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/Review: Madame Bovary - Edit 2

Before modification by Legolas at 22/01/2011 04:55:16 PM

Reading Madame Bovary in French was, on balance, a good idea. There were more words that I did not recognize than in other French authors, primarily because Flaubert uses very vivid descriptions that are precise in their detail, and because he will at times enumerate various types of objects. He names the types of flowers and trees and carriages and almost never uses generic terms for them. In addition to the wealth of equestrian terms in particular, there were enough pieces of Normandy jargon (sometimes explained in the notes, sometimes not) that occasionally I was unable to find the word in the massive Oxford-Hachette Dictionary that I have.

However, after the first sixty pages or so I had looked up all the words I needed and the novel flowed the way it should. It was then that I began to notice just how spiteful, cynical and mean-spirited Flaubert was being. I understand that he wrote about the country around Rouen, his home town, and that he was filled with contempt for the “provincials”. I can to a certain extent appreciate the elitism of his commentary generally. However, his contempt runs far deeper.

There are, quite simply, no heroes in Madame Bovary. There are no “good” people. Charles is an awkward, disgusting man who is extremely stupid. He becomes corpulent and this fact makes his eyes look beady, he knows absolutely nothing of the world and he nearly kills the servant at the local inn when he is convinced to try, as an obscure local medical officer (not even a doctor), to “cure” clubfoot, when the medical experts of the time knew of no cure. The neighboring pharmacist, Homais, is a would-be intellectual who really is quite stupid and vulgar himself, but he tries to hide his stupidity behind a veneer of learning just thick enough to fool those around him. The merchant, Lheureux, is a duplicitous, avaricious manipulator who intentionally pushes Emma and her husband ever deeper into debt, pretending to be their friend, and that the debt is not going to be enforced against them without mitigation, until the moment when he is ready to strike and seize their assets. Emma’s lovers are an indifferent playboy (Rodolphe) and a weak, indecisive notarial student (Léon). Emma herself is a vapid woman who lives in dreams, and solely in dreams, unable to reconcile them with any set of realities. Whether she is in the ecstasies of religion (at the convent and then following Rodolphe`s abandonment of her), or living in a world of Tristan and Yseult, of sultans and odalisques, and the attendant adultery and star-crossed love, she ignores the gross realities around her, from the flies dying in the kitchen when Charles meets her to the disgusting banality of Rouen and the carriage-ride to and from Rouen. Even her suicide is envisioned by her as a beautiful, tragic gesture but becomes an agonizing, gross farce. The only person one can truly feel sorry for is little Berthe, who we are told in the last lines of the book, is forced to work in a cotton mill following the deaths of her parents.

It seems that Flaubert has a general contempt for humanity. Yes, he has a more sarcastic tone when talking about the simple people of Yonville. The abbé, Bournisien, is a petty man who ignores his parishioners and gets drunk when he can. The townspeople are crude. Poor Catherine Leroux (or rather, Catherine-Nicaise-Élisabeth Leroux) is described as having clothing so dirty that even after she’s just cleaned it she is embarrassed to go up to the stage at the agricultural fair to claim her prize. Moreover, Flaubert’s description of the Leroux scene implies that he derived a certain level of enjoyment from this level of human misery.

There are some comic moments – the scene with Catherine Leroux is part of a larger scene where Emma and Rodolphe are flirting with one another, discussing the heavenly beauty of soulmates finding one another, all while the mayor is shouting out at the top of his lungs in the square below prizes for sheep and pigs and cows at the agricultural fair, interrupting their “elevated” discourse. When Emma and Léon begin their affair, their carriage rolls around Rouen aimlessly for hours on end because they couldn’t even wait to “get a room”, as they say.

Moreover, Flaubert does seem to enjoy scenes of nature. When he describes the natural world – the hedges of Normandy, the elm trees, the expansive vistas of fields and clouds, the rainstorms and the snows of winter – he genuinely waxes poetic. By contrast, every description of a city or town contains banal and even grotesque elements and an element of disgust or contempt. It is as though he is finding in nature the sort of escape that Emma seeks in the world of the tragic romances. He even alludes to this when describing Emma’s penchant for dreaming that, had she not been born in the country but in the city, she might have yearned for the beauty of nature and the bucolic idyll.

When I read Le Rouge et Le Noir by Stendhal, I concluded that I would sum the entire book up with one word: le mépris (contempt). Stendhal used that word on almost every page and it seemed to be the driving force of Julien Sorel, the only constant in his changing desires and goals. However, I think that the word is as applicable, if not more applicable, to Madame Bovary, even though Flaubert scarcely mentions it (I think I saw it twice or three times in the book).

Flaubert’s antiheroes, however, are very real and believable, acting in ways that are more easily understood than the actions of Julien Sorel ever were. The book contains valid criticisms of various human failings and is very well-written. It is a scathing rebuke of a lot of “dreams” and illusions that people create, and not just Emma’s dreams and illusions (though those are obviously central to the story). It hits the reader like a cold shower and retains a forcefulness and truth, even 150 years after its publication. I’m glad I re-read it and glad that I read it in French.

SIDENOTE: Camilla’s earlier post about translating Madame Bovary contained a reference to “Marianne dansant”, which my edition has as “Mariamne dansant”. Mariamne was a wife of Herod the Great and somehow Flaubert incorporates her into the story of Salomé. I am still trying to understand how and why this confusion occurred. The footnote in the text is unsatisfactory because it implies he confuses her with Salomé even though it is clear from Flaubert’s other writings that he obviously knows Salomé’s name and identity. Additionally, Mariamne was the wife of Herod the Great, not Herod Antipas, whose stepdaughter was Salomé and who requested the head of John the Baptist (Jean-Baptiste). Perhaps this point is something that is worth putting in a footnote on the book regardless of the language.


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