retains her sameness and holds the projected image in specular subordination to herself, she can still create the illusion of difference. Her preoccupation with the smallest details of clothes and scenery, furniture or accessories, points to her desire to create an illusion of difference where actually only sameness and repetition exist. What characterizes her both as a "dreamer" (a potential, though abortive, narrator) and as a character is her belief that a change in decor is sufficient to create a difference in experience.6


1 Bonnefis, p. 157.

2 Culler sees the centrality of this cliché theme as the novel's greatest flaw. "If there is anything that justifies our finding the novel limited and tendentious," he says, "it is the seriousness with which Emma's corruption is attributed to novels and romances" (Flaubert, p. 146). As my analysis demonstrates, however, the centrality of this cliché theme is necessary for articulating the relation between character and narrator in the novel. Although the implied author does not perfectly coincide with the character of Emma, he is like her in being a divided subject, inhabited by the language of the other.

3 See, for example, Gothot-Mersch, "Le Point de vue dans Madame Bovary," p. 257. See also Rousset, "Madame Bovary," p. 114.

4 This gradual incarnation can be seen both in Emma herself and in the specular images, her lovers: Charles is almost nonexistent as a character, the Viscount is just a shadow (a name), and Léon I is a quotation from Lamartine, but Rodolphe and Léon II have concrete material and psychological reality. Both of them have more life of their own, more of an independent existence outside the relation with Emma. A character's independence is correlated with its materiality and incarnation. Similarly, Emma herself moves toward greater and greater sensuality and incarnation, which, as in the case of Helen, is indicated by a descent on the social ladder: "On the day of Mid-Lent she did not return to Yonville; that evening she went to a masked ball . . . and in the morning she found herself on the steps of the theater together with five or six other masked dancers, dressed as stevedores or sailors. . . . There were a clerk, two medical students, and a shop assistant: what company for her! As to the women, Emma soon perceived from the tone of their voices that most of them probably came from the lowest class" (672-73;212).

5 Gothot-Mersch, "Le point de vue dans Madame Bovary," p. 257. See also Sartre, "Notes sur Madame Bovary," p. 42.

6 This belief of Emma's is demystified by the narrator. As Bal has shown, the description of the "splendid city" about which Emma dreams when she wants to run away with Rodolphe has strong similarities to the descriptions of Rouen, the chateau of the Vaubyessard, and Yonville. For a detailed analysis of those description, see Bal, pp. 89-111. . . .

Nathaniel Wing (essay date 1986)

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SOURCE: "Emma's Stories: Narrative, Repetition and Desire in Madame Bovary" in The Limits of Narrative: Essays on Baudelaire, Flaubert, Rimbaud and Mallarmé, Cambridge University Press, 1986, pp. 41-77.

[In the following excerpt, Wing argues that "the division between language and experience is a major concern of [Madame Bovary]." He focuses on the problematic nature of the novel's narrative voice and structure, noting ways in which its "authority," or believability, is undermined.]

—Eh bien! reprit Homais, il faudrait en faire une analyse. Car il savait qu'il faut, dans tous les empoisonnements, faire une analyse . . . (295)

Qu'on n'accuse personne. (294)1

Flaubert's use of narrative in Madame Bovary demystifies in many ways the desires which motivate Emma's stories, her fantasies, dreams and her extended fictions of escape and romantic love. Emma's narratives, her protonarratives (fantasies and dreams), her letters to her lovers, the account of her financial ruin told to Lheureux, Binet, Rodolphe and others in the last desperate moments of her life, can be read as repeated and unsuccessful attempts to give order to desires which are destabilizing in their effects and ultimately unattainable. Emma's narratives of desire presuppose closure, bringing on, paradoxically, the death of desire, which cannot live on images of fulfillment, but only on displacements and deferrals.

The division between language and experience is a major concern of the novel. Emma's stories oppose the events which constitute her world, yet lack the force to transform that world. One can attribute Emma's difficulties throughout the novel, then, not just to her foolishness and to the mediocrity of her milieu (although Flaubert clearly treats ironically the shop-worn topos of provincial adultery) but to the more general problems of desire and its realization, and of language and illusion.

Throughout the novel desire, narrative and writing in general produce corrosive effects. These are figured most directly and powerfully, perhaps, during Emma's agony, with the likening of the taste of poison to the taste of ink, and later in the same sequence when the narrator describes a certain black fluid oozing from Emma's mouth. Only a very limited reading, however, would link Emma's desires and her narratives unequivocally to an ultimately mortal alienation of the desiring subject and to writing as death. However demystifying its narrative, the novel is a story about desire, with "characters," organized with extraordinary control at certain points of the text by a narrator whose production of fiction must necessarily be interpreted not only as a denial but also a repetition of Emma's relations to narrative and .. . to desire. Once again, what are the possible meanings of that famous statement which Flaubert may or may not have made "Madame Bovary. C'est moi"?

While this chapter focuses on the context and the order of Emma's narratives, it will also re-examine the general problematic of writing in the novel, in the hope that the subject of Emma's narratives will implicate the performance of narrative in the novel itself and, ultimately, the performance of the critical text as well. If Emma is a figure for the writer at a certain point in the history of the novel, this figure does not function exclusively as an uncomplex emblem of the deluded Romantic in an already post-Romantic moment.2 It may be suspected that the demystification of Emma's narratives does not in fact validate without reserve the control of an enlightened narrator whose understanding transcends the dilemmas of Romantic subjectivity and Romantic literary stereotypes. In many ways, of course, that control is exercised with remarkable force, yet an omniscient narrator is caught in an intricate web of repetition and difference which includes and radically exceeds the logic of identification between narrator and protagonist; includes and exceeds a simple demystification which would deny altogether the links between protagonist and narrator.

An omniscient narrator in Madame Bovary is only one among several figures through which narrative is articulated. One of the most fascinating aspects of the novel is the dispersal and fragmentation of authority for narrative. As Barthes has noted, it is impossible to establish with certainty in any comprehensive sense "who speaks" as narrator in this text or from what "point of view."3 Point of view in Madame Bovary can be characterized only by its instability and indeterminacy. It alternates between an omniscient narrator, who knows the motivations of all the protagonists and the truths of the world in which they are placed; a limited point of view, circumscribed by the thoughts and feelings of a particular protagonist; and the even more limited scope of certain minor figures in the text, spectators who have no immediate connection with the major protagonists. The frequent use of free indirect discourse, with its blurring of distinctions between reported speech and narrative, is another complex amalgam of narrative authority.4 The resulting indeterminacy of point of view, as Culler has demonstrated, is one of the major features of the novel.5 Those passages which organize narrative according to one or another point of view are countered by others which function in a very different way. The "impersonality" of Flaubert's text, then, is not a distanced objectivity, but a mix of modes of presentation which prevent the reader from identifying a consistent pattern or, to use Rousset's term, modulation. Objectivity is not the absence of narrative authority but a dispersal of that authority which makes it ultimately resistant to recuperative interpretation.

This chapter will question how authority for narrative, both the story of the novel, and Emma's stories framed by the main narrative, is assumed and at the same time problematized. An examination of the composition of Emma's narratives elucidates the ways in which those narratives ironically construct the subject as radically different from what she would be. My assumption is that both narrative form, as well as the stereotypes of narrative content, are necessary to the assertion of desire and intimately related to its failures. The dissolution of the protagonist will be interpreted through perceptible shifts in her relations both to the fictions of desire, the narrative énoncé, and to narrative form, both énoncé and énonciation, as means of ordering and appropriating objects of desire. Finally I will ask how the account and the interpretation of Emma's narratives implicate at once narrators and the reader, as producers of stories: the narratives of desire and the allegories of interpretation.

In a broad sense, Madame Bovary gives considerable attention to questions of reading and writing; it narrativizes the interpretation of narrative. The effects of narrative are never merely limited to an explicit content, a subject's relation to the objects of desire, but always open up the more troublesome problematic of how narratives attempt to organize and control desire, how they interpret and construct "reality" and the desiring subject.6 The power of narrative ordering as a means to fulfil desire and attain knowledge is a ubiquitous motif in this novel. That power fails consistently, as I have suggested, for the effects of fiction-making are quite different from those projected by the desiring subject.

The very control which encourages metanarrative commentary is itself problematized, as in the opening pages of the second part of the novel, when a statement, rare for its explicitness, speaks of the aporia of fictions. The comment serves as a sweeping demystification, yet it doesn't simply write off narrative, for it is set in a transition between the first and second parts of the novel and serves as a preface to a major section of the story. Following a realistic description of the countryside and the village of Yonville, just prior to Charles's and Emma's arrival at their new home, the narrator states simply:

Depuis les événements que l'on va raconter, rien, en effet, n'a changé à Yonville. La drapeau tricolore de fer blanc tourne toujours au haut du clocher de l'église; la boutique du marchand de nouveautés agite encore au vent ses deux banderoles d'indienne; les foetus du pharmacien, comme des paquets d'amadou blanc, se pourrissent de plus en plus dans leur alcool bourbeux, et, au-dessus de la grande porte de l'auberge, le vieux lion d'or, déteint par les pluies, montre toujours aux passants sa frisure de caniche.


There is a curious complex of meanings here, the sort which will interest me throughout this study. First, a narrator announces in a traditional manner that a new story sequence is about to be related. In an equally traditional fashion, the statement is proleptic; it alludes to the conclusion of the story, known to an omniscient narrator who will relate it to the reader. A moment "beyond narrative" is also posited here, when the main story will have been told and events will return to a meaningless repetition of the same (toujours, encore). Narrative, according to this passage, seems to be invested with a significance which is superior to "reality." The world of Yonville after the story, "outside" of narrative, is set against narrative as an endless and seemingly meaningless repetition, which is figured by random motion, the weather vane turning in place, the pennants flapping in the wind, and by the degeneration of the bottled foetuses.

One can also interpret the first sentence of the passage in a very different way, however, as signifying something like: "Events occur, nothing changes." The narrative signified would then be undercut as ultimately insignificant. Thus read, this passage denies the closure of the story about to be told even before it is narrated, as it sets these events against an insignificant post-narrative "reality." While establishing demarcations between story and non-story, the comment problematizes the meaningful difference produced by narrative. I have said that the passage serves as a preface to a section of the novel, and at the same time suggests much about the inconsequentiality of the story; things are further complicated, however, because this is not the beginning of the story, but the opening of the second of three major sequences. Whatever is being said about stories in general must be applied retrospectively to the first part of the novel. The commentary which seems to set itself outside of the main narrative is already framed by the earlier narrative, which can be read as a commentary on the metanarrative statement. What is at issue here is less the knowing control over the story by an omniscient narrator who demystifies the fiction from a privileged position, than the impossibility of narrating and at the same time placing oneself outside of the rhetorical operations of fiction. The passage thus becomes engaged in a crisis of narrative whose terms it reiterates in an inevitable play of repetition.7

I have already hinted at some of my conclusions about the operations of desire, narrative and interpretation, which can be ordered tentatively in terms of the two statements quoted at the beginning of this chapter. Both quotations are taken from the last pages of the novel. The first is uttered by Homais, panicked when he discovers that Emma has taken poison: "Eh bien! reprit Homais, il faudrait en faire l'analyse. Car il savait qu'il faut, dans tous les empoisonnements, faire une analyse; . . ." (295). In this moment of crisis, the pharmacist unhesitatingly turns toward his science to determine what action must be taken to save Emma from herself. Rapidly moving events prevent Homais from performing his diagnosis, but the critic faced with unsettling problems of interpretation is not subject to such constraints. If we are to analyze the reasons for Emma's destruction in terms of the workings of narrative and accept the guidance of an ironically illusive and sophisticated narrator, we must also accept the tutelage of the pharmacist, that other patron of the analytic process. The imperative to analyze and to achieve interpretive validity allies us unwittingly, yet unfailingly, with Homais.

The other statement informing my reading is a fragment of Emma's suicide letter, which Charles has torn open as Emma lies convulsed on her bed: "Qu'on n'accuse personne . . ." (294). At the very moment when it becomes a most urgent concern, we are told in a curiously ambiguous fashion that interpretation is to be suspended. In what ways does Emma's statement serve as an antidote to Homais's disastrously inadequate imperative to undertake analysis? What, in fact, are we being asked not to evaluate? the immediate responsibility for Emma's death? her adultery? or perhaps in a more sweeping sense, those wider issues I have raised—the destructive effects of Emma's relations to fiction? This imperative regarding interpretation, however, is literally suspended, broken by deletion marks in the text. I will return later to the interpretive space opened up by those marks, but let us note for the moment that Homais's and Emma's statements, taken together, point to radically different and incompatible positions concerning the finality of fiction and the necessity for interpretation.8 The first aims at masterly control and is killing in its effects; the second invites the suspension of judgment and is powerfully productive of interpretation. Inevitably, the reader is engaged by these two imperatives, simultaneously; interpretation circulates between Homais's inept, but nonetheless murderous authority, and Emma's call for the suspension of interpretation.

Learning narrative: a story of one's own

The first part of the novel establishes certain constants in Emma's relation to her desires and the law of the father, which will be repeated throughout the text, and through reiteration, modified. From the outset, Emma's desires are articulated within another's story: paradoxically "her" story is explicitly spoken or already composed by another. In its simplest form, she is the silent and passive object of the story of another's desire, the alienated object of masculine appropriation.

Some of the major preoccupations of the text concerning language and desire, that language is always inadequate to desire, that the language of desire is never unique, but always a common and alienating discourse, are figured early in the novel by the account of Charles's stammering attempts to ask for Emma's hand. This passage marks Emma's entry into the discourse of desire. It is paralleled, as we shall see, by an extensive sequence at the end of the novel which explicitly links the economy of romantic desire with the economy of bourgeois capitalism, when Emma tells the story of her ruin to the men who directly or indirectly contributed to its design. In Part One of the novel Emma undergoes what might be called an apprenticeship to narrative, in which she acquires an individual "voice" for her desires and elaborates them in narrative fictions. Although this section ends with the classic impasse of feminine desire, the "silence" of hysteria, Emma emerges in Part One from the position of a passive voiceless object of desire, to an active fiction making "subject." She theorizes about love, passion and happiness, and composes stories of fulfilled desire. There is an earlier pre-narrative moment, however, which informs all of Emma's subsequent relations to narratives and to desire. Charles attempts to tell Emma's father of his wish to marry her:

Maître Rouault, murmura-t-il, je voudrais bien vous dire quelque chose.

Ils s'arrêtèrent. Charles se taisait.

Mais contez-moi votre histoire! Est-ce que je ne sais pas tout! dit le père Rouault, en riant doucement. (23, italics added)

The formulation of desire here, early in the text, is associated significantly with the ability to compose a story. Charles, of course, has difficulty with stories throughout the novel, and that is part of the reason why his demand is relayed to Emma by her father. There are further implications of this episode, however, which are worth exploring. Throughout the novel Charles will remain deprived of the status of acting subject in the stories of desire. In terms of Emma's stories, he is the silent institutionalized opponent. There is more at issue, however, than Charles's silence and his ultimate exclusion from the stories of desire. Here the figure of the prospective husband and that of the father are conflated in a manner which Emma never fully overcomes, in spite of the transformations of Charles's role later in the narrative from subject to opponent. The story of feminine desire remains linked consistently with the figure of the father, for the voice of the father always reverberates in the voice of the lover. The "position" Emma occupies here, as determined by the possessive adjective votre, and by her role as the object of a story in which the male formulates desire through the voice of the father, or functions as his symbolic equivalent, remains constant throughout the novel. Even as Emma becomes the teller of stories, she can exercise that role only in imitation of this initial model, within the structure of masculine desire.9 The chapter ends with a paragraph in which the first sentence confirms the displacement of Emma as a subject of her desire: "Emma eût, au contraire, désiré se marier à minuit, aux flambeaux, mais le père Rouault ne comprit rien à cette idée." (24, italics added). The sentence derives as much meaning from its syntax as from its semantic content; the adversitive au contraire, which interrupts the verbal structure interrupts the language of Emma's desire, which in asserting itself against the father (lover) becomes disintegrated, deferred.

Shortly after her marriage, at the end of chapter 5, Emma's disappointments take the form of speculation about the full meaning of the words of love; they remain in a pre-narrative mode:

Avant qu'elle se mariât, elle avait cru avoir de l'amour; mais le bonheur qui aurait dû résulter de cet amour n'étant pas venu, il fallait qu'elle se fut trompée, songeait-elle. Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l'on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion et d'ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres. (32)

From the outset, Emma's experience of desire is linked to the elusive meanings of words; access to pleasure and knowledge will "take place" in language. Language is doubly deficient, however; on the one hand it is always the discourse of the other ("ce que l'on entendait par les mots . . .") never the unique property of the desiring subject. On the other hand, the words mark a radical flaw in the system. Scandalously, they require but utterly lack reference. This dilemma, as critics have shown, is a key element of bovarysm, a desire/writing which maniacally seeks the mot juste without the ultimate guarantee of a reality which would validate the relations of signification. In a general sense, the object of desire in Flaubert's novels retreats under the proliferation of the signs which are necessary to its representation.10 These words also have a particular relation to narrative: they mark a pre-narrative moment for Emma, in which the signifiers of desire are presented as pure nomination, not yet engaged in a verbal sequence. This moment is in many ways similar to the intransitive position which Anna O., in Breuer's famous analysis, assumes in her reveries, at one stage in her treatment. During her "absences," Anna murmurs the impersonal "tormenting, tormenting." Anna has lost the position of grammatical subject; she repeats an impersonal form with no immediate link to the first person, standing outside any narrative ordering of a fantasm.11 Emma, too, at this point in the story has not yet appropriated a discursive form which will be charged with giving meaning to the signifiers of desire. The experience of desire here is the interpretation of the already spoken or written, which the subject cannot know until she assumes a relation to narrative.12

The retrospective account of Emma's emotional formation, in chapter 6 of the first part of the novel, is the story of her first seduction, the seduction by romantic fiction. The terms which refer to Emma's readings have significant erotic implications not simply in their themes, but in reference to the act of reading itself. The narratives of desire are invested with erotic intensity not only because of their content, but also because they are read in secret. Of reading keepsakes it is said: "Il les fallait cacher, c'était une affaire . . ." (35). Erotic transgression thus becomes linked from the outset with concealment and an intimate relation is established between narratives of desire and secrecy.

Emma not only fantasizes by imitating the stereotypes of romantic fiction throughout the novel, but her imaginings imitate the second-rate copy. Her representation of romantic fiction will be associated not only with erotic intensity, but also with the dissolution of energy. The texts which establish the models of desire are themselves set in a structure of destructive repetition. Emma reads the classics of romantic fiction, yet she reads with even greater pleasure the second-rate reproductions of romantic stereotypes; keepsakes and popular novels. By interiorizing the stereotype it becomes a fantasm, which Emma assumes as her personal history. The text does not repress the knowledge of the repetition, which implicates an omniscient narrator as well as the protagonist; it becomes one of the major motifs of the novel. In demystifying Emma's blindness to her engagement in these repetitions, the narrator assumes a largely sadistic role, which we may suspect is the effect of a powerful nostalgia for the lost power of now obsolete stories of desire, still painfully contemporary.

The relation of desire to language here is similar to that discussed above in the context of Emma's wish to know the meanings of the words of bliss, but there are significant differences. Attention shifts from the static paradigm (metaphor) to the mobile syntagmatic order of narrative (metonymy). Desire, when associated with the nouns which serve as its signifier, can only remain virtual, a possibility forever suspended. When it is articulated as the narrative of fulfilled pleasure, however, desire is linked inevitably with the alienating repetitions of the stereotype. The private strategy of concealment only renders more apparent this alienation within romantic narratives.

Other constants of Emma's relation to desire and narrative are also established in this chapter. Desire is experienced as an imperative to appropriate objects for personal profit. Emma's personal narratives will later provide the means for that appropriation, but here the motif of the pleasures of reading and the motif of appropriation are simply contiguous, not yet joined explicitly as they will be later in the novel. Certain links between the personally pleasurable and bourgeois economy, however, are already formed in this chapter:

Il fallait qu'elle pût retirer des choses une sorte de profit personnel; et elle rejetait comme inutile tout ce qui ne contribuait pas à la consommation immédiate de son coeur, étant de tempérament plus sentimental qu'artiste . . . (34, italics added)

Pleasure is set in a system of exchange which conflates the emotional and the commercial, in which the subject seeks to consume the object of desire. Flaubert's correspondence repeatedly underscores implications in this passage that Emma is a perverted emblem of the artist and that her experiences of desire are characteristic of bourgeois sensibility. Desiring, for Emma, is a form of imitation whose object is the recuperation of sense, without difference or loss.

In terms of the novel's narrative order, this chapter is analeptic to the main narrative, its events situated in the protagonist's childhood.13 Clearly, chapter 6 provides information about attributes of Emma's "character" which will remain remarkably static throughout the novel. Emma will attain maturity as a "subject," however, only when she actively orders the elements of Romantic narratives according to an economic and sentimental schema already set by these earliest reported experiences of literature.

In the remaining chapters of Part One, Emma's desires are confined to a narcissistic silence. She now spins out her narratives as voiceless fantasies. In the opening lines of chapter 7, Emma composes hypothetical stories of travel to far-away places:

il eût fallu, sans doute, s'en aller vers ces pays à noms sonores où les lendemains de mariage ont de plus suaves paresses! Dans des chaises de poste, sous des stores de soie bleue, on monte au pas des routes escarpées, écoutant la chanson du postillon, qui se répète dans la montagne avec les clochettes des chèvres et le bruit sourd de la cascade. (38)

Moments of daydreaming such as this, as Genette notes in an excellent study of description and narrative in Flaubert, are doubly silent.14 The protagonists have ceased to speak to each other; Emma turns toward the world of her dreams. The narrative of the novel is also silent here, immobile, interrupted by a fantasy narrative which suspends the sequence of events in the main story. Emma's narratives, although they intrude upon the sequence of the main story, never acquire the power to take over from that story the initiative for ordering events.

Following this passage, the text focuses specifically on the illocutionary context of communication: Emma's needs are formulated less in terms which characterize a specific object of desire than in terms of a discursive situation.15 She lacks that other, necessary to the circuit of communication:

Peut-être aurait-elle souhaité faire à quelqu'un la confidence de toutes ces choses. Mais comment dire un insaissible malaise, qui change d'aspect comme les nuées, qui tourbillonne comme le vent? Les mots lui manquaient donc, l'occasion, la hardiesse. (38)

This passage opens up questions considerably more complex than the problem posed for Emma by the absence of an interlocutor. On the one hand the role of the other can never fulfill the function which Emma desires, for the other is to be always elsewhere and different from what the subject wishes. The images and the stories of desire, furthermore, are to be located beyond a particular and immediately accessible reality, a particular time and space contemporary to the subject, yet they can be constructed only with the aid of what they attempt to reject: reality . . . another reality. As for the formation of images and stories of pure desire, a further paradox makes itself felt. From the outset, there is a fundamental problem: these things, objects of desire, are lacking, and the elements which might constitute objects are heterogeneous, disparate, incapable of acquiring a stable configuration. Language cannot fix them, nor can they be generated by "reality" to be retrieved by language.16

Emma's attempts to arouse passion in herself pursue an illusive, provisional and ultimately inadequate solution. She develops theories about desire, narrative explanations of the empty signifiers. She repeats passionate verse in the manner of a sentimental catechism:

d'après des théories qu'elle croyait bonnes, elle voulut se donner de l'amour. Au clair de lune, dans le jardin, elle récitait tout ce qu'elle savait par coeur de rimes passionnées . . . (41)

Theory, for Emma, is auto-erotic, a solitary gesture directed toward narcissistic fulfillment. Knowing pleasure is repeating by heart the language of another's passion.

The major "event" of Part One, the trip to the chateau de Vaubeyssard, the dinner and the ball, appears to provide the occasion or access to the passion about which Emma had mused earlier. She remains excluded, however, from the language of potential partners in communication. What she wishes for most fervently is a passionate interlocutor, yet, in the conversations which take place in this sequence, she occupies an unmistakably marginal position; the language of the people at the chateau is incomprehensible, foreign to her. Emma is excluded because she is ignorant of the meanings of the speaker's words who "causait Italie":

A trois pas d'Emma, un cavalier en habit bleu causait Italie avec une jeune femme pâle, .. . Ils vantaient la grosseur des piliers de Saint-Pierre, Tivoli, le Vésuve, Castellamare et les Cassines, les roses de Gênes, le Colisée au clair de lune. Emma écoutait de son autre oreille une conversation pleine de mots qu'elle ne comprenait pas. (48)

Her alienation is also figured by the space in which she is caught, a space between two centers of desire. Although the swirling movements of her dance with the Vicomte transform the swirling, formless malaise (qui tourbillone comme le vent . . . ) into intense pleasure, Emma is excluded from the verbal articulations of desire which she seeks to know. Two passages specifically underscore the link between silence and the enforced solitude of Emma's desire. In the first, Emma composes a brief narrative about a cigar case of green silk, which Charles finds by the road on their return to Tostes. Emma supposes that its owner is the Vicomte; her fantasy narrative transforms the case into a fetishized object:

A qui appartenait-il? .. . Au vicomte. C'était peut-être un cadeau de sa maîtresse. On avait brodé cela sur quelque métier de palissandre, meuble mignon que l'on cachait à tous les yeux, qui avait occupé bien des heures et où s'étaient penchées les boucles molles de la travailleuse pensive. Un souffle d'amour avait passé parmi les mailles du canevas; chaque coup d'aiguille avait fixé là une espérance ou un souvenir, et tous ces fils de soie entrelacés n'étaient que le continuité de la même passion silencieuse. (53)

A cigar case here, is not "just" a cigar case. Once again, Emma's silent narrative is both erotic and the reproduction of the fabric of another text; she composes her story upon the already woven surface of a fetishized object. Paradoxically, however, in seeking a sense which would attain the continuity of "authentic" passion, meanings become a play of surface effects, incapable of evoking the desired presence. The fiction of desire, quite literally, is a fabrication which affirms distance, not presence; "Elle était à Tostes. Lui, il était à Paris, maintenant; là-bas!" (53). The desired moment of absolute presence (maintenant) is deferred, and metaphorized as spatial disjunction (là-bas).

Emma's taste for stories is not easily satisfied, however, and the inadequacies of this narrative produce more fiction, generated by a word which, in its very emptiness, can accommodate all meaning:

Comment était ce Paris? Quel nom démesuré! Elle se le répétait à demi-voix, pour se faire plaisir; il sonnait à ses oreilles comme un bourdon de cathédrale; il flamboyait à ses yeux jusque sur l'étiquette de ses pots de pommade.

Paris, plus vaste qu'un océan. (53-4)

This passage maintains a certain structural symmetry with the end of chapter 5, in which Emma had speculated on the meaning of the words félicité, passion and ivresse, yet there are meaningful differences between the two contexts which are due to the increasing importance of narrative to Emma's desire. The passages are similar in that each is an act of denomination, the terms in each case being devoid of semantic substance. The word Paris here must be referential, but is meaningful only as a figure. Paris is as empty a signifier as the words of passion, yet a fantasmatic geography has replaced the atopical terms of bliss, and Emma's imaginings move closer to narrative. The term Paris justifies the fantasmatic representation of desire, for it has historical, topographical reference, but it only functions effectively as a signifier which can accommodate the projections of desire when it becomes detached from that reference.

The act of naming is followed by another debauchery of reading, similar to that in the retrospective chapter 6. In the later episode, Emma subscribes to "feminine" reviews and studies descriptions of Parisian decors in E. Sue, Balzac and Georges Sand; "y cherchant des assouvissements imaginaires pour ses convoitises personnelles" (54). The same desire to consume the text and the same relation between desire and writing of both the first (Balzac, etc.) and the second order (le journal de femmes) are asserted as before. Emma takes the realist project literally; if the word is able to represent adequately the essence of things, then that essence is available to appropriation as language. Emma wants writing without difference, a desire figured here by her turning away from the symbolic mode of romantic narratives toward realist description and, beyond that, toward the iconic figure of a map of Paris. She buys a map and traces imaginary walks through the city:

Elle s'acheta un plan de Paris, et du bout de son doigt, sur la carte, elle faisait des courses dans la capitale. Elle remontait des boulevards, s'arrêtait à chaque angle entre les lignes des rues, devant des carrés blancs qui figurent des maisons. (54)

Like Félicité, in "Un Coeur simple," who asks to be shown the house of her nephew on a map of Cuba, Emma's interpretation of the map seeks the real, where there is only the surface of an iconic figure. Her misreading in this passage allegorizes the separation between figures of desire and referents. Emma's finger on this fetishized surface of the map attempts an impossible coincidence between her imaginings and the abstract surface on which desire has been projected.

It is at this time that Emma begins to wear an open house coat, buys paper and a blotter and dreams of Charles becoming a famous writer:

Elle s'était acheté un buvard, une papeterie, un porte-plume et des enveloppes, quoiqu'elle n'eût persone à qui écrire. (56)

Emma fills the space of lack not by writing herself, but by displacing the feminine subject in favor of a masculine proper name, which is to assume phallocentric mastery and circulate within a bourgeois economy:

Elle aurait voulu que ce nom de Bovary, qui était le sien, fût illustre, le voir étalé chez les libraries, répété dans les journaux, connu par toute la France

(58, italics added)

At the very moment when Emma might begin to write, her enclosure by the bourgeois family permits access to writing through the name of the husband, which can circulate only in accordance with the laws of commerce. Emma has effaced feminine difference in favor of the workings of the non(m) propre.17

Emma has come full circle; having gained access to narrative as the medium of desire she now refuses the role of the writing subject and in her fantasies seeks to give over that role to a man. The "solution" takes the form of denial and displacement; it produces a reemergence of desire in the symptoms of a "nervous disorder": "Elle devenait difficile, capricieuse . . ." "Elle pâlissait et avait des battements de coeur" (62, 63). This sequence, then, repeats regressively the order of Emma's initiation to narrative; from symptom, to fantasm, to the nominal terms (félicité, etc.) to narrative . . . the silenced narratives of desire have been reconverted into the symptoms of hysteria. At the end of Part One of the novel, Emma can give voice to her desire only through the "silent" metaphor by which she is strangled: "Elle eut des étouffements aux premières chaleurs . . ." (59). . . .


1 All references to Madame Bovary are to the Garnier edition (Paris: Garnier, 1961). References to Flaubert's other writings are to the Oeuvres complètes (Paris: Seuil, "L'Intégrale," 1964).

2 Of the many studies which treat the problematic of language and writing in Flaubert, and in particular in Madame Bovary, I have found the following to be most valuable: Charles Bernheimer, Flaubert and Kafka: Studies in Psychopoetic Structure (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1982); Leo Bersani, A Future for Astyanax (Boston-Toronto: Little, Brown, 1976), 89-105; Victor Brombert, The Novels of Flaubert (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1966); Dominick La Capra, Madame Bovary on Trial (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1982); Jonathan Culler, Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1974); Alain de Lattre, La Bêtise d'Emma Bovary (Paris: Corti, 1980); Françoise Gaillard, "L'En-signement du réel," in La Production du sens chez Flaubert, ed. C. Gothot-Mersch, Colloque de Cérisy (Paris: Union générale d'éditions, 10/18, 1975), 197-220; "La Représentation comme mis en scène du voyeurisme," RSH vol. 154, no. 2 (1874), 267-82; Jean Rousset, Forme et signification (Paris: Corti, 1962), 109-33; Jean-Paul Sartre, L' Idiot de la famille, II (Paris: Gallimard, 1971), 1611-20; III (Paris: Gallimard, 1972), 178-201; Naomi Schor, "Pour une thématique restreinte: Ecriture, parole et différence dans Madame Bovary," Litt. 22 (1975), 30-46; R. J. Sherrington, Three Novels by Flaubert (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1970); Tony Tanner, Adultery in the Novel (Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins Press, 1979), 233-367; Albert Thibaudet, Gustave Flaubert (Paris: Gallimard, 1935); Anthony Thorlby, Gustave Flaubert and the Art of Realism (London: Bowes and Bowes, 1956). Most of these analyses, in so far as they offer any extended study of Emma's stories, treat them as framed by the narrative of an authoritative narrator. Although that perspective must be taken into account, this chapter will focus more directly on Emma's stories and will trace their effects on a general interpretation of narrative in the novel. Reversing the conventional perspective produces unanticipated effects which lead to a re-examination of framing, desire and the impulses of power in narrative.

3 Roland Barthes, S/Z (Paris: Seuil, 1970), 146: "Flaubert . . . , en maniant une ironie frappée d'incertitude, opère un malaise salutaire de l'écriture: il n'arrête pas le jeu des codes (ou l'arrête mal), en sorte que (c'est là sans doute la preuve de l'écriture) on ne sait jamais s'il est responsable de ce qu'il écrit (s'il y a un sujet derrière son langage); car l'être de l'écriture (le sens du travail qui la constitue) est d'empêcher de jamais répondre à cette question: Qui parle?"

4 For a discussion of the combination of impersonal narration and erlebte Rede, or free, indirect discourse in Madame Bovary see Hans Robert Jauss, "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory," New Literary History, II, No. 1 (1970), 7-38.

5 Culler, 109-22.

6 The troublesome word "reality" will assert itself frequently in my text. I will define my uses of the term here to avoid the repeated intrusion of cumbersome definitions in the course of my discussion. On the one hand, the term will refer to what the fiction designates as real, what is generally understood as an effet de réel See Roland Barthes, "L'Effet de réel," Communications, 11 (1968), 84-9. In other instances the meaning of the term will be closer to what Lacan has called le Réel, which, precisely, cannot be named and resists symbolization. The Real can only be approximated by narrative in asymptotic fashion, as Frederic Jameson has noted: "Imaginary and Symbolic in Lacan: Marxism, Psychoanalytic Criticism and the Problem of the Subject," Yale French Studies, 55/56 (1977), 338-95, esp. 383-95. Very often in reading Madame Bovary it is not possible to assert with any confidence which of these two senses is appropriate and much of the force of the novel is generated by this indeterminacy.

7 Gaillard, "L'En-signement du réel": "on ne peut triompher de l'écriture qu'en s'absorbant en elle: par un mouvement vertigineux de répétition en abîme, il faut être le livre en recopiant le livre que l'on recopie dans le livre," 201.

8 Naomi Schor's very suggestive article, "Pour une Thématique restreinte," discusses the similarities between Homais and Emma, both of whom aspire to be writers. It should also be noted that, as interpreters, Emma and Homais are set in opposition to each other at the end of the novel. On the legal implications of a stable narrative signified see La Capra, Madame Bovary on Trial and the final chapter of this book.

9 Luce Irigaray, in Speculumde l'autre femme (Paris: Minuit, 1974), 9-162, discusses the displacement of a feminine libidinal economy and the imposition of masculine mimetic models of desire in the Freudian theory of sexual difference. In Freud's analysis of the early relation between the daughter and her mother, the young girl's role is determined by that of the male child; the daughter is said to understand her sexual difference as a lack, a defect, an absence of the phallus. The terms in which Irigaray discusses this suppression of feminine difference and its assimilation by the story of masculine desire are strikingly pertinent to this crucial passage in Madame Bovary: "Laissée au vide, au manque de toute représentation, re-presentation, et en toute rigueur aussi mimésis, de son désire (d')origine. Lequel en passera, dès lors, par le désir-discours-loi du désir de l'homme: tu seras ma femmemère, ma femme si tu veux, tu peux, être (comme) ma mère = tu seras pour moi la possibilité de répéter-représenter-reproduire-m'approprier le (mon) rapport à l'origine . . . Mais disons qu'au commencement s'arrêterait son historie, [l'histoire de la fillette] pour se laisser prescrire par celle d'un autre: celle de l'homme père," 47.

10 See de Lattre's discussion of the "paradox of the image," La Bêtise . . . , 20.

11 Laurent Jenny, "Il n'y a pas de récit cathartique," Poétique, 41 (février, 1980), 1-21. "Cette douleur impossible, c'est celle, pour un sujet, de ne pouvoir se conjuguer au noyau verbal de son fantasme, dans la syntaxe d'une narration," 7.

12 Paradoxically, Emma seeks a fully expressive, unmediated language of desire by imitating, as if they were "her own," the stories of others' passion. In the most fundamental way, the possibility of appropriating meaning for the self is determined as a process of censorship imposed by discourse. The language of "self-expression" imposes what Pierre Bourdieu has called euphémisation: "toute expression est un ajustement entre un intérêt expressif et une censure constituée par la structure du champ dans lequel s'offre cette expression, et cet ajustement est le produit d'un travail d'euphémisation pouvant aller jusqu'au silence, limite du discours censuré." "La Censure," in Questions de sociologie (Paris: Minuit, 1980), 138.

13 Gérard Genette, Figures III (Paris: Seuil, 1972), 90.

14 Genette, "Silences de Flaubert," Figures (Paris: Seuil, 1966), 223-43.

15 On illocutionary speech acts, see Mary Louise Pratt, Toward a Speech Act Theory of Literary Discourse (Bloomington, London: Indiana University Press, 1977), 80-1.

16 de Lattre, La Bêtise . . . , 20-1.

17 C. Clément, H. Cixous, La Jeune née (Paris: Union générale d'éditions, 10/18, 1975), 144-7: Irigaray, Speculum, 165-82. . . .

Tony Williams (essay date 1992)

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SOURCE: "Gender Stereotypes in Madame Bovary," in Forum for Modem Language Studies, Vol. XXVIII, No. 2, April, 1992, pp. 130-9.

[In the following essay, Williams discusses Flaubert's belief in the influence of cultural conditioning as a determinant of gender roles, pointing to motifs in Madame Bovary that illustrate the restricted and highly artificial role of women in a patriarchal society.]

Madame Bovary was put on trial when it was first published largely on account of its intense critical interrogation of the assumptions that collectively make up the common-sense outlook on life in nineteenth-century France. The subversive force of the novel is directed most obviously against that cornerstone of bourgeois society, marriage.1 This subversion of the conventional view of marriage is, however, connected with a more fundamental attack upon another received idea, what, in a different context, has been described as the "ideological image, repeated and naturalised a thousand times in the fiction of the period, of the very reality of 'woman' as the passive, inert creature of the domestic world of the nineteenth-century family".2 Although the objection against Flaubert's novel was not formulated in these terms, it is against the conventional view of woman as essentially passive and inert that the novel offended most deeply. At an earlier point in the writing of the novel, Emma appears dressed in a waistcoat and Charles's mother is shocked by "ce bouleversement des sexes et de toutes les convenances".3 It is the implications of this and other examples of overturning of conventional gender distinctions which this article will explore.

In many respects it is surprising that Flaubert should have mounted one of the most ferocious and sustained attacks upon conventional gender distinctions. In his letters he often sounds like a typical nineteenth-century misogynist, slipping into what sounds like mindless denigration of the opposite sex.4 The negative views expressed in the letters are, however, directed not so much against something innate in women as against a pattern of behaviour which has been induced by social conditioning. Flaubert has a strong awareness that women are not born but made: "La femme est un produit de l'homme. Dieu a créé la femelle et l'homme a fait la femme; elle est le résultat de la civilisation, une œuvre factice."5 Flaubert's view coincides with that of his contemporary, Stuart Mill, who in The Subjection of Women asserted that "what is now called the nature of woman is an eminently artificial thing—the result of forced repression in some directions, unnatural stimulation in others". Flaubert clearly recognises that what are commonly regarded as the principal characteristics of the opposite sex are in fact the result of a process of cultural conditioning. Central to this process of cultural conditioning is the conventional education to which girls are submitted:

On apprend aux femmes à mentir d'une façon infâme. L'apprentissage dure toute leur vie. [ . . . ] Le puritanisme, la bégueulerie, le système du renfermé, de l' étroit, dénature et perd dans sa fleur les plus charmantes créations du bon Dieu. [ . . . ] J'ai peur du corset moral, voilà tout. Les premières impressions ne s'effacent pas, tu le sais.6

Like Stendhal, Flaubert believes that the cultural conditioning of women entails the radical loss of half of humanity which becomes alienated from an original femaleness.7 Flaubert's strategic distinction between "la femelle" and "la femme" is close to the now familiar distinction between sex and gender. Although sex and gender have frequently been confused in the past, "the threadbare tactic of justifying social and temperamental differences by biological ones" is now largely discredited. As Angela Carter insists, although sexual differentiation of a biological nature is an unarguable fact, "separate from it, and only partially derived from it, are the behavioural modes of masculine and feminine, which are culturally defined variables translated in the language of common usage to the status of universals".8 Flaubert, arguably, shows a similar awareness of the relativity of gender stereotypes.

The fictional world of Madame Bovary is marked by the over-differentiation of the sexes which characterises patriarchal society. Despite his considerable limitations, Charles receives an education as a health officer which equips him for a useful role in society whilst Emma, despite her greater intelligence and ability, receives an education in the Rouen convent-school which provides her with skills which have little practical relevance to her subsequent life. The marriage between Charles and Emma is arranged initially between Charles and Emma's father; Charles is legally the head of the household and special powers of attorney have to be granted to Emma in order to allow her to settle his financial affairs after the death of his father. Adultery, like marriage, is organised more according to the man's convenience and this is perhaps one of the reasons why, in Flaubert's memorable comment, Emma "retrouvait dans l'adultère toutes les platitudes du mariage" (p. 296).9 Rodolphe's early display of chivalry gives way to brutality—"Il la traita sans façon" (p. 196)—and it soon becomes clear, as Tony Tanner puts it, that adultery has no manners.10 This rigid division according to sex is underpinned by gender stereotypes which command wide assent. Emma has an exalted conception of the opposite sex: "Un homme, au contraire, ne devait-il pas tout connaître, exceller en des activités multiples, vous initier aux énergies de la passion, aux raffinements de la vie, à tous les mystères?" (p. 42). Her view of women is correspondingly low; she complains to Rodolphe that women are deprived of the right to roam the world and to Léon that they live useless lives. When she is angry with Léon she thinks of him as being "plus mou qu'une femme" (p. 288). Significantly Emma wishes to have a boy child:

Un homme, au moins est libre; il peut parcourir les passions et les pays, traverser les obstacles, mordre aux bonheurs les plus lointains. Mais une femme est empêchée continuellement. Inerte et flexible à la fois, elle a contre elle les mollesses de la chair avec les dépendances de la loi. Sa volonté, comme le voile de son chapeau retenu par un cordon, palpite à tous les vents, (p. 91)

This naive view of the differences between the sexes gave rise in an early version to the following significant comment:

Chaque sexe [ . . . ] par ignorance de l'autre, lui suppose des qualités qu'il n'a pas, comme les siècles supposent aux siècles précédents des énergies que la distance seule leur donne. (Nouvelle version, p. 265)

Given the exalted notion of what it is to be man, it is hardly surprising that Emma repeatedly wishes she were a man: "Que n'était-elle un homme! Comme elle aurait fait siffler au vent la mèche de sa cravache! Comme elle aurait couru dans le monde!" (Nouvelle version, p. 226). Likewise Charles also experiences envy of the opposite sex: "Que n'était-il pas la mère, lui! comme il aurait du plaisir à se relever la nuit et à allaiter la petite fille, en lui parlant doucement!" (Nouvelle version, p. 269). In this kind of instance, gender stereotypes provide the focus for a kind of existential dissatisfaction. Neither Charles nor Emma is entirely happy with the masculine or feminine role accorded to their sex.

Gender distinctions may be completely fallacious, but they die hard. If Emma is unable to shake off an idealised image of the opposite sex, which has the unfortunate effect of making the actual men she knows seem totally defective, it is largely on account of the cultural conditioning which has taken place in the convent-school. Madame Bovary is attentive to the construction of gender stereotypes in the sentimental novel. The world of the sentimental novel and the keepsake projects an image of man as strong and active and of the woman as weak and passive. Whilst the gentlemen are strikingly mobile, riding horses to death or galloping out of the distant countryside on a black charger, the ladies are shown lolling in carriages or reclining on sofas (p. 39). It is the "literature of patriarchy" which leads Emma to believe that fulfilment can be found only through a man.11 Despite all the evidence to the contrary, she thinks marriage to Charles will allow her to possess "cette passion merveilleuse qui jusqu'alors s'était tenue comme un grand oiseau au plumage rose planant dans la splendeur des ciels poétiques", only to find that the quietness of married life is far removed from "le bonheur qu'elle avait rêvé" (p. 41). Subsequently she continues to believe that she needs simply to "placer sa vie sur quelque cœur solide" in order to be happy, only to discover that neither of her lovers is able to sustain his devotion. Emma's behaviour is highly contradictory: she strives with an energy and forcefulness unrivalled by any of the male characters to put herself in a position of complete dependence upon a man who she hopes will sweep her off her feet. The masculine counterpart of this process of self-mutilation involves Charles being conditioned into believing that a man should be strong: as a medical student in Rouen, he finds work in the hospital difficult to stomach but "se raidit de son mieux dans l'idée qu'il était un homme, et qu'il fallait faire bonne mine et qu'il faut qu'un homme soit énergique" (Nouvelle version, p. 143). Flaubert shows, particularly in earlier drafts, how both Emma and Charles try to live up to highly questionable gender stereotypes and are led into patterns of behaviour which run counter to their natural inclinations.

The validity of the conventional view of the sexes is on occasion challenged directly in narratorial comments. Rodolphe, we are told, has avoided Emma "par suite de cette lâcheté naturelle qui caractérise le sexe fort" (p. 316). Flaubert prefers, however, to allow the behaviour of his characters to speak for itself. If one takes a global view, Emma, in particular, shows more audacity, resolution and courage than all the male characters, though the goals to which these qualities are directed may seem misplaced. She is also a good deal more self-centred, strong-willed, forceful and domineering than both Charles and Léon. In contrast, Charles is more "feminine"—he is placid, undemanding, submissive, the passive partner in the marriage. Whilst Emma dreams of escaping to some exotic nevernever land, Charles directs all his desire and energy to the domestic sphere.

Flaubert's presentation of the development of Emma Bovary points to a malleability as she draws upon a repertoire of both "masculine" and "feminine" roles. Emma's so-called "masculine" qualities are not immediately apparent; they gradually emerge in the course of the novel, leading to a slow dismantling of the conventional view of woman. Emma seeks to get the upper hand in all of her relationships with men. Once she has made the rather belated discovery that Charles does not conform to the image of the perfect man she has derived from her reading of the sentimental novel, Emma takes the initiative, reading him romantic poems by moonlight in the hope that he might be elevated to a higher plane. Charles cannot be prodded into the kind of artificial response she requires and Emma treats him in an increasingly scornful and imperious manner. Compared to other literary husbands, Charles is strikingly decent and devoted, but, for Emma, he becomes "l'obstacle à toute félicité, la cause de toute misère, et comme l'ardillon pointu de cette courroie complexe qui la bouclait de tous côtés" (p. 111). In the course of the novel, he is divested of all the trappings of patriarchal power as Emma adds to the sexual supremacy gained on the first night of their marriage emotional, intellectual and financial control. In contrast, Rodolphe conforms to the traditional image of the strong male and Emma is sexually subjugated by him: "Ce n'était pas de l'attachement, c'était comme une séduction permanente. Il la subjugait. Elle en avait presque peur" (p. 175). Even with Rodolphe, however, Emma gains a kind of supremacy, forcing him to act out the charade of the romantic lover and showering him with humiliating gifts: "Cependant ces cadeaux l'humiliaient. Il en refusa plusieurs; elle insista, et Rodolphe finit par obéir, la trouvant tyrannique et trop envahissante" (p. 195). There is something profoundly contradictory about Emma's behaviour as, with an authority Rodolphe finds difficult to resist, she urges him to play the part of the masterful lover and carry her away. His final failure to do this points both to the falsity of the image of the romantic lover and the limits of the woman's power in adultery. It is with Léon, in the third part of the novel, that Emma achieves a kind of apotheosis. Léon, we are told, "devenait sa maîtresse plutôt qu'elle n'était la sienne" (p. 283). Emma uses him in the same way as Rodolphe has used her—as a convenience. Léon is powerless to resist Emma's total domination: "Il en voulait à Emma de cette victoire permanente. Il s'efforçait même à ne pas la chérir; puis, au craquement de ses bottines, il se sentait lâche, comme les ivrognes à la vue des liqueurs fortes" (pp. 288-9). Once again, however, the limits of Emma's control are exposed; Léon does not extricate her from her financial crisis, just as Rodolphe has resisted running away with her. At the end of the novel, Emma experiences a generalised anger against the opposite sex. After Guillaumin has attempted to take advantage of her position, "Elle aurait voulu battre les hommes, leur cracher au visage, les broyer tous" (p. 310). She cannot bear the thought of Charles pardoning her ("Cette idée de la supériorité de Bovary sur elle l'exaspérait", p. 311) and when Rodolphe refuses to lend her money, she flings his cufflinks against the wall (p. 318). The heroism she has failed to elicit from men finally wells up in Emma herself: 'Puis, dans un transport d'héroïsme qui la rendait presque joyeuse, elle descendit la côte en courant [... ] et arriva devant la boutique du pharmacien" (p. 320). There is, however, one final symbolic confrontation to come. As Emma is about to die she hears the Blind Man's coarsely sexist ditty and responds with despairing laughter: "Et Emma se mit à rire, d'un rire atroce, frénétique, désespéré, croyant voir la face hideuse du misérable qui se dressait dans les ténèbres éternelles comme un épouvantement" (pp. 332-3). One crucial feature of this horrific figure, as of "Dieu le Père tout éclatant de majesté" of her earlier, contrasting, "vision splendide" (p. 219), is its sex: whether she is to be saved or damned, Emma's cultural conditioning puts her at the mercy of an embodiment of ultimate power and authority who is male.

Gender distinctions are explored in a more oblique and suggestive way through the novel's extraordinarily rich web of symbolic suggestion. A number of motifs can be related to the position of the woman in society. The motif of bending, for instance, according to Tanner's reading, suggests not simply the sexual dominance of the male but more generally the inevitable female submission to the matrix of the male world around her: "She must and can only 'bend' under it to the shapes, postures, and positions that it offers, imposes, or dictates."12 This interpretation is supported by the implications of the words of the Blind Man's song.13 Emma's bending, however, has an energetic quality which belies the notion of submission. When Charles's whip slips behind some wheat-sacks, Emma bends over to retrieve it:

Et il se mit à fureter sur le lit, derrière les portes, sous les chaises; elle [the whip] était tombée à terre, entre les sacs et la muraille. Mademoiselle Emma l'aperçut; elle se pencha sur les sacs de blé. Charles, par galanterie, se précipita et, comme il allongeait son bras dans le même mouvement, il sentit sa poitrine effleurer le dos de la jeune fille, courbée sous lui. Elle se redressa toute rouge et le regarda par-dessus l'épaule, en lui tendant son nerf de bœuf,(p. 17)

A similar incident can be found in George Eliot's Middlemarch, where it serves to confirm rather than undermine traditional gender distinctions. At one point Rosamond is portrayed going towards her whip, which lies at a distance:

Lydgate was quick in anticipating her. He reached the whip before she did, and turned to present it to her. She bowed and looked at him: he of course was looking at her, and their eyes met with that peculiar meeting which is never arrived at by effort, but seems like a sudden divine clearance of haze. I think that Lydgate turned a little paler than usual, but Rosamond blushed deeply and felt a certain astonishment.14

There is no bending in Rosamond's case but there is no implied symbolic exchange of power either since the whip in question is her own and Lydgate gets to it first. The power relations between the sexes remain undisturbed, whereas in Madame Bovary Emma counteracts the notion of submission implicit in her bending by reaching the whip first and handing it over to Charles. In another highly charged episode, Emma is shown bending over to remove the bowl of blood which has caused Justin to faint:

Madame Bovary prit la cuvette. Pour la mettre sous la table, dans le mouvement qu'elle fit en s'inclinant, sa robe (c'était une robe d'été à quatre volants, de couleur jaune, longue de taille, large de jupe), sa robe s'évasa autour d'elle sur les carreaux de la salle;—et, comme Emma, baissée, chancelait un peu en écartant les bras, le gonflement de l'étoffe se crevait de place en place, selon les inflexions de son corsage, (p. 132)

Once again Emma is handling something with strong masculine associations and this, combined with the energetic connotations of the description of her dress, partially offsets the humiliating implications of her action.

A second motif which defines the domestic imperative governing the woman's role is sewing. Emma either sews incompetently or endows sewing with an autoerotic quality. The one time her heart is in her work is when she is undoing the lining of a dress, just as in adultery she has unravelled the very fabric of married life (p. 258). Appropriately, it is Charles who performs the classically restorative function of sewing properly, sewing up his daughter's dolls when they split open (p. 350). A third motif which points to the essential nature of the woman's lot is constriction. On numerous occasions Emma is depicted within an enclosed space, and she perceives her existence in terms of cold rooms, narrow houses, belts that hem her in. Her natural inclination, however, is to try to break out of narrow confines in order to soar in the vast open spaces of the romantic dream. In contrast, Charles takes fright at open spaces and longs for enclosed domesticity. Once again, therefore, what emerges from a traditional motif associated with the woman's position is a powerful resistance on Emma's part, suggesting that she is not at ease within the conventional role accorded to her.

Further suggestions are made through the close descriptions of Emma's physical appearance. Her frequently bulky garments can point to something burdensome in her condition as a woman—whether married or adulterous—but her dress can also have an expansive grace which evokes a triumphant femininity.15 Throughout the novel, however, Flaubert describes various items and appendages which have strong masculine associations in order to measure, as it were, an increasing quotient of "masculinity". The tortoiseshell eyeglasses, attached, in masculine fashion, to two buttonholes of her bodice, and introduced in the first description of Emma (p. 17), represent a key component, a deliberately dissonant note in an otherwise traditionally orchestrated feminine appearance. Subsequently, she will wear a blue silk tie on arriving in Yonville, and a man's hat and riding costume for the ride with Rodolphe; and she will step out of the coach "la taille serrée dans un gilet, à la façon d'un homme" (p. 197) and dress in masculine attire for the masked ball (p. 297). These masculine elements have been regarded negatively. Diana Festa-McCormick, for instance, claims that "no longer a gesture of daring, the male costume stands in reality for an act of surrender, confirming Emma's defeat in the dominion of the woman";16 but this is to subscribe to a highly questionable view of woman's role. Emma is also made to manipulate a wide range of patently phallic substitutes. Emma not only retrieves Charles's whip, she also makes Rodolphe a present of a handsome riding-whip. Emma may be shown "regrettant de n'être pas un homme pour sauter sur un poignard" (Nouvelle version, p. 586), but she can "look daggers" at Charles.17 The main male characters all have knives which they use in symbolically appropriate fashion, but Emma too has a knife which she uses disconsolately to make lines on the waxed table cloth: "[elle] s'amusait, avec la pointe de son couteau, à faire des raies sur la toile cirée" (p. 67). A particularly ambiguous appendage is the sunshade, whose fragility is often associated with femininity. On the occasion when for the first time her thoughts about her marriage become clear, Emma is shown poking the ground with its tip: "Puis ses idées peu à peu se fixaient, et, assise sur le gazon, qu'elle fouillait à petits coups avec le bout de son ombrelle, Emma se répétait: 'Pourquoi, mon Dieu! me suis-je mariée?'" (p. 46). She also usurps what at the time was a specifically male prerogative, smoking in public "comme pour narguer le monde" (p. 197), as well as playfully putting Rodolphe's big pipe into her mouth (p. 169).

The significance of Emma's adoption of masculine modes of dress and manipulation of phallic substitutes requires careful consideration. The first point to be made is that they do not displace feminine modes, and that Emma continues to exhibit many of the traditional features of femininity against which Flaubert railed in his correspondence—role-playing, sentimentality, lack of frankness, the pursuit of an impossible ideal. It is clearly inappropriate, therefore, to speak of Emma's masculinisation since masculine modes do not take the place of feminine modes. She also possesses what Baudelaire referred to as a "charmant corps féminin",18 a delicately realised physical presence. One interpretation might be that the adoption of masculine modes is yet another example of role-playing, which is no more privileged than her adoption of feminine modes the rest of the time. There does, however, seem to be more at stake than such a view implies. The broader context in which some of the developments discussed take place is one of symbolic exchange.19 Male characters undergo a symbolic emasculation—Emma's father breaks his leg, Hippolyte has his amputated. A large number of objects associated with the power and influence of men are broken, or given to men by Emma. Flaubert has created a fictional world where the masculinity of men is, symbolically, in retreat and males in various ways shown to be defective. In this context, Emma's assumption of masculine modes suggests a takeover or exchange and has as its counterpart Charles's assumption of feminine modes. What Flaubert has engineered in the elaboration of a number of symbolic patterns is a full-scale realignment of the sexes in relation to gender stereotypes. René Girard has stressed the way in which, as Flaubert develops, there is a tendency for oppositions to be subverted and polarities to collapse with the end result that what are traditionally viewed as contraries are shown to share a good deal, if not to be identical.20 This seems to be what happens to the opposition between the sexes. By endowing Emma with marked masculine traits and Charles with feminine traits, Flaubert problematises, or perhaps even collapses, the conventional opposition between male and female. In order to subvert such an opposition, however, Flaubert relies on well-defined gender stereotypes. A hard-and-fast distinction between the sexes is nullified by the way in which Emma displays "masculine" traits and Charles "feminine" traits.

Flaubert's creation of a heroine with masculine traits has often been viewed as a failure to create a completely convincing character. From Baudelaire to Sartre, critics have argued that a man's blood—Flaubert's own—flows through Emma's veins. Such comments are based, however, on precisely those categories that the novel queries and make us aware just how radical Flaubert's critique of traditional gender stereotypes was.21 It would, however, be wrong to think of Flaubert as a champion of the androgynous ideal which attracted many nineteenth-century writers. This is largely because so-called feminine and masculine traits are not brought into a state of harmony. Indeed it could be argued that Emma is destroyed by her failure to resolve the contradiction between her "masculine" and "feminine" tendencies.22 Although Flaubert subverts the rigid opposition between male and female which characterises patriarchal society; although, in his private life, Flaubert declared that he wanted Louise Colet to become an "hermaphrodite sublime"; and although in his own person he detected "les deux sexes",23Madame Bovary suggests that a free, non-problematic choice of gender roles—the androgynous ideal—is a long way off. Emma's adoption of masculine modes does not, after all, do her much good and it is profoundly ironic that her most forceful act is to commit suicide. Nor is Charles's gravitation to the feminine pole a recipe for survival. Like Emma, he too comes to an untimely end, dying pathetically of a broken heart. It is partly a question of the kind of society in which cross-gender behaviour takes place but, whilst he clearly rejects the conventional view of sexual difference, Flaubert does not offer the reader any new, heady, gender cocktail.


1 Louis Bouilhet's comment on Flaubert's use of the generalising definite article (du manage) in the famous sentence "Emma retrouvait dans l'adultère toutes les platitudes du mariage" is significant: "tu attaques la société par une de ses bases" (Quoted in C. Gothot-Mersch's edition of the novel, (Paris: 1971), p. 463). D. LaCapra has argued that Flaubert's novel was put on trial because "the ideological image of the modern family as the holy family is called into question" ( "Madame Bovary" on Trial, (Cornell: 1982), p. 9).

2 C. Prendergast, Balzac: Fiction and Melodrama, (London: 1977), p. 139.

3MadameBovary: Nouvelle version, ed. J. Pommier and G. Leleu, (Paris: 1949), p. 424. All references to earlier versions of the novel will be to this edition.

4 Flaubert's complex and contradictory attitude to women has been discussed most fully by L. Czyba in Mythes et idéologie de la femme dans les romans de Flaubert, (Lyon: 1983).

5Correspondance, ed. J. Bruneau, (Paris: 1980), ii, 284.

6Correspondance, ed. J. Bruneau, (Paris: 1973), i, 711.

7 Flaubert does not, however, acknowledge the difficulty of determining the characteristics of this original female nature. Cf. John Stuart Mill: "I deny that anyone knows, or can know, the nature of the two sexes, as long as they have only been seen in their present relations to one another" (quoted in M. Midgley and J. Hughes, Women's Choices: Philosophical Problems facing Feminism, (London: 1983), p. 207).

8The Sadeian Woman, (London: 1979), p. 6.

9 Pages references are to the Gothot-Mersch edition (Paris: 1971).

10Adulteryin the Novel, (Princeton: 1979), p. 367.

11 See R. W. Greene, "Clichés, moral censure and heroism in Flaubert's Madame Bovary", Symposium, 32 (1978), pp. 289-302.

12Adultery in the Novel, p. 354.

13 The words of the Blind Man's song, relayed fully at the moment of Emma's death (p. 332) are: "Pour amasser diligemment / Les épis que la faux moissonne, / Ma Nanette va s'inclinant / Vers le sillon qui nous les donne." The complex relationship between Emma's bending and that of Nanette is discussed in my "Quotation in Madame Bovary", Romance Studies, 12 (1988), pp. 29-43.

14Middlemarch, Part I, xii, (Harmondsworth: 1965), p. 145. I am grateful to my colleague, David Roe of Leeds University, for drawing my attention to the similarity between the two passages.

15 See, in addition to the passage on p. 132 already quoted, the description on p. 101: "Son vêtement, ensuite, retombait des deux côtés sur le siège, en bouffant, plein de plis, et s'étalait jusqu'à terre."

16 "Emma Bovary's masculinisation. Convention of clothes and morality of conventions", in Gender and Literary Voice, ed. J. Todd, (New York, 1980) (Women and Literature. I, 1980), p. 234.

17 See p. 190: "elle fixait sur Charles la pointe ardente de ses prunelles, comme deux flèches de feu prêtes à partir."

18 See "Madame Bovary" in L'Art romantique, (Paris: 1968), p. 224: "Comme la Pallas armée, sortie du cerveau de Zeus, ce bizarre androgyne a gardé toutes les séductions d'une âme virile dans un charmant corps féminin."

19 See M. Picard's excellent article, to which this discussion is indebted, "La prodigalité d'Emma", Littérature, 10 (1973), pp. 77-97.

20 "A mesure que mûrit le génie romanesque flaubertien, les oppositions se font toujours plus creuses; l'identité des contraires s'affirme avec toujours plus de force", Mensonge romantique et vérité romanesque, (Paris: 1961), p. 157.

21 R. Lloyd rightly points out in her recent study that "a gendered reading might begin to unravel many of the male-centred misinterpretations that have grown up around the novel ever since Baudelaire depicted as masculine all Emma's positive and active attributes", Madame Bovary, (London: 1990), p. 172.

22 J. F. Hamilton has argued that "the apparent contradictions in Emma's character and behaviour" reflect "the salutary urge to unite the female and male aspects of her being"; see "Madame Bovary and the Myth of Androgyny", University of South Florida Language Quarterly, 19 (1981), p. 19. Two more recent considerations of the problematic relationship between masculine and feminine elements in Emma's behaviour are N. Schor's "For a restricted thematics. Writing, speech and difference in Madame Bovary", in Breaking the Chain. Women, Theory and French Realist Fiction, (Columbia: 1985) and D. Kelly's "Gender and Representation" in Fictional Genders. Role and Representation in Nineteenth-Century French Narrative, (Nebraska: 1989). Both of these critics emphasise Flaubert's exploration of significant differences between male and female attitudes to language, a topic which this article has not examined.

23 See "J'ai toujours essayé de faire de toi un hermaphrodite sublime" (Correspondance, ii, 548) and "C'est que j'ai les deux sexes, peut-être" (Correspondance, (Paris: 1929), v, 268).

Anne Green (essay date 1995)

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SOURCE: "Time and History in Madame Bovary" in French Studies: A Quarterly Review, Vol. XLIX, No. 3, July, 1995, pp. 283-91.

[In the following essay, Green explores "the way in which [Flaubert's] value-laden approach to [the concept of] time informs Madame Bovary."]

—Nous ne sommes jamais au Présent qui seul est important dans la vie.1

—Le Présent est tout ce qu'il y a de moins important, car il est très court, insaisissable. Le vrai, c'est le Passé, et l'Avenir.2

These mutually contradictory comments from Flaubert's Correspondance are evidence of his long-standing preoccupation with the way in which we perceive time. His letters show him to be particularly sensitive to the personal and subjective nature of time, which he variously sees as destructive or consoling, as a force for change or an indicator of stasis, or as evidence of a particular state of mind.3 But the comments I have quoted also hint at the moral overtones which Flaubert attributes to the subject: for him, the stances which can be adopted towards past, present or future are clearly open to moral judgment, although his judgment on them may change over the years. The purpose of this article is to explore the way in which this value-laden approach to time informs Madame Bovary.

The novel carries an extraordinary number of references to time. There are 105 references to le temps (in the temporal sense) and 14 to l' or les heure(s), making them two of the most frequently recurring nouns in the book.4 Alongside these, the large number of references to past, present and future and the clusters of clocks, watches and other timepieces make it clear that something of significance is happening in the text. But critics who have tried to analyse Madame Bovary's timescale on a realistic level have encountered problems. There are very few specific dates in the novel, and those that do exist can be misleading. For example, the date of Emma and Rodolphe's planned elopement, 'le 4 septembre, un lundi' has been used by Jacques Seebacher as a point de repère for an elaborate calculation of the timing of other events in the novel, culminating in his claim that Emma poisons herself on 23 March 1846, the day of Flaubert's sister Caroline's death.5 But as Claudine Gothot-Mersch has meticulously shown, that kind of detective work is doomed to failure because the novel does not follow a coherent chronology. Dates and other numbers undergo changes in the different manuscript versions of the novel (the elopement date figures variously as 4, 12, and 23 September) and seem often to have been chosen for their sound and lack of associations rather than for any more specific purpose. Any attempt to impose a strict and realistic time-scale on the novel will reveal all kinds of logical inconsistencies, including characters who age at different rates.6 Flaubert was clearly interested less in paying scrupulous attention to consistent chronology in his plots, than in creating a coherent impression; he sets crucial events against an appropriate seasonal background rather than calculating them by the calendar. His deep concern with the significance of time takes a quite different focus—it is not on the level of events that we shall find it, but in the narrative itself.

Much has been written about the opening 'Nous' of Madame Bovary, but one of the most important qualities of that striking use of the first-person is the way in which it effectively anchors the story to the present. This is confirmed a little later when, after a few pages describing Charles's childhood, we read: 'Il serait maintenant impossible à aucun de nous de se rien rappeler de lui' (p. 8)7 — a curious sentence which again establishes the link with the present, with 'us', but which at the same time emphasizes the past, vanished, forgotten nature of the story—a paradox to which I shall return later.

The 'nous' makes its final appearance here, and the narrative plunges back into the past, not resurfacing in the present again until the beginning of Part II with the description of the little town of Yonville, static in time ('Yonville l'Abbaye est demeuré stationnaire'), and described from the perspective of the present: 'Depuis les événements que l'on va raconter, rien [ . . . ] n'a changé à Yonville' (p. 68). The present is evoked for the third time at the end of the novel, where the fortunes of Justin, Berthe and Homais are recorded in the present tense. The narrative, then, is set in a past which has three explicit links to the present at the beginning, middle and end of the novel. But the past narrative never quite flows up to the present: there remains a curious gap between the events of the narrative and these three 'presents', a gap that is emphasized by the comment that it would now be impossible for us to remember anything, and by the suggestion of a lapse of time between the events of the story ('les événements que l'on va raconter') and Yonville 'now'.

Within the past and fragmented narrative,8 Flaubert presents us with different concepts of time. One of the most striking is ordered time—time as it is measured and counted. Time is often measured very precisely in this novel: Charles, waiting for a sign from Emma's father to let him know whether she has agreed to marry him, counts nineteen minutes by his watch (p. 23). But the apparent precision of the nineteen minutes is undermined by the fact that he does not start measuring his wait until about half an hour has already elapsed. The precise calculation made by Hivert as he waits for Emma to catch the coach to Rouen is similarly pointless: he gives up and drives off after exactly fifty-three minutes. Why fifty-three?

Flaubert's manner of describing the many clocks and watches that figure in the novel leaves us in no doubt that this kind of measurement of time is both artificial and suspect. The timepieces are highly ornate, overdecorated, visually elaborate; their function of telling the time has been eclipsed by their function as social symbols. The simple slate sundial in the garden at Tostes is soon 'improved' by Emma who surrounds it with garden seats and plans a fountain with ornamental fish (p. 30); the Bovarys' living-room at Tostes is dominated by 'une pendule à tête d'Hippocrate' (p. 30); 'les pendules Pompadour' feature in Emma's dreams of the vicomte (p. 53); in Rouen, she notices ladies wearing clusters of charms hanging from their watches, and so buys charms for her own watch (p. 57); all the notables at the agricultural fair have watches decorated with an oval cornelian seal dangling from a long ribbon (p. 131); the wig-maker has a cuckoo-clock (p. 222); in Emma and Léon's room in Rouen the clock is decorated with a simpering bronze Cupid clutching a gilded garland (p. 247); and when Emma makes her final visit to Rodolphe to plead for money and is told that he cannot afford to lend her any, her fury at the hypocrisy of his reply is roused by the sight of his Boule clock with its tortoiseshell inlay, and the expensive decorations, the breloques, that hang from his watch-chain (p. 289). This is bourgeois time, decorative and artificial, time as display, time as money.9 The function of these elaborate clocks and watches is not to tell the time—they never do—but instead to reflect the bourgeoisie's own image back at themselves: Hippocrates for the doctor, Cupid for the lovers, Boule and 'breloques' for the wealthy, and Pompadour as the emblem of Emma's dreams of passion and social advancement intertwined.10

The ultimate absurdity of this concept of time is found in Binet, obsessive in his habits, who always arrives for dinner on the stroke of six—'son pareil n'existe pas sur la terre pour l'exactitude' (p. 70). But later in the novel Binet has moved his mealtime forward by an hour, eating every night at precisely five o'clock but often grumbling that the clock is slow (p. 240). Not only is any rationale behind his obsessive time-keeping thrown into question when he arbitrarily switches from six to five, but the clock's role in the rigorous apportionment of time is also challenged: Binet's complaint that 'la vieille patraque retardait' highlights the inadequacy of clock-time as a means of imposing order on life.

Set against this, at the end of the novel, is a different and simpler approach to time—the pre-industrial time of la Mère Rollet, the wet-nurse. She has no clock or watch in her little cottage, and when Emma asks her the time she gets up from her spinning-wheel, goes outside, holds her fingers up to the light, and unhurriedly returns to tell Emma that it will soon be three o'clock (p. 285). La Mère Rollet has a natural, unforced experience of time which contrasts sharply with the narcissistic, 'bourgeois' time already described.

Also set against 'bourgeois' time, and making a nonsense of those attempts to measure time meticulously, is what one might call subjective time—time as it is felt, rather than time as it is measured.11 So, for example, when Charles returns to Les Bertaux for the first time since his first wife's death, 'Il retrouva tout comme la veille, comme il y avait cinq mois, c'est-à-dire' (p. 20)—five months have flashed by as if overnight. Elsewhere time has stretched rather than contracted. Waiting in la Mère Rollet's clockless cottage, Emma cannot tell 'si elle était là depuis un siècle ou une minute' (p. 286); and her memories of the ball at la Vaubyessard demonstrate a similar disorientation: 'Comme le bal déjà lui semblait loin! Qui donc écartait, à tant de distance, le matin d'avant-hier et le soir d'aujourd'hui? Son voyage à la Vaubyessard avait fait un trou dans sa vie, à la manière de ces grandes crevasses qu'un orage, en une seule nuit, creuse quelquefois dans les montagnes' (p. 53). Emma's sense of time is quite out of step with clock-time; it is repeatedly projected backwards, as she reminisces about her past or has dreams of living in the Middle Ages. At times she can imagine no future: 'L'avenir était un corridor tout noir, et qui avait au fond sa porte bien fermée' (p. 59). The everyday events of the village go on around her at a regular pace, slow and repeated like the bell that tolls throughout the novel, but Emma's inner time is erratic—either frenetic, flashing past without trace, or deathly slow.12 Unlike Emma, whose dreams send her back into an imaginary past or into nostalgic reminiscence, Homais tends to look towards the future. Virtually his first words in the novel are, 'Il faut marcher avec son siècle!' (p. 70). On the outing to the linen factory, it is he who holds forth about 'l'importance future de cet établissement' (p. 94), foreseeing the progress of industrialization, and it is he who has the vision of the future as a time when the blind will see, the deaf will hear, and the lame will walk—a prophecy which is of course ironically undermined by the ubiquitous blind beggar, and by the failure of the operation on Hippolyte's club foot. Indeed, Homais's vicious and sustained attack on the blind beggar at the end of the novel is an expression of his frustration at this living challenge to his perception of the future as progress: for Homais, the beggar is a throwback to 'ces temps monstrueux du moyen-âge, où il était permis aux vagabonds d'étaler par nos places publiques la lèpre et les scrofules qu'ils avaient rapportées de la croisade' (p. 319).

But Homais's and Emma's subjective and self-serving temporal projections are set against a very different concept of time represented by the beggar himself: time as natural, cyclical, eternal. His bawdy song tells metaphorically of a cycle of death and rebirth—ripe grain cut down by the scythe, Nanette stooping down to the furrowed earth from which new grain will spring. The cyclical continuum of 'natural' time runs through the novel in counterpoint to the linear and anguished personal senses of time which the main characters experience. For, of course, the story of Emma and Charles is embedded in the broader timescale of a repeated cycle of births, marriages and deaths. Seen from that perspective, Emma takes her place in a series of Madame Bovarys, and the title itself highlights the contrast between the self-absorption of Emma's viewpoint and the broad, inevitable continuum within which her life is set. Our awareness of a natural continuity is heightened by repeated references to the sound of the river which flows on in the background of many of the most dramatic episodes, and which continues its 'gros murmure [ . . . ] dans les ténèbres' (p. 306) after Emma's death.

Yet we are not allowed to find any consolation in this continuity. The symbolic river may always run on into the darkness, but much else is threatened. The long, placid description of Yonvilie in the first chapter of Part II suggests that this village which has stood since the Middle Ages is now approaching its end. 'Il n'y a plus [.. . ] rien à voir dans Yonville' (p. 68). The road stops dead, and the one path leads only to the cemetery. Nothing has changed since the events of the story took place, we are told, and Homais's collection of preserved foetuses still rot in their murky liquid (p. 68). That striking image seems to hint that the natural cycle of birth and death has collapsed in on itself and become corrupted and stagnant, just as the repeated cycle of Madame Bovarys finishes with the death of Charles's mother on the last page. Berthe can never be a Madame Bovary: the line has died out.

This counterpoint between continuity and collapse, between progress and stagnation, shows Flaubert exploring ideas about time whose implications stretch beyond the lives of his characters. Perhaps the most important of these concerns historical time—the all-pervasive presence of the historical past. References to the history of France, to past monarchs and vanished régimes, abound. But these references are always fleeting and partial, suggesting a history fragmented and debased. When Emma and her father are served a meal at the inn, it comes on plates depicting scenes from the life of Louise de La Vallière, mistress of Louis XIV, but the writing round the plate-rims offering reductive explanations of the pictures has been partly obliterated by the constant scraping of cutlery (p. 33). Flaubert's description of Emma's fascination with the past emphasizes the superficial, disconnected nature of her historical perception which reduces the history of France to a few idées reçues, and reinforces the emblematic value of these scratched dinner-plates as an image of the reduction and virtual obliteration of history:

Elle eut dans ce temps-là le culte de Marie Stuart et des vénérations enthousiastes à l'endroit des femmes illustres ou infortunées. Jeanne d'Arc, Héloïse, Agnès Sorel, la belle Ferronnière et Clémence Isaure, pour elle, se détachaient comme des comètes sur l'immensité ténébreuse de l'histoire, où saillissaient encore çà et là, mais plus perdus dans l'ombre et sans aucun rapport entre eux, saint Louis avec son chêne, Bayard mourant, quelques férocités de Louis XI, un peu de Saint-Barthélemy, le panache du Béarnais, et toujours le souvenir des assiettes peintes où Louis XIV était vanté.13 (p. 35)

This is one of the tragedies of Madame Bovary. History itself has become fragmented and erased; it vanishes into the 'immensité ténébreuse' of the past, leaving only isolated, incoherent details which are quickly reduced to platitudes. The history of France from the earliest times is evoked in this novel, but in a debased and splintered form. The names Homais gives his four children are emblematic of that process—Athalie, so called to evoke the French classical period; Irma, the romantic period; Napoléon, the Empire; and Franklin, the American republic.14 The disconnected, sentimental jumble of historical figures and events which crowd in on Emma during her craze for '[les] choses historiques' at the convent (p. 35) has its counterpart in the flurry of disparate and inappropriate historical allusions dotted throughout the text, ranging from the Empire and the Revolution to Diane de Poitiers (p. 225), Richard the Lion Heart (p. 226), Cincinnatus, Diocletian and the Emperors of China, and fading away into prehistory when men wore animal skins and lived on acorns (pp. 138-39). Elsewhere, history is reduced to a mere mouthful15 —the turban-shaped bread rolls which Homais buys for his wife evoke the time of the Crusades, for the rolls are said to be the 'dernier échantillon des nourritures gothiques, qui remonte peut-être au siècle des croisades, et dont les robustes Normands s'emplissaient autrefois, croyant voir sur la table [ . . . ] des têtes de Sarrasins à dévorer' (p. 277). In this example, any remaining shred of an historical allusion is further obscured by the determinedly industrial connotations of the rolls' name: cheminots. By the end of the novel Homais is distorting history for his own ends, evoking the Crusades and the Middle Ages in his campaign against the blind beggar, sycophantically comparing the king to Henri IV, and raising the spectre of the massacre of St Bartholemew's Day in protest against a small grant paid to the Church; 'Homais sapait; il devenait dangereux' (pp. 319-22). Flaubert thus makes it clear that when history is fragmented and reduced, and when all sense of chronology and historical perspective is ignored, the historical past dissolves into a jumble of elements, as incongruous as the juxtaposed images of one of Emma's keepsake pictures. Such a debased awareness of the past can contribute nothing to an understanding of the present or the future; furthermore, it is dangerous.

The most striking example of that danger is central to the novel—literally central, for the middle section of the middle chapter of the middle part contains M. Lieuvain's extraordinarily complacent speech in which he praises the government and 'notre souverain, [ . . . ] ce roi bien-aimé' in the most fulsome terms before declaring that civil unrest is now a thing of the past:

'Le temps n'est plus, messieurs, où la discorde civile ensanglantait nos places publiques, où le propriétaire, le négociant, l'ouvrier lui-même, en s'endormant le soir d'un sommeil paisible, tremblaient de se voir réveillés tout à coup au bruit des tocsins incendiaires [ . . . ] la religion, plus affermie, sourit à tous les cœurs: nos ports sont pleins, la confiance renaît, et enfin la France respire! . . .' (p. 133)

It is here that the gap between the novel's narrative time and the present time postulated at the beginning by the narrator is finally made clear. Emma's death is set in the last years of the July Monarchy,16 the novel first appeared in 1856, and so that temporal gap between the events of the novel and the 'maintenant' of the narrator is implicitly filled by the revolution of 1848 and its immediate aftermath.17 The conspicuous absence of explicit references to those events—an absence underlined by the fact that the significant dates of 'mardi 22 février 1848' and 'jeudi 4 décembre 1851' which appear in the early drafts have been omitted from the final version18 —subtly emphasizes their importance. The reader's awareness of the impending revolution and its consequences inevitably colours a reading of Madame Bovary, undermining Lieuvain's confident assertions about France's political stability just as knowledge of the subsequent destruction of Carthage colours the events of Salammbô and makes a mockery of those Carthaginians who, at the end of that work, feel that 'partout on sentait l'ordre rétabli, une existence nouvelle qui recommençait, un vaste bonheur épandu'. We read these novels from the ironic perspective of historical hindsight, for the gap between the events of both novels and our awareness of subsequent, devastating events highlights the danger of ignoring lessons from the past. In his first Education sentimentale Flaubert had written of the way in which the same ideas and the same crises periodically return in a chain of cause and effect so evident that it seems to have been planned in advance; he likens the whole historical process to a constantly developing organism which appears to work to a regular pattern.19 But for the characters of Madame Bovary there is no awareness of any such causal links between past, present and future.

Flaubert told the Goncourt brothers: 'J'aime l'histoire, follement. [ . . . ] Le sens historique .. . est peut-être ce que le XIXe siècle a de meilleur.'20 But as I have shown, the characters of Madame Bovary—even those most ready to evoke the great names of the past—are singularly lacking in 'sens historique'. Flaubert seems to suggest that we shall never be able to learn from the past or understand the present if, like them, we live in that superficial, narcissistic, 'bourgeois' time which I have described. If we do, we shall drift helplessly on like Emma, unable to salvage any sense from the past: 'aux fulgurations de l'heure présente', we are told, 'sa vie passée, si nette jusqu'alors, s'évanouissait tout entière, et elle doutait presque de l'avoir vécue' (p. 49). She is as unable to understand her own history as she is incapable of understanding the history of France. Past and future, dreams and memories merge and blur ('le passé, l'avenir, les réminiscences et les rêves, tout se trouvait confondu') (p. 219), and she has no firm points of reference.21 Emma can never learn, because she has no proper sense of time or history.22

After the Commune, Flaubert wrote of his contemporaries: 'Si l'on eût été plus éclairé, s'il y avait eu à Paris plus de gens connaissant l'histoire, nous n'aurions subi ni Gambetta, ni la Prusse, ni la Commune.'23 His value-laden presentation of time in Madame Bovary portrays a similarly flawed awareness of the past, and seems to hint that the revolution of 1848 and its violent aftermath might possibly have been avoided if only there had been 'plus de gens connaissant l'histoire'.


1Correspondance, ed. by J. Bruneau, Pléiade (Paris, Gallimard, 1973-), II (1980), 413. (24 August 1853, to Louis Bouilhet). Unless otherwise indicated, all references to Flaubert's correspondence are to this edition.

2Correspondance (Paris, Conard, 1926-33), VII (1930), 363 (4 December 1876, to Caroline).

3 E.g. 'je me méfie du temps [ . . . ] qui pourrit tout, comme la pluie qui ronge les marbres les plus durs et les sentiments les plus solides' (Corr. I, 402, November 1846, to Gertrude Collier); 'Le temps, les choses sont plus forts que nous.' (Corr. I, 268, 31 May 1846, to A. Le Poittevin); 'Il semble, à certains moments, que l'univers s'est immobilisé, que tout est devenu statue et que nous seuls, vivons' (Corr. II, 412, 24 August 1853, to L. Bouilhet); 'Ce qui prouve peut-être qu'on vieillit, c'est que le temps, à mesure qu'il y en a derrière vous, vous semble moins long' (Corr. II. 424, 2 September 1853, to L. Colet), etc.

4 Charles Carlut, Pierre H. Dubé, and J. Raymond Dugan, A Concordance to Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary', 2 vols (Garland, New York-London, 1978).

5 Jacques Seebacher, 'Chiffres, dates, écritures, inscriptions dans Madame Bovary', in La Production du sens chez Flaubert, colloque de Cerisy (10/18, Paris, 1975), pp. 286-96. In fact Caroline died on 22 March, not 23 March.

6 See C. Gothot-Mersch, 'Aspects de la temporalité dans les romans de Flaubert', in Flaubert, la dimension du texte, ed. by P. M. Wetherill (Manchester University Press, 1982), pp. 6-55. She points out that 'Si le père Bovary meurt à 58 ans, à une époque où Charles approache de la trentaine, le fils devait avoir 16 ans quand son pére, ruiné, s'est retiré à la campagne; or il semble bien qu'il n'était pas encore né' (p. 38).

7 Page numbers refer to Madame Bovary, ed. by E. Maynial (Paris, Garnier, 1961).

8 See Rosemary Lloyd, Madame Bovary (London, Unwin Hyman, 1990), pp. 130ff. for a discussion of the novel's temporal fluctuations and nesting techniques, which Lloyd sees as 'one of the means Flaubert uses to create an image of fragmented time, an image that intensifies the suggestion that existence is purposeless and directionless' (p. 131).

9 Note that Emma tries to give Lheureux her watch in lieu of payment (p. 184).

10 Cf. the Dictionnaire des Idées reçues entry: 'TROUBADOUR.—Beau sujet de pendule'.

11 Cf. Corr. I, 384 (10 October 1846, to L. Colet): 'Chacun de nous a dans le cœur un calendrier particulier d'après lequel il mesure le temps. Il y a des minutes qui sont des années, des jours qui marquent comme des siècles.'

12 See especially Part I, chapter 9.

13 This fragmentation and diminution of history in Emma's mind has another visual parallel in the description of the series of paintings of the ancestors of the marquis d'Andervilliers. The first two portraits are clear and have complete captions, but the remainder of the series is lost in the shadows. Here and there a patch of reflected light picks out a fragment—a pale forehead, the buckle of a garter on a rounded calf, a powdered wig—but these are isolated and disparate details which do not coalesce into a meaningful whole; they cannot be made sense of (p. 45).

14 Cf. the lack of temporal coherence in the funerary monument which Homais plans for Emma. First of all he suggests a broken pillar, then a pyramid, then a round Vestal temple, then a mock ruin, each to be accompanied by a weeping willow—moving randomly between ancient Egypt, classical Greece and Rome, and the romantic period (p. 320).

15 Cf. the 'puddings à la Trafalgar' served at La Vaubyessard (p. 49).

16 Roger Bismut and Jacques Seebacher place Emma's suicide in 1846, but Claudine Gothot-Mersch shows that 'la date de 1846 n'est pas sûre, puisqu'elle se fonde sur un 1843 douteux'. Art cit., pp. 44-46.

17 1848 is also subliminally present in Un cœur simple. Flaubert's notes for the story include a page of calculations comparing the ages of Mme Aubain, her children and Félicité at different stages of their lives; all the calculations converge in 1848, when Mme Aubain, Paul and Félicité are 71, 45, and 60 respectively. See Plans, notes et scénarios de 'Un cœur simple', ed. by F. Fleury (Rouen. Lecerf, 1977), p. 26 (fol. 387 ).

18 MS gg 223, 17606, fol. 139r ; 17610, 52r ; fol. 17610, fol. . 60r. See Gothot-Mersch, art. cit., p. 46.

19 See Flaubert, Œuvres complètes, ed. by B. Masson, 2 vols (Paris, Editions du Seuil, 1964), I. 356.

20Corr. III, 95 (3 July 1860, to E. and J. de Goncourt).

21 Contrast with Flaubert's own method in Chapter 6 of Bouvard et Pécuchet, where Flaubert refers to precise historical dates and well-known events, and gives coherence to his fiction by linking his characters to the 'moments reçus' of the unfolding Second Republic. See Jean-Luc Seylaz, 'Bouvard et Pécuchet ou l'Histoire au présent', in Etudes de Lettres, revue de la Faculté des Lettres, Université de Lausanne (1989.2), pp. 63-78.

22 Ironically, Emma and Charles are themselves subject to this process of vanishing into the past. After his wife's death we read that 'Bovary, tout en pensant à Emma continuellement, l'oubliait; et il se désespérait à sentir cette image lui échapper de la mémoire au milieu des efforts qu'il faisait pour la retenir' (p. 320), while of Charles himself we are told that 'il serait maintenant impossible à aucun de nous de se rien rappeler de lui' (p. 8).

23Corr. (Conard edition), VI (1930), 228 (29 April 1871, to G. Sand,).


Essays and Criticism