Madame Bovary (Flaubert 1857) had me hooked; line, and sinker. As I began reading I was uncertain as to whether Flaubert had intended it to be humorous, or if I were reading it wrong. However, as I read on, I quickly came to the realisation that was the point of Flaubert’s humour; to be dry, ironic, and subtle.
The key to such humour is that whilst we are being treated to a realistic and objective narration of events, as the narrator is that of third person omniscient, we also see everything through the eyes and thoughts of Flaubert’s clawing, desperate characters. This creates a disparate version of the plot; that of the characters, and that of the omniscient narrator/reader.
Emma Bovary, for example, longs for passion, excitement and wealth. She wants for nothing more than her life to mime that of an opera. Instead, however, the first affair she embarks on, whilst an intoxicating Great Romance, in her mind, is in fact nothing more than a womanizing, selfish man recognizing in Emma weaknesses (her boredom and romantic ideals) that leave her ripe for seduction, and taking advantage of this.
Emma’s second love affair ends when she begs her lover for money, since she has incurred for herself, and her husband, an unpayable debt by living beyond her means. Both Emma’s lovers react with cowardice in the face of her desperation. However, had they attached themselves to her, she would undoubtedly either soon grow bored of them, or else be the ruin of them. Both men grow bored with Emma’s antics and desires; here again Flaubert is ironic, for Emma herself is bored with both her husband and child.
Throughout the novel characters continuously comment on how clever a woman Emma is, yet she isn’t shown to be clever in action or thought in any scene. Rather, she is shown to be self-absorbed, and lacking in any affection for her husband, or her only daughter. She takes lovers, but is unsatisfied, and demanding. She takes out loans to purchase luxurious items, yet takes no satisfaction in them, always wanting more.
Emma’s story ends with her suicide, and even that fails to go as she would have hoped; it’s drawn out, painful, and absent of any tender, tearful farewell from her child. In a final, unflattering scene, at her funeral, her head is hacked at in order for her husband to have a lock of her hair.
He stepped forward himself, scissors in hand. He was shaking so violently that he punctured the skin in several places on the forehead. Finally, bracing himself for the shock, Homais gave two or three big cuts at random, which left white patches in her beautiful black hair. (Flaubert 1857, p. 345)
For the final irony of ironies, Emma, who had dreamt and longed for city life, passionate love, ballroom dances, and wealth, condemns her only child, her legacy, to the life of a penniless orphan, sent to work in a cotton mill.
Flaubert writes Madame Bovary (1857) with such skill and realistic depth that while we laugh at the audacity, and despair at the mistakes, of Emma, we do not dislike her, or any other character. They are too human for the reader’s dislike. After all, most of us share in a hint of Emma, whether it be a desire for more, for wealth, for a passionate love, dazzling talents or a brilliant career. It is in this truth that Madame Bovary (Flaubert 1857) is an exemplary piece of realist literature; both in character, plot and writing style.
Further Thoughts on the Narrator:
Madame Bovary (Flaubert 1857) opens with the narrative being told from the first person plural point of view.
We were at preparation, when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy dressed in ‘civvies’ and a school servant carrying a big desk. Those who were asleep woke up, and everyone got to his feet with an air of being interrupted at work. Motioning for us to sit down, the Head turned to speak to the form-master. (Flaubert 1857, p. 15)
The narration then soon changes to that of third person omniscient, quite seamlessly. It is noticed by the reader, certainly, but not disruptive.
The Beginning Hook:
I was instantly intrigued by Madame Bovary (Flaubert 1857) for one single, stand out reason. The book is titled “Madame Bovary”. The blurb enticingly states “Emma Bovary is beautiful and bored.” And yet, the narration begins with dull Charles Bovary. And then following that, two equally dull Madame Bovary’s; Charles’ mother, and Charles’ first wife, chosen by his mother. The curiosity to see when and how this mysterious other Madame
Bovary would come into the story is what kept me reading. That, and the humour.
On Constructing Reality:
Flaubert’s (1857) construction of reality is so thorough that when Emma, having had her monstrous debts revealed to the town, goes to beg money from the wealthy Guillmen, enters his house and observes “Now this…is the dining room I ought to have.” (p. 223).
The reader laughs out loud and sinks their head in their hands in disbelief. Emma is still (still!) not content with what she has in life. There she is, begging for money, and still she is hungering for more, more, more.
By this reaction from myself, as a reader, I realised I had become entirely sucked into the world crafted by Flaubert. He creates human characters, and describes a world so thoroughly, that the reader forgets that these are not helplessly foolish, fallible neighbours, friends or relatives of theirs, but characters in a book, doing what Flaubert makes them.
Another such scene that reveals, by personal reaction, how successfully real Flaubert has made Madame Bovary (1857) to his audience, is this one:
‘If you’d like to go in now and again,’ he said, ‘that wouldn’t be too ruinous, after all.’ ‘But it’s no use unless you keep it up regularly,’ she replied. And that was how she managed to obtain her husband’s permission to go into Rouen once a week to see her lover. (p. 272)
“And Emma started laughing, a ghastly, frantic, desperate laugh, fancying she could see the hideous face of the beggar rising up like a nightmare amid the eternal darkness. (Flaubert 1857, p. 337)
At last she sighed. ‘What can be more distressing than to drag out a futile existence like mine? If only our sorrows could be of use to someone, we might find some consolation in the thought of our sacrifice.’ (Flaubert 1857, p. 245)
Notice here, the great detail Flaubert gives, like a camera focusing on a scene, time and place, to draw the moment out and mark it as important, before panning over the rest of the setting:
In summer there was more of its shelving bank to be seen, and the garden walls were uncovered to their base, with several of the steps leading down to the water. The river ran noiselessly, swift, cool to the eye. Tall slender grasses leaned above it in a mass, bent by the force of the current; weeds streamed out in the limpid water like green wigs tossed away. Now and then some fine legged insect alighted on the tip of a reed or crawled over a water-lily leaf. The sunshine darted its rays through the little blue bubbles on the wavelets that kept forming and breaking; old lopped willow-trees gazed at their own grey bark in the water. Beyond, the fields looked empty for miles around. (Flaubert, 1857, p. 107)
Had they nothing else to say to one another? More serious communications were, to be sure, passing between their eyes. As they tried to make conversation, they felt the same languor stealing over them both, as if their whispering voices were being drowned by the deep continuous murmur of their souls. (Flaubert 1857, p. 108)
Flaubert, G 1857, Madame Bovary, 3rd edn. Penguin Group, Australia.