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 curÄ— 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.

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.

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.

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.