Friday, 15 February 2013

Charles's Cap

Madame Bovary opens with a scene of Charles as the "new fellow" in the school and the third person narrator seemingly present in the class as one of the pupils. Charles's cap is described in excruciating detail:

"It was one of those headgears of composite order, in which we can find traces of bearskin, shako, billycock hat, sealskin cap, and cotton nightcap; one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile's face. Oval, stiffened with whalebone, it began with three round knobs; then came in succession lozenges of velvet and rabbit-skin separated by a red band; after that a sort of bag that ended in a cardboard polygon covered with a complicated braiding, from which hung, at the end of a long thin cord, small twisted gold threads in the manner of a tassel. The cap was new; its peak shone." (Part 1, Chapter 1)

This description brings up three points about Madame Bovary. First, it is French, provincial and mid-nineteenth century. Some details are beyond the modern reader without the help of some research: what is "shako" or a "billycock hat"? (A shako is a military hat shaped like a bucket with a small visor and usually draped in golden braids and tassels; a billycock hat is also called a derby and similar to the bowler hat.) There are references to customs, traditions and contemporary events in the novel that leave today's reader amused and baffled. As we may not understand every reference in the narrative, we may not be shocked by the same things as original readers of Madame Bovary. What maybe was sensational then, no longer makes our heart beat faster. Also, what was commonplace then may seem absolutely outrageous to us. In this way Charles's cap is at the heart of this blog: I may not know what shako, and billycock hat are, but does the description of the hat still have the effect on me Flaubert wanted to create?

The hat is clearly ridiculous and by detailing it so carefully, the narrator makes Charles appear ridiculous, too. This is the second point about the cap: it seems to indicate the character of its owner. Charles is awkward, large, listens carefully absorbing influences from his environment like his cap, until in the end both the man and his headgear are a hotch-potch of others' opinions and views. Maybe the narrator wants us to see Charles, too, as "one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile's face." The narrative, so Charles's cap indicates, uses inanimate objects and landscapes to give us information about the internal workings of the characters. The detailed descriptions of things in Madame Bovary are significant not only in order to give verisimilitude and make the world of the novel appear more real, but there is deeper meaning and symbolism in them.

The first page of Madame Bovary establishes the narrative style: this is 'show not tell'. Charles's appearance, demeanour and behaviour are observed minutely. His gestures, expressions, details of his clothing are recorded. We are not in Charles's head; we do not hear his thoughts. The narrator studies him closely like he is an object of scientific examination. Charles appears almost as a dumb animal who cannot be expected to explain his own thoughts and emotions; these can only be detected by observing him carefully. 

Chapter 1 of Madame Bovary charts the development of Charles Bovary, this sample case of French provincial bourgeoisie. We come to understand his nature, his psychological make-up from the recounting of his childhood, education and first marriage. We put him together from pieces of his past life, just like his cap is pieced together from different materials. This is the third point about the cap: Charles's cap can be read as a metaphor for the whole narrative method of Madame Bovary. The narrator will not explain, will not analyze, will not preach a moral point. He will present the pieces and we can put them together and draw our own conclusions.

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