Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

Every now and again I get an email about a post on this blog which gives my interpretation of a Shane McGowan song. These emails are generally intemperate, often furious, sometimes hilariously so. The rage which afflicts these people is remarkable. How dare I offer my own opinion on the meaning of St Shane’s song? How can I have the effrontery to try to interpret the words of the genius McGowan? I’m not going to deny Shane’s genius – A Pair of Brown Eyes is one of the most stunning anti-war songs I’ve ever heard – but to suggest that, once it has been written, no interpretation of a piece of literature is possible other than the writer’s own is simply nonsense. Once any work of art is in the public domain it is fair game. Shane McGowan wrote the song; everyone else is free to interpret it. There is no right or wrong to these things, only different interpretations based, to varying degrees, on textual evidence. It’s not Nietzsche’s fault, for example, that the Nazis cherry-picked his ideas and bastardised the bits they liked to fit their skewed worldview, while ignoring those inconvenient passages where he extols Jewishness and castigates the German character. Detailed textual analysis, in that instance, easily counters those banal and lazy Nazi interpretations.

But critical interpretations of literature must also be based, to an extent, on the knowledge and opinions and emotions and lifestyle of the individual interpreter. It is simply not conceivable to remove oneself from one’s own opinions: true objectivity is impossible. My reaction to a work like Malcolm Lowry’s Under the Volcano, for example, will be fundamentally different from someone else’s because I have lived with an alcoholic and I therefore respond to the pernicious hold of alcoholism in a particular way. The point is that literature must always be a two-way communication between text and reader. The role – and even the original intention – of the writer becomes secondary.

I was reminded of these email exchanges when reading Madame Bovary. This was published in 1856 and was hugely controversial in its time. Its author, Gustave Flaubert, was tried for “outrage to public and religious morals and to morality” (although he was subsequently acquitted). The novel was an affront to decency and a danger to the moral fibre of the nation. This scarlet woman, Emma Bovary, whose outrageous behaviour is not criticised, even implicitly, by the scrupulously neutral narrator, would surely corrupt decent society? It is impossible, now, to be able to enter the mindset of French mid-nineteenth century bourgeois society and fully comprehend the horror they must have felt at the assault on their lives they considered this novel to represent. We know what they felt, but we can never really know how they felt. And it is important to remember this when analysing the character of Emma Bovary.

The truth is that we can never understand what Emma must have felt, enduring the tiresome existence forced on her by the conventions of the society of the day. It seems to me that a great deal of criticism of her character is unfair because it imposes anachronistic constraints upon her. It seems like a line has been taken by the history of literary criticism regarding Emma Bovary and, by and large, critics stick to it. She is a vapid and egotistical woman. AS Byatt, for example, says:

But if Emma Bovary - who is small-minded and confused and selfish - is tragic, it is not in a romantic way, and not because her readers share her feelings or sympathise with her. Our sympathy for her is like our sympathy for a bird the cat has brought in and maimed. It flutters, and it will die.
That is true to an extent, but it is not the whole story, not any longer. On the contrary, I believe, from the perspective of the twenty-first century, it is possible – indeed essential – to feel sympathy for Emma Bovary, a sympathy that goes beyond the pitying that Byatt describes here. Emma is undoubtedly small-minded and confused and selfish, and that does lead to tragedy – for herself, her husband and her daughter. On that basis, one might argue against a sympathetic response but I maintain this is unfair on Emma: for all her failings, and they are considerable, she is nonetheless a victim of circumstance.

Byatt does begin to get to the nub of this in her impressive analysis. She explains:

[Emma’s] name, and the title of the novel, define her as a person who is expected to behave in certain ways, fitting her station and function. She loses what individual identity she had.
This is the truth of it, and this is why she is deserving of more than our pity. Madame Bovary, remember, examines the excruciating boredom of bourgeois life in a provincial town in 1830s and 1840s France. Flaubert describes boredom like no other writer: to be able to convey such stultifying tedium without being boring oneself is a feat indeed. Coleridge once suggested: “it is not possible to imitate truly a dull and garrulous discourser, without repeating the effects of dullness and garrulity”. Flaubert gives the lie to this with his characterisation in Madame Bovary and, in particular, with his creation of the deathly dull Monsieur Homais, of whom more later. The atmosphere of provincial Yonville and Toste was deadly, the sense of propriety overwhelming, the formality unbending. Conversation largely comprised the endless recapitulation of cliché (Flaubert’s famous idées reçues). Meanwhile, Emma’s notions of romantic love, indeed her understanding of almost every aspect of ordinary life, are culled from the romantic fiction she read in the convent as a child. We are told at one point: "she remembered the heroines of books she had read, and that lyrical legion of adulteresses began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her”. With role models like these, what chance did Emma have? Emma is seduced, then, not so much by Rodolphe as by her naivete. But naivete is not a crime, and Emma should not be traduced because of it. AS Byatt notes of Henry James’s interpretation of the novel:
[he] expressed a recurrent unease which he said was experienced by the 'alien reader' and persisted. 'Our complaint is that Emma Bovary, in spite of the nature of her consciousness and in spite of her reflecting so much that of her creator, is really too small an affair.'
This is unfair. This is unfeeling. This smacks of the sentiments that would have been espoused by those – all men – around Emma who made her life so unbearable. It turns the character of Emma into a cliché where, more accurately, it is the role in society which she was forced to play that was clichéd. And Emma reacted against it, refused to conform to the cliché. For that reason hers is absolutely not a “small affair”: far from it. Byatt, too, disagrees with James, calling Emma “a type of Everywoman”, and she is correct in this. It may be going too far to say there is a nobility about Emma Bovary, but she is still more wronged than wrong. She is a sister to Edna Pontellier. From our twenty-first century vantage point it may not be too much of a stretch to suggest she is a sister to dear Tess Durbeyfield, a pure woman and my first true love. Flaubert, however, would not have intended his reader to make such an identification with his heroine.

Critics rightly observe that a principal object of Flaubert’s attention in the novel is romanticism. As we have seen, Emma is seduced from an early age by romantic notions, through her uncritical acceptance of the sentiments of her romantic novels. She is incapable of translating such notions into the brute reality of life and falls into ruinous decline as a result. However, as Jacqueline Merriam Paskow points out, unlike other nineteenth century adulteresses, there is a degree of authorial ambivalence concerning the outcome for Emma Bovary:

The eponymous heroines of Effie Briest (Fontane) and Anna Karenina (Tolstoy) are punished for their marital trespasses by their husbands' vindictiveness, by society's scorn, and by their own feelings of guilt. And they suffer terrible consequences. Effie spends the rest of her life a virtual prisoner in her parents' house, excluded from society and deprived of the right to see her daughter. Anna commits suicide to end a life made unbearable by her husband's punitive behaviour and by her tortured conscience. But Emma, by far the most wayward of these three fictional adulteresses, is not repudiated by her husband. Nor is she ostracized as a fallen woman by those citizens of Yonville who know of her affairs. Nor, even, does she show signs of remorse for being an unfaithful wife, a negligent mother, an undisciplined housekeeper, or for lying, stealing, and behaving profligately.
Thus, while Madame Bovary undoubtedly offers a negative criticism of Romanticism, one should not overplay this. And nor should one infer that there is some concomitant advocacy of Enlightenment sensibilities. The fate of Emma Bovary certainly represents Flaubert’s rejection of Romanticism and its careless idealism, but Enlightenment thought is not unequivocably asserted in the novel either.

On the contrary, the entry relating to the Enlightenment in the Gustave Flaubert Encyclopedia notes that, while Flaubert adopted rationalist sensibilities, he diverged from Enlightenment thought because, for him, “Education ... is not always the key to self-understanding.” This can be seen most strongly in Flaubert’s final, unfinished work, Bouvard and Pecuchet, but it is also very evident in Madame Bovary, particularly in the character of Monsieur Homais, the town pharmacist and an unutterable bore, a character whose atheistic and rationalist outpourings are somewhat crudely – though always interestingly – overplayed in order to highlight Flaubert’s concerns on the matter. In this, it feels at times as though Flaubert is in direct dialogue with one of the most important early Enlightenment thinkers, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and, like the Savoyard Vicar himself, Flaubert’s views are at times curiously contradictory.

M. Homais is depicted as a bore and a boor, trotting out his canards oblivious of the effect they are having on his audience. In this, he is an exemplification of the Rousseauian notion that that study of the arts and sciences ultimately binds us to blind conformity. Indeed, to reinforce the point, at one stage Homais even quotes from Rousseau’s Emile:

"It's my opinion that children ought to be taught by their mothers. It's an idea of Rousseau's, still a bit new, perhaps, but one that's bound to prevail in the end, like mother's milk and vaccination”.
Here, as before, it is clear that M. Homais is churning out well-rehearsed but little understood nuggets of knowledge. To an extent, Rousseau might have agreed with Flaubert’s characterisation of the pharmacist. In his Discourse on the Arts and Sciences he claimed:
our minds have been corrupted in proportion as the arts and sciences have improved. Will it be said, that this is a misfortune peculiar to the present age? No, gentlemen, the evils resulting from our vain curiosity are as old as the world.
M. Homais is the manifestation of that corruption of mind. He is, as Christopher Prendergast suggests, “the supreme incarnation of the endoxal”, that is he exemplifies the way a community or society clings to its orthodoxies and received wisdom in order to form its central beliefs. If Emma Bovary represents Flaubert’s dismissal of romanticism, then M. Homais undoubtedly performs the same function in relation to rationalism.

And this is an important point because, if there is a villain in Madame Bovary, then it is assuredly not Rodolphe or Léon, the men who seduced Emma, but M. Homais. His influence can be traced to every malign event in the novel, including Emma’s ability to procure the arsenic with which she ends her own life. And the novel does not conclude with Emma’s death, or even Charles’s grief and subsequent death. Why? Priscilla Meyer explains:

the villain of his novel is [Flaubert’s] bete noir, the idee reçue, the cliché, the unexamined view, and all the damage it can do. Madame Bovary ends not when Emma dies, but after the chemist of Yonville, Monsieur Homais, has received the Legion d'honneur.
So this, then, is Flaubert’s ultimate target: the small-minded individual, wedded to the pursuit of knowledge but understanding little, the rationalist who believes himself and humanity in general, as champions of all they survey. But this is a false target. In the same way Enlightenment thought was caricatured by its critics as mere positivism and thereby dismissed as shallow, Flaubert here adapts Rousseau’s critique in his Discourse and suggests that learning inevitably degenerates into the recycling of cliché. Thus, he ascribes to rationalism specific flaws in order to be able to point out those flaws and make the general inference that the concept itself must therefore be flawed. This is a straw man argument. Because there are some Monsieur Homaises in the world, it does not follow that all people of learning share his shallowness.

George Orwell adopts a similar technique in a novel which is worth examining in relation to Madame Bovary, Keep the Aspidistra Flying. This was written in 1936, eighty years after Madame Bovary and 77 years before our present day, and it therefore acts as a midpoint between Flaubert’s world and ours. On that basis, it is instructive to examine the fate of women in these novels and in the present day.

Orwell’s point in the novel is to examine the malign nature of modernity and the way that modern life, with its emphasis on wealth and greed, corrupts personal aspirations. While one can acknowledge some validity in his point, it is ludicrously overplayed in the novel. In the central character, Gordon Comstock, Orwell creatures another straw man. Comstock is a person with virtually no redeeming features. When confronted with a decision one knows immediately he will choose the destructive option. He is incapable of positive action. He is bound from the novel’s opening scenes to the fate that befalls him at the end. It’s well enough written but, as with all straw men, it is entirely predictable.

And in the middle of this we have Gordon’s docile, much put-upon girlfriend, Rosemary Waterlow. The great weakness of this novel is that there is no convincing reason why Rosemary would want to stay with this boorish, solipsistic, selfish oaf. One sees this a lot in fiction, characters who put up with, even indulge other characters from whom, in real life, they would undoubtedly untangle themselves sooner rather than later. You might argue, for example, that Rose might genuinely have become infatuated with Pinkie (another straw man) in Brighton Rock despite him showing her positively no affection during their relationship because she was such a naïve, impressionable, almost child-like personality: it is conceivable that she could perhaps fall under the spell of such a man. But in Keep the Aspidistra Flying Rosemary is an intelligent, independent, confident woman of thirty. Why she would allow herself to be used in such a manner is beyond credibility.

We have seen the impossibility of Emma Bovary’s position within French bourgeois society. She had practically no opportunity to project her personality other than through her adulterous affairs. Was life any different in Britain eighty years later? Rosemary, the central female character in Keep the Aspidistra Flying, would no doubt argue she had greater opportunities and freedom than Emma Bovary but she is written in such a way that it is clear society has not progressed very far in those eighty years. Ostensibly, the principal theme of the novel is the fall of capitalism and the destruction that greed can wreak before that glorious event. Money, or the lack of it, is everywhere:

What Gordon realised, and more clearly as time went on, was that money-worship has been elevated into a religion. Perhaps it is the only real religion-the only felt religion-that is left to us. Money is what God used to be. Good and evil have no meaning any longer except failure and success. Hence the profoundly significant phrase, to make good.
But from our present-day vantage point something else intrudes. The treatment of the novel’s women – Rosemary plus Gordon’s sister Julia – is cavalierly high-handed. This is not some ironic statement about the battle of the sexes, either, let us be clear about that. Rosemary, the poor sap, is Gordon’s girl, and she is expected to act accordingly, becoming his trollop on a day in the country, acceding to his every wish. The whole mood of patriarchal ownership of the fair sex suffuses this novel, overwhelmingly so. When she notices that Gordon, arriving for one of their meetings, is unkempt and unshaved, we are told: “Her heart softened instantly, and yet she frowned. Why WON'T he take care of himself? was the thought in her mind.” What a good little lady she is, worrying after the welfare of her man. Because, “From Gordon, whom she adored, she put up with almost anything.” Well, that’s okay then. Which is just as well because later, in a drunken rage, he sexually assaults her in a darkened alley. But never mind, because when he’s truly down on his luck, and gets her pregnant into the bargain, she does what a little lady ought to do and stands by her man, marrying him reader. All of this makes you want to weep, most importantly because this deplorable state of affairs is not what Orwell was seeking to criticise in his novel. This is just incidental, because that’s the way it is.

One is left to wonder, then, which of these characters, Emma Bovary or Rosemary Waterlow, would be best equipped to exist in the modern world. For me the answer is clear: it is Emma Bovary, a thoroughly modern woman. One can imagine her adapting to modern sensibilities. One can imagine her thriving. Her petty need for niceties and property and “things” would, perhaps, be tempered by the fact they were more readily available. Her naivete would be mitigated by experience. Her adventurous temperament would be given room to breathe, would thrive in our modern world of opportunity.

Poor Rosemary, however, an essentially unreal and unbelievable character, would probably be exactly the same: one can see her in the same dead-end relationship, making the same mistakes, avoiding making the same obvious decisions. Wallflowers are wallflowers, whatever the era in which they exist, especially when they are created without without a consciousness of their own, designed solely to act as a foil to someone else.

And this is why Emma Bovary’s is not a small affair. And this is why she is deserving of sympathy. And this is why we must read her character in a way radically different from that intended by her creator, Gustave Flaubert. We know what they did not know, and we can predict that a transplanted Emma Bovary, living in twenty-first century England, would be a formidable and seductive prospect indeed.

1 comment:

Richard L. Pangburn said...

Nice essay.

I can see that, but I still prefer the almost line-by-line interpretation in John P. Anderson's FLAUBERT'S MADAME BOVARY: THE ZEN NOVEL which not only uses Zen but Schopenheur as well.

Madame Bovary is the insatiable self, always wanting, never satisfied.

Then too, I like the story of the real-life woman upon whom Flaubert based his novel, Delphine Couturier Delamare.