Friday, 15 February 2013

A Love Match

Madame Bovary is divided into three parts: the setting of the scene, the developing disaster and the final showdown. The first part can also be clearly divided into three sections. Chapters one to four set up the main theme and the starting point for the tragedy that is to follow. Chapters five to seven delve into Emma's character and provide a psychological background that make her actions plausible and convincing. Chapters eight and nine provide the trigger and the build-up for the catastrophe.

It is clear early on that this novel is about marriage. There are several portraits of marriage in the opening chapters which culminate in Charles and Emma's wedding.

The Bovarys, Charles's parents, have a marriage based on economic considerations. "His father, Monsieur Charles Denis Batholome Bovary, retired assistant-surgeon-major, compromised about 1812 in certain conscription scandals, and forced at this time to leave the service, had then taken advantage of his fine figure to get hold of a dowry of sixty thousand francs that offered in the person of a hosier's daughter who had fallen in love with his good looks." (Part 1, Chapter 1)

Emma's parents, on the other hand, seem to have married out of love. Monsieur Rouault describes to Charles his sorrow when his wife died (Part 1, Chapter 3) and remembers fondly how he carried his new wife away from her father after their wedding (Part 1, Chapter 4).

Charles Bovary married his first wife Heloise, because his mother told him to. It was part of the course she had set for his life:

"But it was not everything to have brought up a son, to have had him taught medicine, and discovered Tostes, where he could practice it; he must have a wife. She found him one - the widow of a bailiff at Dieppe, who was forty-five and had an income of twelve hundred francs. Though she was ugly, as dry as a bone, her face with as many pimples as the spring has buds, Madame Dubuc had no lack of suitors.  To attain her ends Madame Bovary had to oust them all, and she even succeeded in very cleverly baffling the intrigues of a pork-butcher backed up by the priests." (Part 1, Chapter 1).

This description of Charles's first marriage is almost slap-stick. It is funny, but it is also outrageous. Charles's mother schemes to secure an apparently wealthy, respectable wife for him. Madame Dubuc is considerably older than Charles, but clearly there is no attempt here to match personalities or interests. Madame Bovary gives no consideration to grandchildren either. Charles is her only son, and yet Madame Dubuc is a little old to start a family. Financial matters and social appearances are clearly paramount, possibly also Madame Bovary's desire to continue to reign supreme in her son's life.

Madame Dubuc is ugly with pimples - whose opinion is this? The narrator is extremely rude about poor Heloise Dubuc here. It is already clear that the third person narrator is not very sympathetic towards any of the characters, but this would appear to go even beyond calling a spade a spade. Charles's first marriage can be read as criticism of the unpleasant and greedy tradition of arranging bourgeois marriages according to matters of property rather than matters of the heart. It is also a comment on parents' eagerness in securing marriages for their children without considering the desires or inclinations of their offspring.

Emma and Charles's relationship develops against the background of these three marriages (Bovarys', Rouaults' and Charles and Heloise's). Charles's feelings for Emma are given a boost by her contrast with his wife: "And then the widow was thin, she had long teeth ..." (Part 1, Chapter 2). Again this is the narrator speaking from Charles's point of view and being quite horrible about Heloise. As long as this is indirect speech and Charles is thinking about his wife, this is funny. If this is the narrator expressing his own view, this is disturbing - a narrator this brutal and unsympathetic is hardly reliable. There is slippage in the narrative voice: mostly it remains within a character's point of view - describing the action and the world from a specific character's perspective. But there are moments when the narrator seems to step outside of the confines of a single character. The narrator in Madame Bovary hides within characters, but occasionally his passion gets the better of him and he breaks cover to reveal himself. This is something to keep an eye on while reading.

Charles meets Emma while attending to M. Rouault's broken leg. He admires her physically; her fingers; her nails; her throat, her lips (Part 1, Chapters 2 and 3). The narrative follows Charles's gaze. He even notes the perspiration on her bare shoulders - a physical detail you would perhaps not expect to see in a 19th-century novel (Part 1, Chapter 3). Charles is besotted, and Heloise drops dead soon after she has realized that Charles is in love with Emma (Part 1, Chapter 2).   

In these chapters before the wedding, it is not clear what feelings Emma has for Charles. In fact, we know very little about her. We know she cannot sew (Part 1, Chapter 2) and that her father thinks that she is "of no use to him in the house" (Part 1, Chapter 3). In addition, we only know what she has told Charles: she went to a convent school and her mother is dead. There is a slight indication of her nature in her comments about longing to live in town and being weary of the country (Part 1, Chapter 3).

Sex is very much present in the novel, just under the surface. Charles's eyes feast on Emma's beauty (Part 1, Chapter 3), physical contact makes a strong impression on them both (Part 1, Chapter 2). At the wedding "a fishmonger, one of their cousins (...), began to squirt water from his mouth through the keyhole."(Part 1, Chapter 4). He is quickly stopped by M. Rouault because "the distinguished position of his son-in-law would not allow of such liberties." (Ibid.)  We may not be familiar with this French country tradition, but the gesture is suggestive enough for us to see its meaning.

The morning after the wedding night Charles is blissful and the narrator is extremely outspoken in his comments: "he seemed another man. It was he who might rather have been taken for the virgin of the evening before, whilst the bride gave no sign that revealed anything. The shrewdest did not know did not know what to make of it, and they looked at her when she passed near them with an unbounded concentration of mind. But Charles concealed nothing." (Part 1, Chapter 4)

The first few chapters of Madame Bovary set up the central topic of marriage. The narrative seems to criticize marriage based on financial considerations and shows us Charles and Emma as a couple who marry for love. This should be a recipe for 'happy ever after' but there are some ominous signs in the air. Emma is still very much an enigma. We know Charles to be a simple soul very much in love, but we know hardly anything about her and nothing about her feelings for Charles. This is a good hook for the reader: we want to know how Charles and Emma will get on.

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