Thursday, 18 April 2013
Flaubert's writing is thrilling
The secret of the sensational power of Madame Bovary is Flaubert's superb writing. I said at the beginning that I was not interested in his quality of writing, his pernickety insistence of finding just the right word or his celebrated position as a towering figure in the development of the modern novel. I did not care if it took him four years to write Madame Bovary and sometimes several days to write a single sentence. But quite frankly, I was wrong. Good writing is thrilling. Although Madame Bovary is a 'sensation novel' because of its melodramatic story of adultery, financial collapse and suicide, what makes it truly sensational is the way this story is presented from a point of view integral to the story and its characters.
In her Beginner's Guide to French Literature (2011), Carol Clerk highlights two techniques Flaubert uses in his realist narrative: free indirect speech and characters' point of view at looking at the world around them.
To reel us in, Flaubert's narrative shows us characters act, talk and think. It is left to the reader to figure out the internal life of the characters and their motivations. This gives the narrative a hook: the actions, words and thoughts of the characters become clues for us to piece the whole characters together. This is both engaging and rewarding, it fires up the imagination. It demonstrates superbly the golden rule of good writing: 'show, don't tell.'
Part of this method of leaving the reader to draw her own conclusions is the apparent lack of judgment in the narrative. The narrator does not express an opinion about the events. Flaubert's probably most famous quote comes from one of his letters to Louise Colet: "An author in his book must be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere." The narrator passing judgment would be too much like God showing his hand.
Emma is contradictory, she dotes on Berthe and pushes her away; she tries to feel something for Charles, she loathes him; she wants to be loved by Rodolphe and she decided to be a good wife; she dabbles with religion then rejects it. Her behaviour is illogical, her emotions are messy and sometimes contradictory. This is a risky strategy for an author to adopt: a fictional character should have continuity and her actions should have an internal logic. Otherwise the reader will struggle to believe and the character will have no depth, no sense of being real. Flaubert manages to do the very opposite. Emma's erratic emotional states, her toing-and-froing in her marriage, her failed attempts at piety and virtue, all add up to build a portrait of a young woman in turmoil. She comes across as a character with a shallow nature and hidden depths.
Madame Bovary is sensational because it makes readers understand and accept the roots of Emma's adultery and profligacy. The narrative works hard to show us the world and life from Emma's point of view. We understand her motivations, we see her as a victim of her own imagination and we do not judge her morals. We may think her silly, provincial, selfish, but we do not think her unnaturally wicked or evil. She is, above all, natural - acting according to her own nature.
There is no simple message or moral to be gleaned from Madame Bovary. This is why it has stood the test of time and is still good reading today. But nevertheless, it is still commenting on its own time and society.Many have interpreted Emma Bovary as a model of a middle-class woman of the nineteenth-century: bound with the ties of social norms to home and motherhood, and above all lethally bored. She can be seen as a proto-feminist character pursuing her own dream and chafing against the constraints of society. It can also be argued that Madame Bovary gives expression to Flaubert's own frustrations with the middle-class society and his dislike of the high bourgeoisie of the mid-19th-century France. God may not be so invisible in his universe after all.