Madame Bovary: Patterns of Provincial Life by Gustave Flaubert; translated by Francis Steegmuller. Recommended.
Surprisingly, Madame Bovary begins with a look at the painful childhood of the seemingly dull and plodding man who will become the title character’s longsuffering husband, Charles Bovary. The novel commences with a mysterious “we” — the identity of the narrator who tells the story of Bovary’s ignominious entry into school is not known — but then changes to third-person omniscient. Charles is a conscientious, yet average, student, whose school, career, lodgings, and even first wife are selected by his mother. His marriage to Emma Rouault, the daughter of an apparently prosperous farmer, is the first major decision he makes for himself about his life and borders on an act of rebellion. That this act of independence should have such tragic consequences only adds to their effect.
Like many of her class, Emma is a romantic dreamer — but one who expects others to make those dreams into reality. Within a short time of her wedding, perhaps even on the day after, “the bride made not the slightest sign that could be taken to betray anything at all.” For Charles Bovary, however, marriage to Emma — following as it does on the heels of his first marriage to a thin, complaining huissier’s widow whose financial assets prove to be negligible — seems to be the culmination of happiness. “He was happy now, without a care in the world.” Every moment spent with her, each of her gestures, “and many other things in which it had never occurred to him to look for pleasure — such now formed the steady current of his happiness.”
When her marriage proves to be a plunge into a provincial life devoid of the romance promised by books, arts, and a naïve imagination, Madame Bovary blames her average, unambitious husband, Flaubert writes, “. . . following formulas she believed efficacious, she kept trying to experience love . . . Having thus failed to produce the slightest spark of love in herself, and since she was incapable of understanding what she didn’t experience, or of recognizing anything that wasn’t expressed in conventional terms, she reached the conclusion that Charles’s desire for her was nothing very extraordinary.” With that inescapable conclusion in mind, Emma is free to find “love” elsewhere — for example, in a recurring fantasy about a count who dances with her at an aristocrat’s party; with the worldly Rodolphe Boulanger for whom she is little more than another in a string of mistresses; and for the young student-clerk Léon Dupuis for whom she is a brilliant, sympathetic flower among the colorless bourgeoisie.
Although in the “Translator’s Introduction” Steegmuller mentions, “Flaubert’s supposed conception of his heroine as a character too sublime for this world,” Emma is neither sublime nor sympathetic. Rather than seek happiness within or to improve herself, or to appreciate the value of even her uninspiring husband, she blames others for the monotony of her life and its lack of excitement and passion. She cannot find consolation in her daughter (“she wanted a son”), and neglects and even mistreats her. She tries to bolster herself through Charles’s position, at the cost of a young man’s leg. The village abbé, Bournisien, is oblivious to her emotional turmoil and pain and advises her to “drink a cup of tea” as a remedy. His nemesis Homais, a pseudoscientific pharmacist who is the archetype for the petit bourgeoisie, drowns out all around him with his droning theories and ideas, including Madame Bovary and his hapless assistant Justin. There are no kindred spirits for Emma in either Tostes or Yonville l’Abbaye.
As her actions lead her into a downward emotional and financial spiral, Emma finds nothing around her to which to turn and no one to help, except if she is willing to prostitute herself. Her life, built on her dreams and her sacrifice of others, is doomed. By the end of the novel, she has been reduced to little more than a scheming adulteress and petty debtor. Ironically, her husband’s passion and grief for her bring out the personal nobility to which she was purposely blind. He has always had that to which she aspired.
Although Emma Bovary is certainly impossible to forget, equally memorable are all the novel’s supporting characters, from Tuvache and his lathe and the lovesick Justin to Homais, whose banality throughout may be summed up by his award of the cross of the Legion of Honor. This last is a suitable ending for this study of the patterns of provincial life.
13 June 2003
Copyright © Diane L. Schirf