Swimming With Books

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Emma Bovary: a false character

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Madame BovaryMadame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Madame Bovary is a false story, featuring false characters. Flaubert’s genius for description and imagery, for the specific, concrete detail, for evoking the material world and for building a scene, does not make up for his chronically limited and inflexible vision. (‘His mother remarked…that the pursuit of the perfect phrase had dessicated his heart’ – from the intro.) Therefore the novel is more of a literary artefact than a text that still has the power to move a reader, unless the reader is an embittered misogynist.

Reading Madame Bovary, I was constantly reminded of the warning Charles Baxter gives in his excellent book Burning Down the House about not ‘overdetermining and overparenting’ one’s characters. From beginning to end of the novel, there’s no doubt that Flaubert knows exactly what sort of character he was creating in Emma: she must never have surprised him. On virtually every page, he manipulates her, and tries to manipulate us. For example, when he unexpectedly turns to Charles’s point of view after the terrible amputation scene, it’s only so that we judge Emma the more harshly a few pages later.

Of course, someone like Emma could exist. This book enraged me not because Emma died, or because she was meant to be ashamed (though I don’t believe she was: she was, instead, terrified of humiliation and of oblivion, and most of all, furious that she hadn’t got the perfect life she lusted after). I dislike Flaubert because Emma is a false character, meant to illustrate a point. She is a lie, and so the whole book is a lie. And she stands for all the women who have been used to make a point.

It is Flaubert’s insistence on her nature, and his determination that she be consigned to hell, and the clunky techniques he uses to try to persuade us of the rightness of his vision, that make her unbelievable. Emma is never anything other than sentimental, sensual, selfish, self-indulgent, hypocritical, and deceptive. She is consistently and continually deluded about her own nature and her entitlement to happiness, and she has almost no rational intelligence. She is terribly unkind to her daughter, though it’s questionable how much Flaubert meant that to be a sign of cruelty, given his general attitude to women in this book. ‘Where could she have learned such corruption…?’ Flaubert endowed her with it: she has no free will.

Once Flaubert has set Emma up, there’s very little further character development. She’s merely on a predictable trajectory, ready to fall. Flaubert gets her there with marvellously rich writing, but that doesn’t take away from the sour taste.

As she begins her descent, Flaubert seems to suggest that Emma might find redemption in religion, but even then she’s shown to be insincere: ‘…she thought herself seized with the finest Catholic melancholy that ever an ethereal soul could conceive of…’; ‘…she called upon her Lord in the same sweet words she had once murmured to her lover, in the raptures of adultery.’

In the introduction, Geoffrey Wall says that Emma ‘dies in a pain that is exactly adjusted to the intensity of our preceding identification’. That’s not true. I was deeply sorry for her in her pain; but I did not identify with her at all. I did not even believe in her. It was Flaubert who visited that pain upon her, and to an intensity matched by his desire that she should suffer. It’s interesting that he repeatedly vomited while writing the scene. I can’t imagine it’s because he identified with her.

Geoffrey Wall also suggests that the characters speak in clichés; that Flaubert set out to perpetuate stereotypes. I don’t think this is true of Emma: Flaubert tried his hardest to persuade us of her reality.

Again, as she’s dying, Flaubert seems to offer her redemption through the sacrament. For a moment there’s ‘an expression of serenity on her face, as though the sacrament had cured her’, but then she gives an ‘atrocious, frantic, desperate laugh, at the imagined sight of the beggar’s hideous face, stationed in the eternal darkness’: I think Flaubert meant us to understand that she’s off to hell. He hates her to the very last.

Charles is the more ambiguous, interesting character (I love the moment when Flaubert writes of his meeting with Rodolphe: ‘He so wanted to have been this other man’) and I’m annoyed that Flaubert already wrote his ending. He deserves (and in my imagination does have) a more interesting fate than falling off a bench, dead, having gone insane. But by Flaubert’s metaphysical rules, Charles does not enjoy full self-determination: ‘She was corrupting him from beyond the grave’. What a load of rubbish.


Written by Susan Pearce

March 27, 2011 at 5:54 am

Posted in Fiction

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