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Madame Bovary ()


Okay now, I don't want to put more weight on this theory than it will support, an eternal inclination of someone whose world view is as rigid as mine, but I think it has some validity, so bear with me.  I don't think that it is necessarily true that native literature reveals a nation's soul, but I do think that when you can discern clear and consistent patterns in that literature, it probably is indicative of some general aspects of the national psyche.

It is surely not a coincidence that so many of the central characters of American Literature are rugged individualists who can be found fleeing the restrictive constraints of organized society--Natty Bumpo, Ishmael and Ahab, Huck Finn and Jim, the cowboys and gunslingers of the Western, Marlowe/Spade/Archer, Cool Hand Luke, RP McMurphy and so on.  The authors who created these characters are certainly not all speaking with one voice, but the similarity of their creations does seem to imply an American archetype--male, independent, bound by a moral code instead of by law, etc..

Similarly, British Literature is top heavy in the class conscious comedy of manners, often dependent on the mistaken identity and rife with tension between social climbers and those afraid of slipping down the ladder.  It is fiction, from Fielding to Dickens to Forster, that groans under the burden of status stratification, and, while it often celebrates those who rise above their station, there is an assumption, beginning even with King Arthur, that those who rise were misplaced in the lower classes to begin with and their ascension is merely a result of recognition of their true identity.  Despite the many differences of individual British authors, these themes taken as a whole accurately reflect the centrality of class position in British life and the genuine conservatism of the society.

Which brings us to French Literature, the central motifs of which seem to be materialism, envy and suicide.  From Rousseau to the Marquis de Sade to Madame Bovary to Proust, the concern of French writers is time and again focussed on appetite, sensation and the gratification of physical desires.  It is impossible to imagine Jean Valjean as the hero of a British novel, the idea that circumstances can justify thieving is antithetical to the English system.  Nor can I think of a single major character (*see note below)(I exclude Kate Chopin's The Awakening which is based on Bovary) in Anglo-American letters who commits suicide (though, oddly enough, Sydney Carton does sacrifice himself on the French guillotine).  And yet, Javert, the Hunchback and Bovary all kill themselves and Camus writes in The Myth of Sisyphus that "There is but one truly serious philosophical problem, and that is suicide.  Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy."  Again, note that there are no Anglo-American Existentialists; this philosophy, with its emphasis on a purely material world and the essential despair implicit in human existence, has no exponents in the culture where human dignity is assumed and protected, freedom is the highest value and human progress is viewed as the purpose of existence.  It is the French and Germans and Russians who have embraced this sort of God is Dead/Man is rampant belief system and, not surprising, each of those states has seen governments bathed in the blood of their own citizens.

How does this all play itself out in Madame Bovary? It has been said that all subsequent literature is simply a retelling of Don Quixote, and while that may be a tad hyperbolic, the debt that Madame Bovary owes to the Don is unmistakable.  But where Cervantes was parodying the literature of chivalry, Flaubert parodied the romance novel.  As Erica Jong explained in Salon Magazine:

    Emma Bovary is deluded by literature. Because she is in search of ecstasy and transcendence, she
    falls madly in love with a cad, then with a coward, ignoring the plodding husband and child who
    both adore her. She is looking for a higher, more spiritual life than the one available to her as the
    wife of a bourgeois country doctor, and in this quest she finds only self-destruction. We identify
    with her because we too look to fantasy for salvation. If Emma Bovary, with all her self-delusion,
    still stirs our hearts, it is because she wants something authentic and important: for her life to have
    meaning, for her life to bring transcendence.

And if, despite Cervantes opposite intent, the misadventures of Don Quixote eventually leave us with an enduring admiration for the chivalric code of the well intentioned but naive knight, the tragedy of Madame Bovary is, likewise, ultimately an expression of the very romantic notions it seeks to skewer.  It was not inaccurate for Flaubert to say that Madame Bovary was himself.  And, as Jong admiringly writes, Madame Bovary represents rebellion against the bourgeois values that America and England so stolidly enforce.  Instead, Madame Bovary seeks "ecstasy and transcendence", a kind of selfish desire for personal fleshly sensation.

Consider her view of the city:

              And so Paris, in Emma's eyes, gleamed vaster than the ocean,
              and was bathed in an atmosphere of rose and gold. The
              multifarious life that tossed in its restless tumult was divided into
              parts, classified in distinct categories. Of these Emma only
              perceived two or three, which shut out all the rest from her
              vision and which she looked on as representing the human race
              as a whole. People of ambassadorial rank walked on polished
              floors, in stately chambers hung with mirrors surrounding oval
              tables covered with velvet fringed with gold. There you might see
              dresses with long trains, and be a witness to profound mysteries,
              and look on at anguish dissembled by a smile. Then came the
              world of duchesses. How pale they all were! They got up at four
              o'clock. The women, poor dear angels, wore English point lace on
              their petticoats, and the men- you would never guess what brains
              lay hid beneath their careless bearing- rode their horses to death,
              for the mere fun of the thing, went to Baden for the hot season,
              and finally, when they were nearing forty, settled down with a
              wealthy heiress. In private rooms, in restaurants, all ablaze with
              candles, where suppers are served after midnight, the motley
              throng of writing men and actresses sped the hours in merry
              laughter. They were prodigal as kings, full of soaring ideals and
              fantastic conceits. They lived a life above the common herd,
              betwixt heaven and earth, where the storm-winds whirled, in the
              realms of the sublime. As for the rest of the world, it was difficult
              to say where it was; it seemed to have no definite existence. The
              nearer things were to her, the more she shunned their contact.
              All her immediate surroundings- the dreary country, the stupid
              little bourgeois folk, the mediocrity of daily life- struck her as
              something exceptional in the world, an accident peculiar to the
              time and place in which her lot was cast; while away beyond it all,
              as far as the eye could see, spread the limitless land of passion
              and felicity.

Despite some idle cant about high ideals, what clearly attracts her is the artifice of this urban milieu, the ornate trappings and material excess.  Such sentiments are unimaginable in the literature of America, where the city is the focus of evil and the frontier is the beau ideal.

Madame Bovary's longing for sensation is so inchoate that it ultimately does not seem to matter what form the experience takes.  Merely to stimulate the senses is sufficient in and of itself:

              Deep down in her heart, she was waiting and waiting for
              something to happen. Like a shipwrecked mariner, she gazed out
              wistfully over the wide solitude of her life, if so be she might
              catch the white gleam of a sail away on the dim horizon. She
              knew not what it would be, this longed-for barque; what wind
              would waft it to her, or to what shores it would bear her away.
              She knew not if it would be a shallop or a three-decker, burdened
              with anguish or freighted with joy. But every morning when she
              awoke she hoped it would come that day. She listened to every
              sound, started swiftly from her bed, and could not understand
              why nothing happened. And then at sunset, more sad at heart
              than ever, she would long for the morrow to come.

This departure from ideas and ideals, from the morality and political philosophy that bind English and American society, is but one step on the way to the brothel, the guillotine, the man on the white horse, the dictatorship, the gulag, the death camps, murder, suicide, genocide, etc.  But when sensation triumphs over reason, that is surely the path upon which you have set your feet.  After all, France during the Revolution, the Terror, the Commune, WWI, Vichy, DeGaulle, etc. must have been a thrilling place, however despicable and inhuman.  Madame Bovary, like Madame DeFarge, would have had a blast at the guillotine.

Madame Bovary has been called a "perfect" novel.  Flaubert was infamous for torturing his sentences, writing and rewriting them ad infinitum in pursuit of the ideal form.  The effects of his labor are obvious, by any standard it is a beautifully written book.  But what can the critics mean by perfect?  That he gets in there, tells his tale and gets out?  Okay, we'll give him that; there's less dross here than in many a great novel.  That he has a perfect story to tell?  Hardly; in the final analysis, the "tragedy" of Madame Bovary reminds me of the "Tragedy" of MacBeth.  What is there that is truly tragic about bad things happening to bad people?  I say good riddance to the slattern.

I find myself happily in error as to my comments on the French novel vs. the AngloAmerican novel, happily because the error proves the point.  When I said that suicide was unique to the French novel, I had forgotten Ford Madox Ford's The Good Soldier (see review).  Significantly, it is subtitled A Tale of Passion.  And at the end of this "saddest story" the narrator asks:

                      Why can't people have what they want?  The things were all there to
                      content everybody; yet everybody has the wrong thing.  Perhaps you can
                      make head or tail of it; it is beyond me.

                      Is there any terrestial paradise where, amidst the whispering of the
                      olive-leaves, people can be whom they like and have what they like and
                      take ease in shadows and in coolness?  Or are all men's lives like the
                      lives of us good people--like the lives of the Ashburnhams, of the
                      Dowells, of the Ruffords--broken, tumultuous, agonized, and unromantic
                      lives, periods punctuated by screams, by imbecilities, by deaths, by
                      agonies?  Who the devil knows?

Then in the final scene of the novel, Ashburnham, the "Good Soldier" of the title, slits his own throat.

So, you're saying, things aren't looking to good for your intrepid reviewer, right?  Wrong!  Here is Ford's own introduction to the novel (in the form of a letter to his wife):

                      I had in those days an ambition: that was to do for the English novel
                      what in Fort come la Mort, Maupassant had done for the French.  One
                      day I had my reward, for I happened to be in a company where a fervent
                      young admirer exclaimed:  "By Jove, The Good Soldier is the finest
                      novel in the English language!" whereupon my friend Mr. John Rodker
                      who has always had a properly tempered admiration for my work remarked
                      in his clear, slow drawl:  "Ah yes.  It is, but you have left out a
                      word.  It is the finest French novel in the English language!"

Q.E.D.!!

(Reviewed:)

Grade: (B+)

  

Websites:

See also:

French Literature
Gustave Flaubert Links:

    -REVIEW : of 'Savage Reprisals: Bleak House, Madame Bovary, Buddenbrooks' by Peter Gay (Lorraine Adams, Washington Post)

Book-related and General Links:
    -ETEXT: Madame Bovary  By Gustave Flaubert (1856)
    -BIO: Gustave Flaubert (1821-1880)(kijasto)
    -BIBLIO: Flaubert: Selected Further Reading
    -LETTER: Gustave Flaubert letter to Ivan Turgenev
    -ESSAY: Fiction Victim (Erica Jong, Salon)
    -ANNOTATED ETEXTS: (Self Knowledge)
    -ONLINE STUDYGUIDE : Madame Bovary (Brian Phillips, Spark Notes)
    -REVIEW: (Matthew Hodgart: Can You Top This?, NY Review of Books)
        Flaubert and Madame Bovary: A Double Portrait revised edition, by Francis Steegmuller
        Flaubert: The Making of the Master by Enid Starkie
        Flaubert by Benjamin F. Bart
        Madame Bovary and the Critics edited by B.F. Bart
    -REVIEW: (V.S Pritchett: Troubadour, NY Review of Books)
        The Novels of Flaubert: A Study of Themes and Techniques by Victor Brombert
        Intimate Notebook 1840-1841 by Gustave Flaubert and translated by Francis Steegmuller
        The Dictionary of Accepted Ideas by Gustave Flaubert and translated by Jacques Barzun
        November by Gustave Flaubert, translated by Frank Jellinek, and edited by Francis Steegmuller
    -REVIEW: of FLAUBERT A Biography By Herbert Lottman (Deirdre Bair, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: (Julian Barnes: Unlikely Friendship, NY review of Books)
        Flaubert-Sand: The Correspondence translated by Francis Steegmuller and Barbara Bray
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF GUSTAVE FLAUBERT, 1857-1880. Selected,
        edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller (Anatole Broyard, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF GUSTAVE FLAUBERT 1857-1880 Selected, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller (James Atlas, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Letters of Gustave Flaubert: 1857-1880 selected, edited, and translated by Francis Steegmuller (Stuart Hampshire, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of The Letters of Gustave Flaubert, 1830-1857 selected, edited and translated by Francis Steegmuller (V.S. Pritchett, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: FLAUBERT & TURGENEV. A Friendship in Letters: The Complete Correspondence. Edited and translated by Barbara Beaumont (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: (Charles Rosen: Romantic Documents, NY Review of Books)
        Flaubert: Correspondence Tome I, 1830-1851 edited by Jean Bruneau
        Byron's Letters and Journals, Vol. 1: 'In my hot youth,' 1798-1810, Vol. 2: 'Famous in my time,'
        1810-1812, Vol. 3: 'Alas! the love of Women!' 1813-1814 edited by Leslie A. Marchand
    -REVIEW: of THE PERPETUAL ORGY. Flaubert and Madame Bovary. By Mario Vargas Llosa (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and 'Madame Bovary' by Mario Vargas Llosa and translated by Helen Lane (Roger Shattuck, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of FLAUBERT'S PARROT. By Julian Barnes (Peter Brooks, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes (Frank Kermode, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: of THE FAMILY IDIOT Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857. Volume I. By Jean-Paul Sartre.
        Translated by Carol Cosman (Frederick Jameson, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Family Idiot: Gustave Flaubert 1821-1857, Vol.I by Jean-Paul Sartre and translated by Carol Cosman (Frederick Brown, NY Review of Books)
    -REVIEW: (John Weightman: Battle of the Century-Sartre vs. Flaubert, NY Review of Books)
        L'idiot de la famille Gustave Flaubert de 1821 à 1857 by Jean-Paul Sartre
        The Greatness of Flaubert by Maurice Nadeau and translated by Barbara Bray
    -ESSAY: The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote ( Simon Leys, NY Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: : The Pleasures of Abstinence  (Roger Shattuck, NY Review of Books)

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