Friday, 22 February 2013
The Undefinable Uneasiness
The Bovarys' house in Tostes and its garden are described in detail, with a bridle hanging by the door, badly hung canary-yellow wallpaper and the smells of the kitchen and noises of the consulting room mingling through the walls. In Charles's consulting room medical dictionaries stand "uncut, but the binding rather worse for the successive sales through which they had gone" (Part 1, Chapter 5), and in the garden "Right at the bottom, under the spruce bushes, was a curė in plaster reading his breviary." Even the outbuildings are included: "Then, opening on the yard, where the stable was, came a large dilapidated room with a stove, now used as wood-house, cellar, and pantry, full of old rubbish, of empty casks, agricultural implements past service, and a mass of dusty things whose use it was impossible to guess." (Ibid.)
Some details seem to give a specific message: the uncut, second-hand medical volumes indicate Charles's lack of ambition, while religion in the form of a plaster-priest has been banished to the bottom of the garden. The untidy outhouses, which are never mentioned again in the novel, reflect the general nature of the inhabitants: cluttered with random items from the past, piling up inside. Emma fills her head with romantic imaginings from fiction and religion, Charles is easily persuaded to accept others' opinions and follow their advice. The "mass of dusty things" can also be read as an indication of trouble: the respectable house of the country doctor harbours chaos inside. The description of the house opening chapter 5 is technically similar to Charles's cap at the beginning of the novel: there is so much material detail that you are pretty much forced to read meaning into it.
Charles is besotted with his new wife: "He was happy then, and without a care in the world. A meal together, a walk in the evening on the high road, a gesture of her hands over her hair, the sight of her straw hat hanging from the window-fastener, and many another thing in which Charles had never dreamed of pleasure, now made up the endless round of his happiness." (Part 1, Chapter 5) Charles's sense of portly contentment is very well written: "his heart full of the joys of the past night, his mind at rest, his flesh at ease, he went on, re-chewing his happiness, like those who after dinner taste again the truffles which they are digesting." (Ibid.) Charles is not only in love, he is also enjoying the physical side of his marriage. "For him the universe did not extend beyond the circumference of her petticoat." (Ibid.) His whole world is lodged within Emma's undergarments.
Emma's feelings are more complicated; "Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken." (Ibid.) With this little sentence Flaubert opens a whole chasm of writhing serpents; it has all been a horrible mistake, and Charles's happiness just established in the narrative with such glowing terms is doomed. How could Emma have been so mistaken and so fundamentally misunderstood her own feelings?
Let's blame convent schooling and romantic fiction. In a couple pages Flaubert traces a sentimental education that turned a girl with a vivid imagination into an air-head full of romantic and esoteric nonsense. Emma enters the convent at thirteen and is soon lost in the perfumed folds of its spiritual world. She is drawn to dramatic images of the Catholic faith: "she loved the sick lamb, the sacred heart pierced with sharp arrows, or the poor Jesus sinking beneath the cross he carries." (Part 1, Chapter 6) She tries to take part: mortify her flesh by not eating for a whole day, "find some wow to fulfill," invent "little sins" to confess. Unsurprisingly, sexual and romantic notions embedded in the religion affect the mind of the adolescent girl: "The comparisons of betrothed, husband, celestial lover, and eternal marriage, that recur in sermons, stirred within her soul depths of unexpected sweetness." (Ibid.)
The narrative sums up Emma's nature: "She loved the sea only for the sake of its storms, and the green fields only when broken up by ruins. She wanted to get some personal profit out of things, and she rejected as useless all that did not contribute to the immediate desires of her heart, being of a temperament more sentimental than artistic, looking for emotions, not landscapes." (Part 1, Chapter 6). She is a seeker of sensations. She longs to have her blood stirred and her skin tingled.
And there is nothing better than sensational fiction to offer that thrill. At the convent, every week there is a visit from a woman with a romantic past and apron pockets bursting with romantic novels. She is a member of "an ancient family of noblemen ruined by the Revolution" who comes to mend the linen. Flaubert gives a brilliant summary of the kinds of novels this lady "swallowed" herself and lent to the girls in the convent:
"They were all love, lovers, sweethearts, persecuted ladies fainting in lonely pavilions, postilions killed at every stage, horses ridden to death on every page, sombre forests, heartaches, vows, sobs, tears and kisses, little skiffs by moonlight, nightingales in shady groves, 'gentlemen' brave as lions, gentle as lambs, virtuous as no one ever was, always well dressed, and weeping like fountains. For six months then, Emma, at fifteen years of age, made her hands dirty with books from old lending libraries." (Part 1, Chapter 6)
This was the stuff that filled Emma's head: a high dosage of sensational romance and mystery. This world of fiction filtered into real life in "keepsakes" her friends brought back from their holidays. These little tokens of friendship are signed by counts or viscounts, and illustrated with a hotchpotch of exotic and romantic images of English ladies, kissing doves and Sultans. Flaubert is having fun here, too: they tend to contain "especially, pale landscapes of dithyrambic lands, that often show us at once palm-trees and firs, tigers on the right, a lion to the left, Tartar minarets on the horizon; the whole framed by a neat virgin forest, and with a great perpendicular sunbeam trembling in the water, where, standing out as if etched in white on steel-grey ground, swans are swimming about." (Ibid.)
Emma looks at "these pictures of the world" with "dazzled eyes." This is her education. Emma's mother dies. She cries a little and quickly wearies of mourning for her. The nuns realize that she was "slipping from them," and Emma returns home with her father. Very soon she gets tired with the life on the farm and even longs for the convent.
Now it makes more sense why she married Charles and why she feels so let down after their marriage: "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 the wondrous passion which, till then, like a great bird with rose-coloured wings, hung in the splendour of the skies of poesy; and now she could not think that the calm in which she lived was the happiness she had dreamed." (Part 1, Chapter 6)
Emma tries hard to make the marriage work for her: "in accord with theories she believed right, she wanted to make herself in love with him. By moonlight in the garden she recited all the passionate rhymes she knew by heart, and, sighing, sang to him many melancholy adagios; but she found herself as calm after this as before, and Charles seemed no more amorous and no more moved." (Part 1, Chapter 7).
Emma is not only romantically but also sexually frustrated: "she persuaded herself without difficulty that Charles's passion was nothing very exorbitant. His outbursts became regular; he embraced her at certain fixed times. It was one habit among other habits, and, like a dessert, looked forward to after the monotony of dinner." (Ibid.)
The Bovarys do not click as a couple. Neither is to blame, it seems; the narrator is equally unsympathetic towards both. "But as the intimacy of their life became deeper, the greater became the gulf that separated her from him." (Ibid.) Feeling "undefinable uneasiness" (Part 1, Chapter 7), unable to confide in anyone, Emma goes for a walk with her greyhound. The dog Djali links her real life to her romantic notions: greyhounds were featured in the "keepsakes." (see quote above). Slowly her swirling thoughts galvanize into one question: "Why did I marry him?" (Ibid.) Why indeed?
The Marquis's ball brings on a crisis. It gives Emma a glimpse into the fashionable world of the aristocracy: young ladies pass surreptitious notes to well-dressed gentlemen; servants break window panes to let fresh air into the heated rooms; peasants stand outside gazing in at the wonderment of the frolicking rich. (Part 1, Chapter 8). While Emma waltzes in the arms of a viscount, Charles stands by the cards table for five hours solid because Emma has forbidden him to dance, and finally he falls asleep propped up against a door (Part 1, Chapter 8). The narrative is constructed very cleverly from Emma's point of view. We see the ball through her eyes, and we observe her reactions. Not once do we hear her thoughts, but it is clear from her actions how she feels and what she is thinking (her admiration of the gentlefolk, her embarrassment with Charles).
Afterwards, Emma's mind lingers on the ball, she counts days from it. Her memory of the waltzing viscount mixes with her reading of fiction: "the memory of the viscount always returned when she read." (Part 1, Chapter 9) She dreams of Paris and gets a map of the city to trace imaginary walks in its streets. Dreams and reality are beginning to overlap in Emma's life. Emma grows listless, she loses interest. "She wished at the same time to die and live in Paris." (Part 1, Chapter 9) She is in limbo: "the same series of days recommenced. So now they would thus follow one another, always the same, innumerable, and bringing nothing. 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 fast." (Part 1, Chapter 9).
Flaubert describes Emma's incapacitating boredom extremely well. We can feel her restless pain. "She lent her head against the walls and to weep; she envied stirring lives; longed for masked balls, for violent pleasures, with all the wildness that she did not know, but that these must surely yield." (Ibid.). The walls are caving in on Emma, she is desperate for some release, for something to happen, even is she is not quite sure what it is. Her life has become unbearable. Whether we think her capricious and selfish (which she undoubtedly is), we feel what she feels. We have all been there in our own lives; the same strong emotions are in every toddler who throws a temper-tantrum. This is not to belittle Emma's predicament but to argue that is very human, something most of us are familiar with.
At the trial for Madame Bovary it was argued that the novel showed the unhappiness and social mayhem that would be caused if women were educated beyond their station: a country doctor's wife with a head full of romantic nonsense about aristocratic lovers and a fashionable life was a disaster waiting to happen.
Even if we judge Emma's romantic longings silly and unrealistic, we still recognize her "undefinable uneasiness" as a legitimate and plausible reaction to being trapped in a deeply unsatisfying marriage, no matter how sweet we think Charles is. Emma entered the marriage with the best of intentions and she made an effort to make it work. But it is clear now that Emma will pay dearly for her mistake. The Marquis's ball creates "a hole in her life, like one of those great crevasses that a storm will sometimes make in one night in mountains." (Part 1, Chapter 8). Part 1 of Madame Bovary is a big build up and the story is primed for disaster.