Friday, 8 February 2013

Indications of Madame's Sensational Nature

Further assessing the sensational potential of Madame Bovary, two factors speak in its favour: the famous trial and Flaubert's own stated aspirations about his writing.

In January 1857, soon after the publication of Madame Bovary in La Revue de Paris, Flaubert was hauled to court by the police, accused of obscenity. The novel was "an affront to decent comportment and religious morality," or as puts it, "the novel challenged public mores, blasphemed against the Church by trying to justify the mortal sin of adultery, and included provocative images intermingled with religious affairs, therefore promoting the concept of a fictional utopia devoid of decency and moral values." Crucially, Madame Bovary depicted Emma as enjoying her infidelity. Flaubert's novel, Ernest Pinard, the Imperial Prosecutor argued, would drive its female readers to adultery, liberating them to do whatever they wanted. This was a dangerous, novel oozing with corruption.

Flaubert could not see anything offensive in his novel. And the published version had already been censored by the editor of La Revue de Paris. The outrageous scene of Emma consummating her affair with Leon during the long cab ride in Rouen (Part III, Chapter 1) had been left out. The trial turned out to be an excellent publicity stunt. It has been said that Flaubert enjoyed it and pretty much brought it about as he publicized his work by complaining about La Revue's censorship.

Flaubert was acquitted 7 February, 1857, after a plea by Marie-Antoine Jules Senard (a lawyer, politician and a family friend to whom the novel is dedicated) arguing that the character flaws so evident in Emma Bovary, together with her unhappiness and miserable end, quite to the contrary, work to confirm and support moral values. Madame Bovary was published in book form in April 1857. During the trial Ernest Pinard had been very impressed by Flaubert's writing, and he went on to pen pornographic poems. Is this evidence of Madame Bovary's corrupting power? (This detail comes from "In Our Time" episode on Madame Bovary broadcast on BBC Radio 4 on Thu 12 July 2007 and available on the internet.)

In her review of the novel in The Guardian (27 July 2002) A. S Byatt refers to Flaubert's letter to his lover Louise Colet (Flaubert's love letters to her are famous and often plagiarized by less creative lovers): "he wanted to make the reader feel his world 'almost physically'..." Flaubert also said that Madame Bovary was "a novel about nothing." This has been interpreted to mean that the story and the moral message were not what interested him in this work; the novel was an exercise in style and skill of writing. He could take the most boring topic - a country doctor and his adulterous wife - a petty bourgeois tragedy so common and tedious they are thirteen to a dozen - and turn it into a narrative so great and powerful that it would make the audience gasp and tremble, call the police and drag the author to court.

A trial for obscenity shows that the novel certainly lit a fire under some trouser-seats. Flaubert's primary aspiration to write in order to affect his readers and to give them 'almost' physical sensations, rather than to make a political or a moral point with his narrative, suggests that he aimed for something literally sensational.

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