Artists: All hoaxers.
—Flaubert, Dictionnaire des idées recues.
For me a book has always only been a way of living in some particular milieu. That is what explains my hesitations, my anguish and my slowness.
—Flaubert, letter to Mlle. Leroyer de Chantepie, December 26, 1858
Emma Bovary would surely never have behaved as she did if she had read the novel that bears her name, but Charles Bovary, such is his feeling for her, might have. Or so it seems to me upon rereading the novel they share. Much has shifted in my own life during the decades since I first met them, and much has shifted in the novel. The rooms are the same but the views from the windows vastly altered. Windows are important to Emma. Over and over she is depicted at windows, looking out, longing. Sometimes she sees a man she loves—Charles, Leon, Rodolphe, Leon again—but mostly what meets her gaze is the boredom of her father’s farm or the dreary village of Tostes, or the, initially, more promising town of Yonville. One of the great scenes in the novel, the courtship between Rodolpohe and Emma, is set at a window in the town hall where they sit looking down on the agricultural fair. I, too, as I first read these pages, was looking out of windows, longing.
I had only just begun to write. I had no concept of reading as a writer, or even—how strange this now seems—of learning from the novels I loved and admired. On this first reading I gave myself over to Emma’s ardors and despairs, and entirely failed to notice how expertly Flaubert structures the novel, how deftly he moves the reader from one point of view to the next, how conscious he is of imagery and patterns, how cunningly he foreshadows the main events, and how, despite the admonitions of friends, he cannot resist romantic flourishes. The first time Charles visits Emma’s father’s farm, for example, his horse, which plods along obligingly for the rest of the novel, shies in melodramatic fashion.
Not only did I not understand how the novel worked its magic, I also knew little about its author and why we might consider him our first modern novelist. I knew he was French, that the novel had been published in the 1850s, that Henry James had called him a novelist’s novelist. I knew some of the sweeping claims he had made: “A writer should be in his work as God is in the physical universe—everywhere present and nowhere visible.” “The only truth in the world is a well-made sentence.” “Art requires a priestly devotion.” (And in his own case, I would add, family money.) But I knew almost nothing about his life and how he had come to write such a magnificent “first” novel.
Nor did I know the degree to which the novel was the fruit of his devoted friendship with Louis Bouilhet, a poet and playwright. Novelists did not, at that time, have agents or editors to advise them. Most authors worked in solitude, and novels were either rejected or published.Flaubert was a deeply fortunate exception. Not only did Louis urge him toward the subject matter of Madame Bovary, but also he visited Flaubert almost every weekend to pore over the week’s pages, usually no more than four or five, and suggest cuts, additions, and revisions. He encouraged the writer to give the novel the beauty and density one would normally find in a poem.
Neither my inability to read as a writer nor my ignorance of Flaubert’s working methods and his life diminished my early enthusiasm for the novel, but they did limit what I learned from that first encounter. Reading the novel again, in Lydia Davis’s vivid translation, knowing what I do now about both writing and Flaubert, I felt perhaps a little of what his most famous protégé, Guy de Maupassant, must have felt: here was a writer whose every scene had something to teach me. When I reached the end, I was also struck by how much there was to learn from the way in which Flaubert drew on his own life in writing Madame Bovary. I had, by this time, Francis Steegmuller’s wonderful biography Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait, first published in 1939 and recently reissued by the New York Review of Books.
The connection between craft and autobiography is one that almost invariably interests readers and yet remains, perhaps rightly, confusing for authors. While we recognize the superficial sources of our material, we are often among the last to know the deeper sources. In the case of Madame Bovary, the plot comes from a well-known local scandal. Marie Delamare, the second wife of a health officer, had committed adultery, squandered her husband’s money, and then poisoned herself. Flaubert already knew about the Delamares when Louis suggested their story to him as the subject of his next novel, but whether either man understood how Flaubert’s life, and psyche, would make him the ideal person to tell this story is a mystery.
First, there was his medical background. Both his father and his older brother, Achilles, were doctors, and he grew up around a hospital. Charles Bovary’s profession and two of the main events in the novel—the disastrous operation on the stable boy and Emma’s taking arsenic—owe much to this early familiarity with medicine. Perhaps the operation also owes something to the final illness of Flaubert père. In November 1845 he complained of a pain in his thigh. It turned out to be an abscess. When other treatments failed, Achilles operated. The result was infection, gangrene, agony, and, in January 1846, death.
Then, there was the fact that adultery had long fascinated Flaubert. At the age of fifteen, while on holiday with his family at Trouville, he met an older, married woman, Elisa Schlesinger, on the beach. Their unconsummated relationship became one of the lodestars of his life. The following year he wrote a “Philosophical Tale: Passion and Virtue,” about a married woman, Mazza, who daydreams about a man she has seen at the Comédie Française. Ernest is utterly unworthy of her daydreams—But he was an expert seducer; he knew by heart the devices, the tricks . . .” Mazza gives herself to him body and soul, only to have him flee to Mexico. When her repulsive husband conveniently dies, she writes to Ernest. He writes back that he is already married, and she takes poison. Fifteen years later Rodolphe, Emma’s first lover, talks and thinks like Ernest, while Emma shares Mazza’s romantic daydreams.
Elisa’s role in Madame Bovary is obvious; that of Flaubert’s other lodestar, Alfred Le Poittevin, less so. The two were family friends who became close when Alfred was studying for his entrance exam to law school. Flaubert fell utterly under the older boy’s spell. “We are ordained by Providence,” he wrote to Alfred, “to think and feel in harmony.” Alfred was a romantic of the highest order. The world is illusion; the past is infinitely superior to the present; man is a helpless toy in the hands of God; the life of the bourgeois, of idées reçues, is meaningless. Alfred studied law to please his father, got married—”You are doing something abnormal,” Flaubert wrote—to please his family. What was the use of struggling? On April 3, 1848, with Flaubert at his bedside, Alfred stopped struggling altogether. Flaubert never forgot his friend and never entirely relinquished his romantic ideals.
Flaubert’s own health was a significant factor in his life and work. Like Alfred, he was destined to become a lawyer. Then, during his first year of study, he had a seizure, lost consciousness, and fell out of a carriage. His parents brought him home, and any idea of his practicing law was abandoned. They purchased the house in the village of Croisset where Flaubert lived and wrote for most of his life. The seizures—they were similar to epilepsy but without the convulsions—gradually grew less frequent, but during them he experienced moments of intense awareness. He wrote: “I have an extraordinary faculty of perception”;(Correspondance, III, 270) And “Sometimes by dint of gazing at a pebble, an animal, a picture, I felt myself enter into them.” (Correspondance, III, 210) ” As readers, we glimpse these gifts in such great passages as the one describing an early meeting between Charles and Emma:
Once, during a thaw, the bark of the trees was oozing in the yard, the snow on the tops of the buildings was melting. She was on the doorsill; she went to get her parasol; she opened it. The parasol, of dove-grey iridescent silk, with the sun shining through it, cast moving glimmers of light over the white skin of her face. She was smiling beneath it in the mild warmth; and they could hear the drops of water, one by one, falling over the taut moiré. (16)
Or this, following Rodolphe’s first seduction of Emma:
Here and there, all around her, in the leaves or on the ground, patches of light shimmered as if hummingbirds in flight had scattered their feathers. Silence was everywhere; something sweet seemed to be coming from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat again, and her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk. (141)
Prior to embarking on his law studies, Flaubert had written not only “Passion and Virtue” but several other short narratives. Now that he was free, he devoted himself to writing and travel. He wrote a book about traveling in Brittany with his friend Max du Camp and early versions of two novels he would later revise and publish: A Sentimental Education and The Temptation of St. Anthony. He wrote The Temptation at a furious pace in the eighteen months following Alfred’s death, and it is heavily influenced byAlfred’s romantic ideals. In 1849 he read the entire manuscript, all five hundred and forty-one pages, aloud to Louis and Max. He finished at close to midnight on the fourth day. According to Max, “Flaubert pounded his fist on the table. ‘Now,’ he cried. ‘Tell me frankly what you think!’ Bouilhet was naturally timid, but no one could express himself more fearlessly when he had once made up his mind to speak. It was he who replied. ‘We think you should throw it into the fire, and never speak of it again.’” Poor Flaubert, aghast, took their words to heart; the novel joined its predecessor in the drawer. Only in the sense of publication was s Madame Bovary his first novel.
Another aspect of Flaubert’s life that contributed to the novel was his relationship with the poet Louise Colet, whom he met in 1846. Louise lived with her daughter in Paris, and even at the height of their relationship, the two met only occasionally. With some justice, she claimed that Flaubert would rather write to her than make love to her. We are the happy beneficiaries of his preference. Their ardent correspondence tells us much of what we know about his working methods. And the character of Emma—as Flaubert, Louis, and Louise each acknowledged—owed much to his mistress. Several critics—beginning with the poet Charles Baudelaire and including the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre—have described Emma as a feminized man; she is too vigorous, too passionate, too active, they claim, to be a woman. But Flaubert knew better. She is modeled on Louise, who gave gifts, initiated meetings, made demands, and once even showed up at his home without invitation.
I mention these autobiographical facts not merely as gossip but as an element of Flaubert’s craft, an element we can learn from. We always bring some part of ourselves to even our most purely imagined work. Awareness of this may not be helpful as we generate material, but as we begin to shape it, knowing when and how our autobiographical sources are causing us to dwell at inappropriate length on certain moments or, alternatively, to give them short shrift is crucial. We can see how Flaubert’s intimacy with medical matters led him to write expansively about the stable boy’s operation and Emma’s death. In his original plan for the novel there is no mention of the former. About Emma he writes, “Death agony—precise medical details—‘On such and such a day at three o’clock in the morning her vomiting returned,’ etc.” And of course Homais, Charles and Emma’s meddlesome neighbor in Yonville, became one of his favourite characters—“my pharmacist,” he called him in letters. He cut many pages of his conversation and, for the modern reader’s taste, might have cut still more.
Five years after he began work on Madame Bovary, Flaubert declared the novel finished, and in the autumn of 1856, Max offered to serialize it in the magazine he edited: La Revue de Paris. The process of publication proved torturous and, at many points,Flaubert was ready to withdraw the novel, but finally the date for the first installment was set. He wrote to Louis, “I lose my virginity as unpublished writer a week from Thursday, October first. May fortuna virilis be favourable to me!” Fortuna was not, at least according to Flaubert. Numerous typographical errors had escaped the printers, but worse, much worse, was the sight of his own prose in print. “It seems utterly flat to me,” he wrote again to Louis. “Everything in it seems bad. This is literally true. It is a bitter disappointment, and the success of the book will have to be deafening indeed to cover the voice of my conscience, which keeps shouting: ‘Failure! Failure!’” (Francis Steegmuller, 316)
But Louis, who had applied himself so assiduously to the novel, was vindicated. From the first installment Madame Bovary was a success: a novel that moved and excited readers. It also rapidly became a scandal. In an attempt to avoid being taken to court, the magazine, without telling Flaubert, cut the famous coach ride, when Leon and Emma hurtle round the streets of Rouen, and in the last issue, despite his vehement objections, cut numerous other scenes. But the censorship, as the author predicted, made no difference. “You have seized upon the details,” he wrote to the managing editor of the magazine, “whereas it is the book as a whole that is to blame. The brutal elements are everywhere, not merely on the surface” (FS, 326). In January 1857 Flaubert found himself in court.
All this was so upsetting that he was ready to put the novel away with the others in the drawer until Louis reminded him that publication would allow him to restore the censored passages. Madame Bovary, dedicated to the lawyer who successfully defended it and to the faithful Louis, was published in April 1857 to excellent sales and many reviews. Was Flaubert at last pleased? Not entirely. “All this uproar around my first book,” he wrote, “seems so irrelevant to Art that it sickens me, it dazes me. How I miss the fish-like silence in which I had persisted until now.” (Geoffrey Wall, Flaubert: A Life, p.239)Later he would also come to resent the success of his “first” novel, which overshadowed, both then and now, everything else he wrote.
Flaubert drew skillfully on his own life, listened to Louis, and worked hard, but none of these, as he knew, guaranteed success. In the aftermath of his failures, he became our first modern writer, working in a self-conscious way and acutely aware of what his prose could do for his vulgar plot. “Continuity constitutes style,” he wrote, “as constancy makes for virtue.” (Correspondance, III, p.401) The famous voice did not come to him easily. “My novel is having a frightful time getting started,” he wrote to Louise. “I have abscesses of style, I itch with sentences that never appear. . . . I am so disconsolate about the whole thing that I greatly enjoy it. . . . The tone in which I am steeping myself is so new to me that I keep opening my eyes in astonishment.” <(F.S. 237) >From other letters we know he was aware that a perfect paragraph followed by a perfect paragraph followed by a perfect paragraph does not necessarily make three perfect paragraphs. A novel has to flow; the joints must not show. He also struggled with the banality of his characters’ dialogue. Writing about the first meeting between Emma and Leon, he remarked that he thought it was the first time a novel had made fun of its leading man and lady. “Irony,” he added, “takes nothing away from pathos.” Lydia Davis, intro. to Madame Bovary, xiv
And he understood at last, painfully, the need for relevance. Every element in the novel must serve more than one purpose. At Louis’s urging, after several attempts, he wrote a plan. It focuses mostly on the ups and downs of Emma’s love life. The ball of part 1, and the agricultural fair of part 2 are mentioned, but only a clause in the last paragraph—“discovery of appalling debts (F.S. p. 362)”—hints at the role money will play in her downfall. This search for externals, the need to find an outer life, a wardrobe, if you will, for the characters, is a common task. Whatever the starting point of a novel—a story, an event, a character, an image—as we write, we keep searching for ways to dramatize the inner lives of our characters. Long before T. S. Eliot urged the need for an objective correlative—an object or an action to stand in for the emotions—Flaubert knew that he could not rely on the lyricism and imagery that had fatally marred his beloved Temptation. Emma must also be revealed by the details of her world, by her actions, and by the many minor characters.
Between my first and subsequent readings of Madame Bovary, I had remembered almost everything about Emma and her lovers. I was shocked, as I began to read again, to discover that the novel opens with Charles. Flaubert labored long and hard over the beginning, and everything about these pages was considered and reconsidered, including the detailed description of the extraordinary hat Charles is wearing when he arrives at school.
What kind of man is married to a woman who behaves like Emma? Flaubert answers this question promptly, showing Charles, an inept only child, oppressed first at home, then at school, then by his medical studies. After initially failing his exams, he becomes a medical officer (not, for Flaubert was sensitive to such nuances, a doctor). His parents marry him to a much older widow, and he begins to practice in the village of Tostes. One day he is summoned to set a farmer’s broken leg, and meets the farmer’s daughter, Emma. Typically unaware of his own longing, he begins to visit the farm. At a breakneck speed reminiscent of “Passion and Virtue,” his wife forbids his visits; it emerges that she has lied about her fortune; and she dies. Flaubert covers these momentous events in less than three pages.
At first we see Emma, as Charles does, in fragments: a shoulder here, a flounce there. Not until she is married and arrives at the house in Tostes do we see her whole and enter her consciousness. On the desk by the window she notices a bouquet: “It was a bridal bouquet, the other woman’s bouquet!” (28). What will become of her own bouquet, Emma wonders dreamily, should she die. From then on she is at the center of the novel, but we still—and again this was a crucial decision on Flaubert’s part—get Charles’s point of view and that of other characters, as well as that of our omniscient narrator. Here, for example, is Emma on her first evening in Yonville:
The fire shone on her fully, penetrating with a raw light the weave of her dress, the regular pores of her white skin, and even her eyelids which she closed from time to time. A gust of bright red glow passed over her each time a gust came through the half-open door.
From the other side of the fireplace, a young man with fair hair was watching her in silence.
Because he was very bored in Yonville, where he worked as a clerk for the lawyer Guillaumin, Monsieur Leon Dupuis . . . (69)
We watch Emma, we see who is watching her, then we begin to learn about the watcher.
Another brilliant choice Flaubert made in structuring the novel was to divide it into three parts and to include in each part a large public event or space: in part 1 the ball, the life Emma longs for; in part 2, the agricultural fair, the life from which she longs to escape; and in part 3, the cathedral that, in her convent girlhood, had once seemed to promise a refuge. Each advances the plot and marks what Flaubert calls “the different adventures of Emma’s soul.”
Character, too, is an aspect of structure, and long before the ball it is apparent that Charles and Emma are ill suited. Charles, who has stoically endured his first marriage, is transformed by “the continuous flow of his happiness,” but Emma is still searching for the marvelous passion she read about in novels at school: “a great rosy-feathered bird hovering in the splendor of a poetical sky” (34). Instead of a rosy bird, “boredom, that silent spider,” takes up residence. The ball briefly rescues her. Flaubert at one point considered having her infidelities begin that evening. His decision not to only renders more vivid her painful glimpse of the life to which she feel she was born. In the aftermath she feigns illness, persuades Charles to leave Tostes, where his practice is doing well, and move to Yonville. And in Yonville Leon is waiting with his own boredom.
Another strategy that Flaubert uses to piercing effect throughout the novel is the juxtaposition of contrasting material. Here is the scene where Emma and Rodolphe are seated at the window, looking down at the agricultural fair while the prizes are being awarded:
“A few days ago when I came to your house . . .” (Rodolphe says)
“To Monsieur Bizet, of Quincampoix—”
“Did I know that I would be coming here with you?”
“A hundred times I’ve tried to leave you, and yet I’ve followed you, I’ve stayed with you.”
“As I would stay with you tonight, tomorrow, every day, my whole life!”
“To Monsieur Caron, of Argueil, a gold medal!” (130)
Earlier novelists had made use of juxtaposition—Austen is particularly skillful—but Flaubert, committed to his belief that the author should not overtly comment on the action, relies in scene after scene on this method of guiding the reader. The lyrical paragraph I quoted earlier about Emma’s feelings after Rodolphe seduces her ends with the sentence: “Rodolphe, cigar between his teeth, mended with his penknife one of the bridles which was broken” (141).
Flaubert’s other main tool in his determination not to comment is his use of detail. He is a master of creating, simultaneously, the outer and the inner life. Here is Emma at the height of her despair in Tostes:
But it was above all at mealtimes that she could not bear it any longer, in that little room on the ground floor, with the stove that smoked, the door that creaked, the walls that seeped, the damp flag stones; all the bitterness of life seemed to be served up on her plate, and, with the steam from the boiled beef, there rose from the depths of her soul other gusts of revulsion. Charles took a long time eating; she would nibble a few walnuts, or, leaning on her elbow, pass the time drawing lines on the oilcloth with the tip of her knife. (56)
As he did earlier, when describing her on the doorsill with Charles, Flaubert uses intense perception to convey intense emotion. Then the bark was oozing, the snow was melting, the world full of possibility. Now the stove smokes, the door creaks, the walls seep. He catalogues the dreariness of that little room, and its effect on Emma, yet he does so without suggesting that it is she who is consciously making the catalogue.
Although Flaubert knew Emma’s fate before he embarked on the novel, it is crucial to the success of Madame Bovary that she does not enter easily into adultery. Over and over she seeks to escape the choices she finally makes. One of the most obvious escape routes—motherhood—is blocked almost immediately. Emma arrives in Yonville pregnant and longing for a son. “A man, at least, is free; he can explore every passion, every land, overcome obstacles, taste the most distant pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted . . . there is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back” (77). Of course, she means a rich man, like Rodolphe; her husband has never been free. When he breaks the news to her that they have a daughter, she faints. For the remainder of the novel, Berthe—a name Emma overheard at the ball—plays little part in her mother’s thoughts, feelings, or actions.
Berthe offers no safety and nor does the church on the two occasions when Emma explicitly asks for help. The first time is when she discovers that Leon loves her. She is thrilled, she trembles at the sound of his footsteps, she takes pride in being virtuous, she is tormented by desire and melancholy. In the hope that he will help her to resist temptation, she goes to talk to the curé.
“How are you faring?” [the curé] added.
“Not well,” answered Emma; “I’m in pain.”
“Why, so am I,” replied the clergyman. “These first warm days weaken one terribly, don’t they? Well, there’s nothing to be done. We’re born to suffer, as St. Paul says. But, now, what does Monsieur Bovary think about this?”
“Oh, him,” she said with a gesture of disdain.
“What!” replied the simple man, quite surprised; “hasn’t he prescribed something for you?”
“Ah!” said Emma; “it isn’t earthly remedies I need.” (97)
And so on for two more pages until, at last, she gives up:
“But you were asking me something, weren’t you?” [the curé says.] What was it? I can’t remember.”
“I? Oh, nothing . . . nothing . . . ,” Emma repeated.
Even with no help from Berthe or the curé, she does manage to prevent Leon from making an explicit declaration. Unaware that she shares his feelings, he wearies of her evasiveness and moves to Paris.
Her next suitor, Rodolphe, is older, wealthier, coarser, and much more sophisticated. He has no qualms about using on Emma the tricks and locutions that have worked so well with previous mistresses. Once again, despite her delight in his overtures, she tries to resist. She refuses to go riding with him until Charles urges her to accept his invitation for the good of her health. There in the woods she joins the “lyrical host of adulterous women.”
But soon, again, she is looking for escape. As it becomes obvious that Rodolphe’s passion does not match hers, she ponders a surprising possibility: escape may lie with her husband. “She even asked herself why she despised Charles and whether it would not be better if she could love him” (152). Enter Homais, the pharmacist, with his suggestion that Charles operate on the stable boy’s club foot. Charles is nervous about the prospect—his main claim as a medical officer is not to kill his patients—but Emma is optimistic: the operation will make him famous. “What a satisfaction it would be for her to have started him on a path that would increase both his reputation and his fortune? All she wanted, now, was to be able to lean on something more solid than love” (152). She does not love Charles, but if he became successful and could give her the life she wants, then maybe the rosy-feathered bird wouldn’t matter so much. And Flaubert respects this feeling. Who wouldn’t want to escape the spider of rural boredom?
But the operation, although initially successful, goes rapidly awry. A surgeon has to be called in to amputate Hippolyte’s gangrenous leg. Charles is humiliated. As for Emma, she “did not share his humiliation; she was experiencing a humiliation of a different sort: that she had imagined such a man could be worth something . . .” (161). The operation, taking place as it does almost exactly halfway through the novel, is the keystone of the adventures of her soul. In the aftermath her efforts to escape are increasingly feeble. She starts borrowing money from Lheureux, the Iago-like merchant, and she starts begging Rodolphe to take her away.
“But . . . ,” said Rodolphe.
“What about your daughter?”
She pondered for a few moments, then answered:
“We’ll take her—it can’t be helped.”
“What a woman!” he said to himself as he watched her go away. (169)
In one of his piercing juxtapositions, Flaubert shows Charles a few paragraphs later, coming home to gaze at Berthe’s cradle and to imagine her growing up pretty and accomplished.
The reader knows long before Emma that Rodolphe will leave without her, and the suspense, as in most of the novel, comes from seeing not what will happen, but how. Rodolphe’s farewell letter to Emma echoes Ernest’s written more than fifteen years before. Each invents reasons for his flight and moralizes in a high-minded way. “Fate is to blame, only fate!” Rodolphe writes. “‘There’s a word that always has a nice effect,’ he said to himself” (177). Indeed it does. Emma is ill for forty-three days after she reads his letter.
Another brilliant aspect of Flaubert’s structure is his use of two familiar devices that have a long history of engaging the reader: failure and repetition. Remember all those fairy stories in which the heroine must knock three times, or climb seven hills. Homais, who proposed the disastrous operation, now suggests that Charles take Madame to the opera in Rouen for the good of her health. And Emma, who refused to go riding with Rodolphe, will refuse to go to the theater, only to have her objections, once again, overturned by Charles. When Charles goes to buy barley water in the interval and runs into Leon, their reunion has the force of the inevitable.
The return of Leon rather than the introduction of a new lover is another example of the skillful use of repetition. Alone together, at the beginning of part 3, he and Emma talk. Their conversation, similar to the one they had when they met in part 2, reveals how much each has changed. The innocent clerk has followed in Rodolphe’s footsteps, becoming bolder and more manipulative. He claims to have made a will, requesting to be buried in the beautiful coverlet Emma had given him when he lived in Yonville. “They were both creating for themselves an ideal against which they were now adjusting their past lives. Besides, speech is a rolling press that always amplifies one’s emotion” (208).
But, after Leon leaves, Emma makes one last effort at escape. She writes a letter, explaining that they must never meet again, only to realize she has no address. She must deliver the letter in person, at the cathedral. This scene, part 3’s counterpart of the ball and the agricultural fair, is developed in vivid detail, first from Leon’s point of view as he waits for her—“The church, like a vast boudoir, was arranging itself around her” (213)—then, when she at last appears in a rustle of silk and thrusts the letter into his hands, from Emma’s. In the Lady Chapel she prays for divine assistance. Briefly it appears in the form of a loquacious verger, but Leon can brook no further delay. Fearing that his love will evaporate, he extricates them from the verger’s tirade and summons a carriage.
We are not permitted to enter the carriage during that famous ride. Instead, we see the coachman’s weariness—“Keep going!” Leon shouts whenever he tries to stop—and the townspeople’s “Wide-eyed in amazement at this thing so unheard of in the provinces, a carriage with drawn blinds that kept appearing and reappearing, sealed tighter than a tomb and tossed about like a ship at sea” (218). We have one glimpse of Emma. Her hand appears beneath the blind to throw out some scraps of white paper, which at once scatter, like white butterflies, on the wind.
The white butterflies carry us back to the end of part 1 when Emma, packing to leave Tostes, discovers her wedding bouquet in a drawer and throws it on the fire. It burns first quickly, then slowly, “and the shriveled paper petals, hovering along the fireback like black butterflies, at last flew away up the chimney” (58). There is a risk to this kind of patterning—that of the world seeming too well organized, sealed tighter than a tomb against the interruptions of life—but for the most part Flaubert avoids this by ensuring that the imagery is organic to the setting.
The wedding bouquets, the damp walls and oozing trees, the cemetery and the pharmacy and the river and the garden and the lathe of Binet the tax collector, all help to bring Madame Bovary to life. How can we question the actions of the characters when the world they inhabit is so palpable? When Louis was urging Flaubert to write the story of Eugene Delamare and his wife, he also urged him to set it in Normandy, the region he knew so well. Happily, Flaubert heeded his advice, and the result is a shimmering example of how much setting can accomplish for a work of fiction. The vivid details of Tostes, Yonville, and Rouen enable him to get away with flagrant coincidences, obvious foreshadowing, and an occasional overuse of patterning.
How skillfully Flaubert depicts the withering of Emma’s hopes. In adultery, we learn, she has rediscovered the platitudes of marriage. And we discover what we should have known all along: that Emma’s lovers have only ever been a way of trying to find the life, the intensity, she craves. She has indeed been on a journey of the soul. After a masked ball in Rouen, she thinks, “Everything, even she herself, was unbearable. She wished she could escape like a bird, and grow young again somewhere far, far away, in the immaculate reaches of space” (259). She arrives home to find a summons waiting. Within twenty-four hours she must pay eight thousand francs. In a fashion eerily reminiscent of her fatal carriage ride with Leon, Emma dashes round and round, searching for the money. She goes to see Lheureux and finds him adamant even when she makes a pass. She calls on the bankers she knows. She begs Leon, who fobs her off by promising to approach a wealthy friend. She goes to see Monsieur Guillaumin, the notary, and rebuffs his pass. She even visits the tax collector. And all the time the knowledge that Charles will forgive her only makes her more furious—“even if he gave me a million it wouldn’t be enough to make me forgive him for knowing me . . .” (271). At last she remembers Rodolphe and, as she had done in happier days, walks across the fields to his house. The conversation that follows, one of the longest in the novel, is by turns romantic, tender, mendacious, and furious, a model of desperate dialogue.
Just as the white butterflies of the letter carry us back to the black butterflies of the bouquet, so Emma’s return to Yonville, as she runs across the fields, carries us back to that glittering night at the ball when, going down the stairs at the chateau, she resists the impulse to run. In the pharmacy she finds Justin, the assistant, who has loved her silently all along. Question: why does there have to be a Justin in the novel? Answer: so Emma can get into the locked room and eat arsenic. The brutal elements of the novel are, as Flaubert said, everywhere.
Flaubert was a modern novelist not only because of his failures, his ambitions, and his self-consciousness, but also because he knew the value of research. He took notes at an agricultural fair, investigated the process of loans and debts, and planned Emma’s wardrobe. Nowhere is his research more evident than in her prolonged death scene, the final adventure of her soul, a sequence unlike any that had previously appeared in fiction, one that many novelists would, I think, in its graphic physical details and relentless hopelessness, still hesitate to write.
The novel ends, as it begins, with Charles. He does forgive her everything: debt, infidelity, her neglect of him and of their daughter. He even forgives Rodolphe and, in a moment of almost unbearable irony, offers him the excuse that Rodolphe offered Emma in his farewell letter: “Fate is to blame!” When I first read the novel, years ago, I mostly agreed with Rodolphe’s assessment of Charles: “comical even, and rather low” (310). Now, Charles’s love for Emma seems like a stream of pure and constant feeling running through the novel, “a river of milk,” which survives every iniquity. Yes, I was right to think that he might, knowing everything, still have married her, but I was wrong to believe happiness ever lay within his grasp. He is, after all, a character in a novel by Flaubert. Another respect in which the great nineteenth-century writer is our contemporary is in his attitude to happiness. “It is strange,” he wrote, “how I was born with little faith in happiness. At the earliest age I had a complete foretaste of life. It was like a nauseous kitchen odour leaking out through the transom.” Correspondence, III, p.307
In the miasma of that “odour” Flaubert wrote a novel, which combines the vivid use of realism with the taut structure, repetitions, and reversals of a three-act drama. And because he never loses sympathy with either of his main characters, this union, unlike Charles and Emma’s marriage, is almost wholly successful. Flaubert was an uneasy realist, but no one has made better use of the technique. When, years later, to please Georges Sand, he wrote “A Simple Heart,” he borrowed a stuffed parrot to make sure he did justice to Loulou before turning him into the Holy Ghost. His precise details make possible extremity of action, thought, and emotion. As Emma and Rodolphe watch the fair from the window, and he offers the romantic clichés that have proved so effective with others, an elderly servant is awarded a silver medal for fifty-four years of service on the same farm. Flaubert devotes a long paragraph to Catherine-Nicaise-Elisabeth Leroux as she approaches the platform. Here is his description of her hands: “Barn dust, caustic washing soda, and wool grease had so thoroughly encrusted, chafed, and hardened them that they seemed dirty even though they had been washed in clear water; and from the habit of serving, they remained half open, as though offering their own testimony to the great suffering they had endured” (131).
Madame Bovary, trans. Lydia Davis: Penguin Books, 2010
Flaubert and Madame Bovary by Francis Steegmuller: NYRB, 2005
Flaubert, A Life by Geoffrey Wall: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2001
Flaubert: A Collection of Critical Essays, ed. Raymond Giraud: Prentice-Hall, Inc. 1964