Madame Bovary Part 2 : Pessimism and Perspective

I concluded Part 1 of my exploration of Madame Bovary with a quote that points to disgust as the reaction that Flaubert might have intended with Madame Bovary. From what I’ve read about Flaubert, the sentiments in that quote were not a momentary frustration but a pervasive outlook on society.

In The Perpetual Orgy, Llosa points to another pinnacle declaration from Flaubert in which he stated,

The one way of tolerating existence is to lose oneself in literature as in a perpetual orgy.”

image of FlaubertFlaubert truly lived by that anecdote.  Letters quoted by Llosa throughout the book indicate that writing truly was a means of existing in the world for Flaubert.  He had great disdain for the clichés and superficialities of the bourgeoisie and his unapologetic portrayal of the likes of Emma and other characters in Madame Bovary may have been, not just a means of carrying on, but also perhaps a little revenge on society.

One of the criticisms of Madame Bovary when it was first published and one of the reasons it went to trial was because, on top of its scandalous nature, it didn’t seem to contain a good, wholesome moral that readers could take away from it.  Apparently people liked for their novels to show that good will prevail and evil will be punished – but that’s simply not true.  Flaubert wanted to portray truth.  That’s where the realism comes in.  Llosa points out that in the years after Flaubert, realism became synonymous with realistic detail such as exhaustive descriptions of nature or domestic landscapes.  But that’s not the realism of Flaubert.  Flaubert’s realism is more human; an effort to show life as it really is rather than an idealized or romanticized version of it.  Flaubert seems to be more concerned with reflecting society as he saw it, rather than trying to teach something.  Moralizing was not his intention, it seems;

That’s how humanity is; the task at hand is not to change it, but to know it,”

-Letter May 18, 1857, (Flaubert’s italics)

Life is tough and unfair and everything does not always turn out okay in the end.  Villains are not always caught, evil is not always punished, scoundrels are not always avenged or redeemed, and good does not always triumph.  People do and say sinister and selfish things and get away with it.

Another aspect of Flaubert’s realism is his elevation of the commonplace. Llosa pointed out that romantic novels written prior to Madame Bovary exalted the extremes – exploring either extreme beauty or extreme horror.  What Flaubert elevates in Madame Bovary is the middle ground between the abhorrence of Quasimodo and the allure of Esmerelda, exalting instead the non-extraordinary and the mundane.  Flaubert believed that unlike the subjects of Romanticism, plebeian subjects more accurately reflected the human experience.

To deny the existence of lukewarm sentiments because they are lukewarm is to deny the sun if it isn’t high noon.  There is as much truth in half-tones as in violent colors”

-Letter, Dec. 11, 1846

Rather than exploring great tragedy or misfortune, Flaubert delves into the multitude of small circumstances that can pool together to equal happiness or defeat.  It’s true that Emma Bovary is a tragic character, but it isn’t tragedy that causes her downfall, it’s the collection of “lukewarm sentiments” and seemingly insignificant occurrences.

It is not great misfortunes that make for unhappiness, not strokes of great good fortune that make for happiness, but the fine and impalpable fabric of a thousand banal happenstances, a thousand dull details that go to make up a life of radiant calm or of infernal agitation.”

-Letter, Mar. 20, 1847

Flaubert treats those “banal happenstances” as though they were every bit as delicate and artistic as the innately sublime. He took five painstaking years to write Madame Bovary, giving meticulous attention to individual words and sentences.  He grants the ordinary the awe and reverence usually reserved for the magnificent.

It was once thought that only sugar cane gave sugar.  Today it is extracted from almost anything; it is the same with poetry.  Let us extract it from anything, it doesn’t matter what, for it lies in everything everywhere: there’s not an atom of matter that does not contain thought; and let us get used to the idea of regarding the world as a work of art whose procedures we must reproduce in our works.”

-Letter Mar. 27, 1853

Where the romantics focused on subject and the qualities inherent in the subject, Flaubert concentrated on form and style, believing that how one treated their subject was more important than the subject itself.

That is why there are neither noble or ignoble subjects and why, from the standpoint of pure Art, one might almost establish it as an axiom that there is no such thing as a subject, style being in and of itself an absolute manner of seeing things.”

-Letter Jan. 16, 1852

In essence, Flaubert postulated that through style one could breathe life into ordinary experiences.  When writing to another author on their investigation of the ordinary, Flaubert writes:

And to me that is the true mark of strength in literature.  Commonplaces are put to use only by imbeciles or by geniuses.  Mediocre natures avoid them; they seek out the exceptional, the highs and lows.”

This is what I think is so interesting about Flaubert – he had this disdain for humanity juxtaposed by a perfectionist’s attention to detail to create beauty within it.  This idea that a man could “feel waves of hatred that suffocate me” and still believe that poetry “lies in everything everywhere” is a bit perplexing.  But that very paradox is what endears Madame Bovary to me and makes me want to take my time with it in an effort to understand it as best I can.

The creation of beauty and humanity with the absence of sentimentality never fails to impress me.  Flaubert was ruthless in his portrayal of the harsh turns that life can take, but at the same time, he did not unload all that contempt on his characters as individuals.  Emma’s character was fraught with blemishes and her fate is tragic but he treated her compassionately.  He gives us a reason to sympathize with her; he exposes her inner world like a buffet in front of us and in some ways we can’t help but see ourselves in some little dish that she offers up.

By the end, we feel like we know Emma inside and out.  She’s drawn in a way that allows us to see her flaws and be frustrated (and at times maddened) by them but also to feel pity for her and even identify with her.  As repulsed as Flaubert must have been by the facet of society that she stood for, he didn’t seem to forget that she still represented human beings.  If we look closely at the people in our lives both in reality and in fiction / entertainment, we can see little remnants of Emma Bovary everywhere.

With that thought I think I have landed on what I truly love about Madame Bovary and what I think makes it great.  It seems that Flaubert had very strong and passionate opinions, but unlike those narrators who tend to persuade the audience in one direction or another, Flaubert was adamant that as much as possible, his judgments should be kept out of the narration.

I don’t even believe that the novelist should express his opinion concerning the things of the world.  He may communicate it, but I am not in favor of his stating it.”

-Letter Aug. 10, 1868 (p.191)

We might indeed turn the last page of Madame Bovary with bit of nauseous loathing, but if this book was indeed a means of revenge for Flaubert, he exacted it humanely, without speaking in absolutes, and without being oppressive or moralizing. Instead, he holds up Madame Bovary and her world like a mirror to his society and now to ours.

It’s remarkable how the experience of reading Madame Bovary can be such a deceptively simple and frivolous indulgence and yet there is so much that can be extracted from it.

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logoRead Part 1 : Emma

Stay tuned for Part 3 on Flaubert’s narrative style