German philosopher Friedrich Engels once said “All history has been a history of class struggles between dominated classes at various stages of social development”. In all societies, each social class has unique characteristics and distinctions, especially in lifestyles and privileges within their respective cultures; however, when differences between social classes become too great, problems begin to arise. Despite the different settings of Allende’s The House of the Spirits and Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the distinctions between social classes in each novel produce the same problematic results for the characters; the problematic results demonstrate the negative effect of vast distinctions between social classes.Allende depicts the differences between the social classes in The House of the Spirits well through the interaction between the people of Tres Marías. Tres Marías contains two major social classes: the landowning class and the peasant class. The landowning class consists of the Trueba family, for Esteban Trueba is the patron of the hacienda, while the peasant class consists of the hacienda’s workers, including the García family. Allende presents the two classes as foils of each other. While Allende portrays the wealth of the landowning class through their fancy clothing, she depicts the peasant class as poor through their filthy rags. Relationship-wise, the landowning class has complete control over the peasant class; the Truebas have control over the happenings in the hacienda and the people who work there. While the peasants toil over the land, all of the rewards go towards the Truebas. The distinctions between the two social classes make them too different to live in harmony, causing major problems for the characters. Because of his title as the patron of Tres Marías, Esteban Trueba finds himself superior to the peasants and expects the rest of his family to feel the same. However, the other family members’ involvement with the lower social class causes tensions within the family. To get around her father’s prohibition, Blanca hides her relationship with Pedro Tercero. “Without anyone telling them, they realized that they could not act so freely in front of others… they began to hide when they wanted to play. They stopped walking hand in hand within sight of the adults, and they ignored each other so as not to attract attention” (Allende 147). Once Esteban Trueba discovers Blanca’s secret, he becomes furious with her. Blanca’s brothers Jaime and Nicolas also have interactions with the peasant class. Both feel sympathetic and charitable towards the workers of Tres Marias and other people less fortunate. Their involvement with the peasants causes tension between them and their father because Esteban Trueba does not want them to ruin the family reputation by becoming involved with people below them. Because of the great differences between the two classes, jealousy arises. Esteban García provides a perfect example; Esteban García envies the Truebas’ luxurious life and believes that if Esteban Trueba realizes and accepts that the Trueba blood flows through his veins as well, he too can live that life. However, Esteban Trueba fails to acknowledge Esteban García as his illegitimate grandson, which results in a growing hatred within Esteban García. This hatred fuels Esteban García’s desire for revenge.In Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, differences between social classes also cause problems for the characters. As a member of the bourgeoisie, protagonist Emma Bovary finds herself bored with the lifestyle of her social class and desires the elegant life of the aristocrats. Emma uses her affairs with Rodolphe and the new, cosmopolitan Leon in order to feel like she belongs in higher society. As the story continues, her desire for acceptance by the aristocrats becomes out of control and her endeavors fail to meet her expectations. Ironically, as Emma tries to force her way into a higher class, she ends up falling down a class. “The men whispered in one corner, probably discussing the expenses. There were a clerk, two medical students, and a shop assistant. What company for her! As for the women, Emma quickly realized from their voices that almost all of them were from the dregs of society. Then she grew frightened, pushed back her chair, and lowered her eyes” (Flaubert 273). Flaubert uses irony to show how Emma realizes that she has failed to live the social lifestyle she originally envisions. The difference and the isolation of the bourgeoisie and the aristocracy cause Emma to concoct ideal visions of the lives of the aristocrats, which does not reflect reality. This results in Emma trying to realize her ideal expectations of the upper class, which eventually leads to her death. The House of the Spirits and Madame Bovary incorporate the dangers of the vast differences in social class in similar ways. For example, both authors have social class bring about tragedies in their novels’ plots. In The House of the Spirits, Esteban García personifies the struggle involving social class. As a child, Esteban García aspires to become a recognized part of the Trueba family and the landowning class. However, his illegitimate grandfather fails to acknowledge him as part of the family, spurring hate within Esteban García which intensifies as he becomes older. This hate fuels his desire for revenge on the Trueba family, which he releases upon Alba Trueba, who he keeps as a personal prisoner. In Madame Bovary, Emma’s desire to change social classes brings about her ultimate downfall. Desiring to enhance her social class, she buys extravagant gifts for her lovers. Her expenses, however, bring her deeper into debt. Under desperate measures to get herself out of debt, she takes her own life. Also, both Esteban García and Emma Bovary, the characters involved with the social class-caused tragedies, aspire to rise in social classes; in the end Esteban García succeeds while Emma does not. Allende and Flaubert use different distinctions between their cultures’ social classes in order to create the conflict in their respective novels. In The House of the Spirits, Allende describes the peasant class as less classy than the landowning class. In fact, Allende describes them in a negative way. “They were a sorry lot. He saw various women of indecipherable age, their skin dry and cracked, some apparently pregnant, all of them barefoot and dressed in faded rags” (49). The landowning class, the Trueba family, owns a large estate, has a lot of power over the other class, and benefits from the peasants’ work. In Madame Bovary, Flaubert uses the protagonist’s influence on the reader to characterize the two classes. Emma finds her bourgeoisie life boring and mediocre. The reader perceives the aristocratic class as superior because Emma believes so. Also, the two novels have different settings. Allende’s novel takes place in a Latin American country whereas Flaubert’s novel takes place in France. The novels, which have similar conflicts that revolve around distinctions between social classes, occur in different settings, but still produce the same, tragic result. This proves that issues caused by the differences in social classes can happen in any culture.In their respective novels, Allende and Flaubert demonstrate that the differences between social classes can have negative impacts on the lives of the characters. The great differences cause Emma Bovary and Esteban García to strive to become part of the better class. As a result of their efforts, they cause tragedies within their respective novels’ plots. The novels teach its readers that the increase in differences between social classes can have dire results. They also encourage the readers keep these results in mind while they look at our own culture in order to make sure that differences in social classes do not have the same or similar negative impacts.
The Spiritual Doldrums of Flaubert’s Madame BovaryThe narrative of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary cannot be completely separated from the commentary on religion and spiritual deficiency in the novel. Segments of Flaubert’s masterpiece are clearly satirical—and if they are not bitingly so, they subtly stir up a criticism of the institution of the church. Specifically, Madame Bovary deals with the ineptitude of the church, and sometimes religion itself, to provide spiritual succor and hope in the face of fear. Emma Bovary is the embodiment of the hopeless, spiritually depraved sinner whom religion has failed to comfort—whom the church has failed to aide. The novel catalogues the journey by which she sets toward salvation and achieves only the self-induced doom of suicide.One of the earliest instances of a turn from faith occurs not with Emma but with her father, Rouault. Rouault’s memory is momentarily piqued as he recalls the small delights his now-deceased wife’s presence had once afforded him. The bittersweet is evoked as he watches the wheels of Emma’s bridal buggy cart her off into the world, just as his wife’s bridal cart had drawn her indelibly into his own world. Seeking solace, Rouault contemplates a visit to the church; yet the church, with its ghosts of bliss (marriage) and woe (death) offers no salve for his wounded sense of spirituality. Of Rouault, Flaubert intimates:“He felt dismal…and as memories and black thoughts mingled in his brain, dulled by the vapors of the past, he considered for a moment turning his steps toward the church. But he was afraid that the sight of it might make him even sadder, so he went straight home.” (Flaubert, pg. 870)In the very upbringing of the immoral, even amoral, Emma Rouault, Flaubert infuses commentary on the superficial nature of the church as a vehicle for salvation. The churchly concerns pressed upon Emma’s soul only cause her spirit to rebel:“The good nuns, who had been taking her vocation quite for granted, were greatly surprised to find that Mademoiselle Rouault was apparently slipping out of their control. And indeed they had so deluged her with prayers, retreats, novenas and sermons, preached so constantly the respect due to saints and the martyrs, and given her so much good advice about modest behavior and the saving of her soul, that she reacted like a horse too tightly reined: she balked, and the bit fell from her teeth.” (Flaubert, pg. 873)As Flaubert later describes, Emma succumbs to fleshly desires and with animal abandon engages in adulterous affairs. Her extramarital escapades and her eventual suicide make a mockery of an institution so bent on spiritual salvation and so confident in its moral enforcement. Afflicted with boredom, Emma flouts her religious rearing and blames God for her sober, stagnant position in life: “It was God’s will. The future was a pitch-black tunnel ending in a locked door.”(Flaubert, pg. 887) Emma’s listlessness causes her to shed any feigned exterior interest in those hobbies in which she once appeared to delight. With hopeless rhetoric she questions, “Who was there to listen…What was the use of anything?” (Flaubert, pg. 887) Emma has nowhere to turn but inward—gnawing deeper into her own despair. Religion offers her no comfort, only greater gloom: “How depressed she was on Sundays, when the churchbell tolled for vespers! With a dull awareness she listened to the cracked sound as it rang out again and again…the bell would keep on giving its regular, monotonous peals.” There is nothing spiritually transforming—nothing spiritually uplifting—about the church in Emma’s dull world. The sound of the bells tolling excites nothing romantic within her, but instead serves as a metaphor for her own life, which drones on tediously.“Part Deux” of Madame Bovary opens with the seemingly arbitrary notation on the Yonville-l’Abbaye—the town to which Charles Bovary and his restless wife Emma move. Is it random that Flaubert—slave to meticulous detail—would include a mention that “even the ruins of the ancient Capuchin friary from which it derives its name are no longer there”? Viewed in the light of Flaubert’s notions of an inexorable fate, this scene of a church-less church town elucidates the grim progression of time—not even this friary could escape decay and ultimate disintegration. A small, remodeled church does stand in the town—but is located across the street from the finest house in Yonville-l’Abbaye. The church’s rotting wooden vaulting and black cavities present a stark contrast to the luxurious and flourishing home across the way. The church and its shambles are left to ruin; the wealthy lack the gratitude to repair it, and the poor lack the means. Small wonder then that it is here in this decrepit town that Emma’s own character will moulder and putrefy into nothingness.Emma undergoes a sort of spiritual resurrection, but quickly her insincere contrition dissipates with the prospect of a new lover. Just as her moral character has departed from the church, so too does Emma depart from the cathedral in the scene of her fever-pitch affair with her second lover, Leon. With little hesitation, the demoralized Emma accepts the pleas of the eager Leon and climbs into the Parisian cab that will host the first of their sexual episodes. Her flight from the Church is so clearly a flight from her already debased moral standing that one can read a hint of foreshadowed doom when the verger cries to Emma and Leon: “Drive past the north door, at least!…Take a look at the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, Paradise, King David, and the souls of the damned in the flames of hell!” (Flaubert, pg. 997) It is as though Flaubert were painting Emma into the history of salvation: hers will be among the souls of the damned in the flames of hell.Having gone to Monsieur Bournisien, the parish priest, in search of spiritual guidance, Emma Bovary encounters only greater despair. With an air of indifference the priest brushes aside her very real, very severe spiritual malaise. When Emma responds to his question—“How are you?”—with a plea—“Poorly”—the uncomprehending Bournisien asks why her husband has yet to prescribe a treatment. “Ah!” Emma replies. “It isn’t earthly remedies that I need” The apathetic priest simply keeps “looking away, into the church, where the boys were kneeling side by side.” (Flaubert, pg. 917) Emma reveals a need for salvation, for a source of happiness in her turbulent woe, and Bournisien offers a paltry, “But what can we do? We’re born to suffer.” (Flaubert, pg. 917)As she lies in bed—a wretch of arsenic and misery—Emma is almost brought to comfort by religion. Upon recognizing the purple stole of the priest who has come to administer her final rites, her mind attaches itself to the “lost ecstasy of her first mystical flights and the first visions of eternal bliss.” (Flaubert, pg. 1047) All is a show, however, and even as she pants closer and closer toward death, Emma kisses the crucifix with overly ecstatic manner—still trying to seize the passion and romantic melancholy that she was so sure life contained. Consider in particular the manner in which Monsieur Bournisien anoints the dying Emma. To exorcise the vice from her corrupted soul, the priest performs chrisms: “He anointed her eyes, once so covetous of all earthly luxuries; then her nostrils, so gluttonous of caressing breezes and amorous scents; then her mouth, so prompt to lie, so defiant in pride, so loud in lust; then her hands, that had thrilled to voluptuous contacts; and finally the soles of her feet, once so swift when she had hastened to slake her desires.” (Flaubert, pg. 1047)To the expiring Emma, the priest is cool and uncomforting—religion offers scarcely any cushion to death’s approach—and the priest’s routine style reflects little personal care for the plight of the self-damning woman. Having performed the rituals, Monsieur Bournisien stoically “wiped his fingers, threw the oil-soaked bits of cotton into the fire, and returned to the dying woman, sitting beside her and telling her that now she must unite her sufferings with Christ’s and throw herself on the divine mercy.” (Flaubert, pg. 1047) In a profound display of symbolic mastery, Flaubert describes the priest’s attempt to have the failing Emma grasp a candle—the symbol of the “celestial glories” which characterize heaven. At the point of death, Emma is too weak to grasp the candle and its religious implications, just as her moral character had been too weak to grasp virtue and battle worldly temptation. As Emma’s convulsions come to a climax, and death finally besets her, the lackluster image of the tolling bells winds its way back into her tale: “everything seemed drowned by the monotonous flow of Latin syllables that sounded like the tolling of a bell.” (Flaubert, pg. 1048)Madame Bovary’s banal existence has fallen far short of her romantic ideals, and the Catholic mysticism with which she had once been enamored proves to be a charade. Her shallow devotion to religion cannot endure the depths of her dejection—and it is without real peace of mind that Emma passes from this anguished life into the next. The novel lilts to a finale of despair, and closes like Emma’s life, with the melancholy song of the blind beggar who captures in his notes of woe the hapless misery of the human condition.
I.Artist M.C. Escher, famous for his deceptive manipulations of vignettes, once asserted that “Reality cannot exist without illusion, and illusion not without reality.” There is no telling why Escher or countless others are preoccupied with the absurd, with the gray matter of the world; it is difficult to understand how reality can become so stale and trite as to force one to escape from it altogether. After all, there are so many paradigms left to break, so many conceptual questions left unanswered. Perhaps there are some who are innately lacking this recognition of the beauty and paradox of actuality, some who choose to ignore the authenticity of self and escape into some misapprehension, some dream. In few works is this persona better epitomized than in Gustave Flaubert’s classic 1857 publication Madame Bovary. Though the novel is often considered to be a commentary on the corruptible French Bourgeois, the story centers around the selfish machinations of Emma Bovary, a stifled housewife unsatisfied with the life she is leading. Emma, perhaps inadvertently, falls into a parallel world of wining and dining, balls, and other opulent misgivings that eventually lead her to a feeling of disgust for her true vitality, consequently ending her life in suicide. Emma is never able to see the magnificence in relationships and love; she is swept away by the pretentious ideas of Romanticism and luxury. Her husband, Charles, is sadly also in an imaginary world of his own. He cannot detect the indiscrete schemes of his plotting wife. Charles believes he is living a fairy tale with a loving and obedient wife, when in fact it couldn’t be farther from the truth. Ironically enough, those the couple encounter in the treacherous society encroaching on them are the ones closest to reality. In Madame Bovary and in civilization today, both the beauty and danger of illusion is that it removes one from reality in such a way that the latter then loses some splendor of its own. II Lawrence Thornton, in his 1978 criticism of the piece, proposes that Emma Bovary exists in a fantasy world fabricated by “Three visual modes…descriptive, hallucinatory, and autoscopic.” He asserts the descriptive manner of vision explains Madame Bovary’s internal condition and conveys why she reacts to external stimuli in the way she does. Thornton believes Flaubert uses imagery of Emma’s surroundings to parallel her innermost emotions. In her hallucinatory state, Madame Bovary loses all sense of time and becomes engulfed in her latest whim – be it a man or some other object of her ephemeral affection. Temporarily, she forgets she is married and forgets she is teetering on the edge of bankruptcy. Thornton seems to condone her behavior because of this delusional mode, blaming it and not the person upon whom it manifests. The autoscopic vision seems to combine the former two, explaining the merging of past and present and how it prevents Emma from ever differentiating between fantasy and reality. Flaubert’s style seems to fade out behind Emma’s own articulations, making this mode the most revealing of Emma Bovary’s psyche. Thornton’s ideas on Flaubert’s use of imagery to parallel Emma’s feelings are brilliant, but his analysis of three different modes of vision seems far-fetched and overreaching. Emma Bovary’s notions and emotions seem to almost always be paired with a similar vignette, be it quixotic, desolate or even promising. Flaubert is indeed revealing in this technique how easily Emma is affected by the most subtle of subtleties around her. Thornton claims that Emma no longer understands the concept of time, when in fact it is quite the opposite. Emma is existing in her plight precisely because she is so aware of time. Madame Bovary knows she cannot waste time as an obedient housewife and must expel her desires somehow. Thornton mistakes Emma’s desires for fleeting wants indifferent to time. Though Emma may long to stay young forever, she knows exactly where and how she is, and is doing what she can to inject excitement into her life. If Emma were to have no concept of time, she would not be so desperate and willing to fall into illusion. Her perception of time is why her illusions are so dangerous. III If ever there were evidence of Emma Bovary’s false sense of what is ideal and what is just, it lies in the style of Flaubert’s writing. Emma persistently scrutinizes her situation and has not the appreciation of the most self-absorbed and pompous in society. The journeys into Emma’s thoughts express Flaubert’s style flawlessly, manipulating the reader into detecting the detrimental effects of a false reality. Madame Bovary ponders: “Would this misery last forever? Would she never be out of it? She certainly deserved as much as all those women who were living happily. She had seen duchesses at Vaubyessard who had clumsier figures and more common manners than she, and she cursed God’s injustice; she would lean her head against the wall and cry; she envied tumultuous lives, masked balls, and insolent pleasures with all the mad distractions they probably offered and that she had never known.” (83) This self-inquiry conveys Emma’s insight that probes no further than the material level, the outer surface of things. She continues to create a chasm between her own life and that which she desires, evident in Flaubert’s sentence structure. To begin the passage, Madame Bovary uses two simple, segregating sentences referencing the life she currently leads. As the segment progresses and Emma draws into the life she yearns for, however, her thoughts are materialized into freight-train sentences, displaying her boredom with the present circumstances and a garnished, romantic idea of what she thinks she deserves. Flaubert employs this concealed technique throughout the novel, slowly increasing the breach between whim and actuality. The tone is melancholic, but in being so it is also latently manipulative. Emma is so distraught, so desperate for a new existence, she almost provokes empathy from the reader. This is precisely Flaubert’s strategy – he wants the audience to feel compassion for Emma. The reader soon realizes he should not be feeling sympathy for such an ungrateful adulteress, and has encountered the hazards of illusion. Emma is so out of touch with reality she invokes the audience to side with her, proving the power of fantasy. Emma is already too justified in her mind to revert back to reality, as evident in the phrase “She certainly deserved as much…” She is convinced that what could be should be, and Flaubert exquisitely portrays this through his style. IV Society is a corruptible entity; it is flawed and responsible for the perils in the world today. There are many reasons for this imperfection in civilization, and, as exemplified in Madame Bovary, misapprehension is among the most paramount. It is not to say goals or ambitions are among these terrible misgivings, rather it is the arbitrary and lustful desires or impressions that weave the flaws into the fabric of mankind. Illusion is a chief catalyst behind ignorance, sin, and disgrace. Emma Bovary possesses the most frivolous desires in the story, and, fittingly, she carries the most ignominy. Her wants stem from readings of quixotic tales filled with lacy imagery of swoon and fancy possessions, leading her to an idea of what her vitality should be. Despite the lack of money flowing into the household, Emma sinks herself into debt purchasing needless item after needless item, killing her sense of moderation and modesty. After the ball in Vaubyessard, she then begins to conjure up an idea of the perfect man, not appreciating the loving one she actually has. With each day, Emma comes to loathe the true possessions and the genuine man in her life, leaving her perpetually yearning for something more. Spawned from this cycle is Madame Bovary’s eventual committals of adultery and deceit, displaying the ease with which fantasy may cause transgression and dishonor. A spurious idea of reality is also responsible for temporal blindness and denial. Charles never suspects any wrongdoing on Emma’s behalf, despite the mounting evidence against her. He believes from day one he is living out the typical bourgeois lifestyle, loving Emma as a trustworthy wife. His fantasy, though more innocent and respectable than Emma’s, is just as thoughtless and contributing to the faults in society. Because he believes the marriage is perfect, Charles never attempts to change his monotonous and predictable ways. The two have no idea what the other wants because they are blinded by two unrealistic fantasies. A fantasy can only go as far as one wants it to, but, sadly, society is plagued by those who cannot distinguish it from actuality. Emma Bovary’s illusions produce sin and ignominy while her husband’s create an impermeable ignorance and blindness. Illusion, as shown in these examples, is the cause of the many defects of the human condition. V Reality indeed cannot exist without illusion, because without the latter there is nothing to compare what is real to what is not. Likewise, illusion will never stand alone because there must exist an entity from which to escape. Few recognize that this subtle relationship is a beautiful one – it has led to innovation, discovery, and love. But it is also treacherous, as some will polarize to total fantasy and may never fall back into a healthy balance of both it and reality. This is so in the disastrously exquisite tale of Madame Bovary. Charles and Emma Bovary are a tragic couple, doomed from the start, and impeded by a lack of genuine vitality. It frustrates the reader that the two can never escape from their fantasies of opulence, excitement, or true love and companionship. The story presents beauty as well, however – Charles and Emma salvage some joy out of lives they were unfortunately thrown into. As the saying goes, ignorance is bliss, and indubitably, both Charles and Emma find pleasure only in their fantasies. People will always find ways to achieve happiness, be it in illusion, actuality, or a combination of the two. Of course, there are perils in escaping into a fantasy world, but who is anyone to say what one should or shouldn’t do? It is the wonderful complexity of the human will that will dictate where our lives will lead us. When I look at another M.C. Escher drawing, perhaps I will divert into illusion for one moment – for that may be where satisfaction lies.
Berthe appears only a few times in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and is too young to contribute much to the novel by her speech or actions, but she is nevertheless extremely important to the story. Emma’s lack of maternal aptitude and weakness of moral character are made evident by Berthe’s presence. Because of Berthe’s young age and innocence, she is able to act as a foil to contrast with Emma’s lifestyle of immorality and self-gratification. Berthe’s primary functions in the novel are to bring to light Emma’s character flaws as well as the consequences of her actions and to serve as a symbol of Emma’s union with Charles.The first reason for the inclusion of Berthe in the novel is that Berthe’s presence exposes Emma’s maternal ineptitude. Flaubert makes it apparent from the beginning that Emma Bovary is far from being the ideal mother. Although she is not altogether against the idea of having a child, Emma views motherhood simply as a way to try something new and fuel the romantic fire within her. She cares little for her relationship with her child. At the beginning of her pregnancy, Emma showed little interest in becoming a mother. Charles, however, convinced her by his continual enthusiasm about their future roles as parents that it would be an interesting experience (902). While Emma does view parenthood as something novel and fascinating, she fails to show true love for her child throughout the remainder of her life.Emma’s reaction to having a daughter reveals her selfish attitude. She wants a baby boy who “would be strong and dark” and “free to range the passions and the world” (902). Contrarily, Emma herself certainly embodies this sort of freedom much more than her husband Charles does. She wants a boy so that he can live the passionate and romantic life that she dreams of and attempts to live for herself. Flaubert states that “a woman is continually thwarted” and that “there is always a desire that entices, a convention that restrains” (902). Emma, however, defies this restraint, opting to yield to the temptation provided by Rodolphe and Lon. Although she proves that it is quite possible for a woman to live a “free” life, Emma wants a son so badly that she convinces herself that her child will be a boy. Upon learning that her child is a girl, her disappointment is so great that “she turned her head away and fainted” (902). Emma has not yet even considered a name for a daughter because she has been so confident that she would have a baby boy, thus demonstrating her desire not to experience the joys of motherhood, but instead, to placate her own selfishness. She wishes not for the joy of having and nurturing a child, but rather a child through whom she can vicariously experience the same thrills that she seeks in her own life.Berthe’s existence provides a catalyst for Emma’s relationship with Lon, and thus brings to light another flaw in Emma’s character – infidelity. It is on the way to visit her daughter that Emma goes on the first of several walks with Lon. When Emma meets Lon on the road to the nurse’s house, Lon begins to ask Emma if she would like his company. He stops short though, realizing the awkwardness that would be created if he were to accompany another man’s wife to visit her child. Emma, however, is not deterred and asks Lon to go along with her, unimpeded by the thought of losing her reputation. Throughout the visit, Lon’s discomfort with the situation is evident, while Emma does not appear at all bothered by the fact that she is holding Charles’ child in the company of another man. Even Berthe seems to realize her mother’s faults when she throws up on Emma (904-905). Although this is a common behavior in babies, it is also indicative of disgust with Emma’s actions.Emma’s selfishness and lack of concern for Berthe are demonstrated yet again during her next affair when she is making plans to move to Genoa with Rodolphe. Their lust for each other has become too great for the two to remain apart, and Emma asks Rodolphe to run away with her. She does not consider what would happen to her daughter until Rodolphe asks her, “What about your little girl?” Emma pauses to think and then replies, “We’ll take her with us – it’s the only way” (967). Rather than doing everything she can to make her daughter’s life better, Emma decides to drag Berthe along with her in order to please her own illicit desires.Emma’s maternal incompetence is further exemplified when she grows tired of Berthe’s playful attempts to be close to her and pushes the child away so hard that she falls into a cabinet and cuts her face. When Charles arrives, Emma tells him calmly that Berthe “fell down and hurt herself playing” (919). Emma’s mild and quickly dissipating concern for her child again demonstrates her selfishness. She appears to be more worried that she will appear inept because Berthe was hurt under her care than she does about the fact that her child has been hurt. As Emma is caring for Berthe during the evening after the girl was hurt, she notices “what an ugly child [Berthe] is” (919). Far from being a typical motherly thought, this observation indicates a tremendous lack of maternal love. This is another example of the same unnatural attitude that led to Berthe’s injury. Instead of feeling tender compassion for her daughter, Emma feels only frustration and disgust.In addition to highlighting Emma’s faults, both as a person and as a mother, Berthe serves as a constant reminder to Emma of her union with Charles. While packing to move to Yonville, Emma discovers the bouquet from her wedding. She then tosses this symbol of her marriage in the fireplace and watches it burn. After demonstrating the extent to which she deplores her marriage by destroying this transient icon of her union with Charles, Emma ironically obtains a much more enduring symbol. The chapter ends with the short and seemingly trivial sentence, “When they left Tostes in March, Madame Bovary was pregnant” (890). Although Emma’s pregnancy receives little attention here, Berthe becomes a pungent reminder of Emma’s tie to Charles later in the novel.Berthe acts as a symbol of Emma’s marriage when Emma’s relationship with Rodolphe leads to the discussion of running away together. Rodolphe presents Emma with the question of what to do about Berthe. She answers that the child will have to go with them; “it’s the only way” (967). Emma’s struggle to achieve her romantic ideals is emphasized by the fact that the only way for her to pursue her passion for Rodolphe is to take with her a reminder of her union with Charles.Finally, Berthe serves as a means to accentuate the effects of Emma’s attitudes and actions. This is most apparent after Emma’s death. Soon after the funeral, Berthe asks Charles where her mother is, and Charles responds that she is “away on a trip.” Berthe “mentioned her again several times, then gradually forgot her” (1057), but Berthe would never recover from the effects of Emma’s behavior.Berthe was doomed to a life of poverty by her mother’s unconscionable lifestyle. Not too long after her mother’s death, Berthe finds her father dead. In Charles’s hand was the lock of hair that he took from Emma after her death (1063). In this way, Flaubert brings the deaths of both of Berthe’s parents together, as if they were both lost at the same time. As an orphan, Berthe is sent to live with her aunt who can not afford to take care of her, so she is forced to work in a cotton mill to pay for the necessities of life. Emma’s extravagance and romantic idealism will never have a place in Berthe’s life because she lacks the means to pursue those dreams. Although Emma claimed that she wanted her child to be “free to range the passions and the world, to surmount obstacles, to taste the rarest pleasures” (902), she failed to provide Berthe with the necessary resources to achieve this freedom. Berthe was “thwarted” not by her status as a woman, as Emma implies (902), but rather by her mother’s poor choices and selfishness.Berthe’s presence is vital to the novel because Flaubert uses her character to develop Emma, the protagonist. Without Berthe, the reader would not understand the character flaws in Emma that Flaubert wishes to convey. Emma’s worst attributes are brought forth only when she is contrasted with the foil of Berthe’s innocence and placed in a position where her maternal inability makes evident her selfishness and depravity. Without Berthe, the effects of Emma’s actions after her death would not have been as apparent. Berthe plays an important symbolic role in the novel as well, most notably by serving as a constant reminder of Emma’s marital attachment to Charles. Even though Berthe does little in the way of acting or speaking throughout the novel, Flaubert uses her effectively to help to define Emma as a character and to show the effects of Emma’s lifestyle upon those who truly loved her.
In Madame Bovary, Gustave Flaubert attacks all sorts of vice and virtue; his targets include adultery, romance, religion, science, and politics. The characters are almost universally detestable; those who are not are merely pathetic. But the negativity throughout the book, always in contrast with impossible happiness, is not as black as it appears. Or if the characters truly do face bleak situations, they do so out of an inability to accept a reality that was perhaps less than what they wanted, but better than they let it become. Madame Bovary is foremost a novel about romance, and it is reasonable that marriage should come under attack. Charles’ first marriage is arranged by his mother to Madame Dubuc, an ugly, domineering woman thrice Charles’ age, who is supposed to be rich. Charles’ wedded life is miserable, and yet when his wife finally dies, he reflects that “she had loved him, after all” (42). Thus Dubuc, who claimed that “if [Charles] hovered near her, it was surely in order to see her die” (35) becomes the novel’s first and only loving wife. Charles’ mother, faced with an adulterous and spendthrift husband, “stifle[s] her rage” (30); the only other wife in the story, Madame Homais, seems to get along with her husband, but her feelings are not addressed. The single loving husband besides Charles is Monsieur Rouault, Emma’s father, but his wife died several years before the action of the book begins, and we never meet her.The reality of marriage contrasts with Emma’s ideas of love. In the beginning of their marriage, Emma and Charles are “happy and without a care in the world” (53). Charles devotes himself to his wife, yet for Emma, “the happiness that should have resulted from this love had not come” (55). Her expectations of life outside the farm: “gloomy forests, romantic woes, oaths, sobs” (57) etc. are nowhere to be found in marriage, and indeed Charles’ happiness consists of the opposite: Emma’s “comb, her rings, her shawl” (55), mundane pleasures. The Bovary’s marriage begins well, but Emma’s ideas of wedded bliss fall short of reality and doom her life with Charles. Marriage is not perfect, but not every married character is unhappy.Emma’s efforts to attain happiness within her marriage are misguided, the result of fantasy. She thinks that by being a good wife she will raise her existence closer to an ideal. When she falls in love with Léon, she perceives a chance to overcome temptation and transform her life into a moral exemplum. Emma begins to raise her own child, to attend church, to worry about Charles; she tells herself “I am virtuous” (118) and in short becomes the unattainable woman of her courtly love stories. There is no reason why this should make her happier, and Emma’s fantasy soon clashes with the reality of her surroundings; “[Charles’] conviction that he was making her happy seemed an imbecilic insult….For whom then was she being virtuous?” (118). In the same measure that her marriage is less than her ideals, Emma becomes a less than ideal wife. The blame for this lies in equal measure with reality, for Charles really is dull and boring, and Yonville able to bore the strongest constitution, and with Emma herself.For example, a later attempt of Emma’s to perfect her life is her encouraging Charles to operate on the clubfoot of Hippolyte, a stableboy at the local inn. For Homais and Emma to think the procedure has a chance of working is sheer fantasy, rooted in ambition for success. “Emma had no reason to think [Charles] wasn’t a capable doctor” (173) except for her disgust at his obtuseness, a thought she puts aside, for it conflicts with her fantasy that Charles could “increase his reputation and his fortune” (173). Charles, who is a health officer, not a doctor, attempts a new procedure in a magazine and operates on a perfectly healthy patient. Emma’s ideals to do Hippolyte just what they are doing to her marriage; the boy’s leg has to be amputated. The situation appalls Canivet, a real doctor. Medical science is just as bad as marriage, that is, it can work (Homais may be a crank, but Canivet is not), but it is fallible and even disastrous when embarked upon without reason but with absurd expectations. Furthermore, when its practitioners ignore warning signs, such as Hipployte’s swelling and convulsing foot, a parallel to Emma’s restlessness and crying spells, the situation gets worse; in their disgust and optimism, Charles and Homais continue their procedure when stopping could have saved their victim’s foot.Religion suffers the same failures as science, for the same reasons. The local priest is to souls what Charles is to bodies, and in respect to Emma the curé is, like Charles, completely out of his depth. “‘I am suffering'”, Emma tells him; “‘these first hot spells weaken one terribly'” (121), is his response. The priest is full of concern for the cold and the hungry, but he cannot understand why Emma would be upset. Whenever Emma turns to religion, she expects miracles; she visits the church “prepared for any act of devotion as long as she could give up her soul there and make her entire existence disappear” (120). No wonder she is so annoyed by books like “The Man of the World at Mary’s Feet, by Monsieur de ____, Holder of Several Decorations” (208), she cannot accept that religion is usually prosaic in its daily operation. When Emma “address[es] to the Lord the same fond words she had formerly murdered to her lover in the ecstasies of adultery” (208), she is trying another fantasy world that proves itself grounded in reality. Religion is like adultery for Emma, and she finds “in adultery all the banalities of marriage” (272).Most of Emma’s disillusionments do, in fact, involve adultery. Her meeting with Rodolphe at the Agricultural Show vividly reveals the extent to which she is insulated by her illusions. As Rodolphe offers such alluring sentiments irresistable to Emma as “I bury myself, in my sadness” (143) and “our duty is to discern the great and cherish the beautiful” (148) they are interrupted by men carrying chairs and announcers offering prizes for best manure. According to Homais, Yonville “believed itself transported to the heart of an Arabian Nights dream” (156) at the Show, but Emma does not notice the disparagement of her fantasies. Rodolphe, her first lover, is pragmatic and manipulative, not the romantic she imagines him. They plan to go away, or rather Emma plans to and Rodolphe does not contradict her. In the end, Rodolphe backs out, and Emma contemplates suicide and falls into catatonia. Rodolphe, who has had many other lovers, does not understand that Emma loves him more than other women have. “Emma resembled all his old mistresses….This man, who was so experienced in love, could not distinguish the dissimilarity in the emotions behind the similarity of expressions” (188). He considers Emma an entirely typical lover, while she, as is her wont, dreams of traveling with him to “some splendid city with domes, bridges, cathedrals, ships, forests” (192). Emma is once more disappointed because she expects the affair to be more than it is.Emma’s affair with Léon is worse than her affair with Rodolphe, if only in respect to the debt she incurs during it. Money feeds Emma’s fantasy life, and the more she spends to be with her lovers, ignoring reality, the further she drives her family into ruin. Her delight with Léon begins to pale when he is unable to make a rondezvous because Homais has pinned him down; from this insignifigant slight and tiny flaw in perfection comes the destruction of her love. Léon is falliable, and therefore Emma “detest[s] him….One must not touch idols; the gilt rubs off on one’s hands” (265). At this point, the reader is more dismayed by this turn of events than Emma is. Emma Bovary, romantic and idealist, has, à la Dorian Gray, become ever more corrupt as the trappings of her life have increased in opulence. While visiting Léon, Emma would “laugh loudly and dissolutely when the champagne froth spilled over the fragile glass onto the rings on her fingers” (251), and Léon finds her “the amoreuse in every novel, the heroine of every drama…an angel” (251). She has transformed herself into her ideal, at least to her lover. But she pays for the rings and the champagne with her daughter’s inheritance and her husband’s present; she can only grasp her fantasy at reality’s expense. “One evening she did not go back to Yonville [from a visit to her lover in Rouen]. Charles was out of his mind with worry, and little Berthe, who did not want to go to bed without seeing her mama, sobbed as if her heart were breaking” (260). It is emphatically Emma who creates this situation, Emma who ruins her daughter’s life, who makes her own deathbed, rushed into on account of debt. When “lying [becomes] a need, a mania, a pleasure” (256) for her, when she runs to Rodolphe for money, “prostituting herself” (283), or when she suggests to Léon that he embezzle from his employer to pay her debts, Emma is being far worse than mundane. She sacrifices her life, her family’s life, and her morals to fantasy.After Emma’s suicide, Charles is possessed by her spirit, but in a way it inhabited him throughout his marriage. It is only the content of his fantasies that changes. Charles assumed Emma was happy; he loved her, and he thought she loved him back. He was the only person in Yonville who did not suspect Emma of having an affair. “Maybe [Emma and Rodolphe] loved each other platonically” (316) he thinks, upon finding Rodolphe’s farewell letter. Charles did all he could to make Emma happy, but when it came to her affairs and her spending, he lived in a fantasy world. When his mother protested Emma’s power of attorney, “Charles, rebelling for the first time in his life, took his wife’s part” (259). Any force that could make Charles contradict Madame Bovary senior would have to be powerful indeed. As long as he could believe that Emma was his, Charles was content, and he never dared recognize that she is disloyal. He cared about her, spending over a month at her bedside when she fell ill, but at the same time she fit into his dream of a perfect bourgeois life; her accomplishments in entertaining and running the house made him think “all the more highly of himself for possessing such a wife” (61). So instead of addressing Emma’s unhappiness, Charles ended up unwittingly abetting her adulteries, suggesting that she visit Léon and paying for her fictional music lessons in Rouen. And if Charles is not responsible for Emma’s death, he is for his own. He dies having learned of his wife’s affairs and one day after his meeting with Rodolphe. Charles is killed by sheer disillusionment–Canivet “performed an autopsy but found nothing” (322). Charles’ failure to recognize Emma’s imperfections not only kills him but orphans Berthe, who is forced into poverty and labor in a cotton mill. Combined with Emma’s spending, Charles’ death dooms his hope of sending Berthe to boarding school and marrying her off to “some fine young man with a solid business who would make her happy” (192), for it “would be expensive” (191). Charles has only vauge ideas of how to finance his idea, such as purchasing “stock somewhere, it didn’t matter where” (191. His dreams, unlike Emma’s, could have been realized if he had been willing to accept reality: his wife’s faithlessness, her disgust of him, and her massive spending. Even Emma could have been content, albeit with unrealized dreams, had she recognized the unlikelihood of her ever finding “the heart of a poet in the shape of an angel” (267). Happiness is not impossible for those whose goals, unlike Emma’s, are reasonable and limited, and unlike Charles’, are sought with open eyes.Lheureux and Homais, devoted to the pursuit of realistic, if mundane, goals (monopolizing Yonville’s businesses, receiving the Legion of Honor), live without illusions, except for Homais’ conviction that he is not an idiot, a belief that grants him obstinacy. Besides, when confronted with the fact that he cannot earn his goal, Homais does not seek solace in the idealized Church or in redoubling his efforts for science, rather “he [sells] himself; he prostitute[s] himself” (320) by courting the powerful. He tries unlikely methods, such as the operation on Hippolyte’s clubfoot, only when he can weasel out of the blame. Lheureux does not scruple to practically blackmail Emma into entering his debt nor to have his friend Vinçart play the bad creditor for him so as not to “appear a bloodsucker before his fellow townspeople” (282). Both Lheureux and Homais do well, and apparently money can buy happiness; Lheureux (whose name means “fortunate”) sets up his business and does not, as far as the reader knows, suffer from unquiet sleep; Homais gains his medal, and moreover his children’s accomplishments make him “the happiest of fathers, the most fortunate of men” (320).To Lheurex and Homais, the world is not such a bad place. While they do have to act immorally to get what they want, they show that Emma Bovary is wrong; it is possible to be happy. The means and even the ends do not involve ideals, things that Emma’s novels present as beautiful, like romantic love, but they exist all the same. Happiness is intimately connected to wealth, as Emma learns, and to be happy one must be able to deal with the minutiae of bills that confuse her and make her retreat into fantasy. Emma and Charles cannot build their dreams on dreams of money, but the money is there to be had.
The literary set piece of the Agricultural Fair is the stuff of cinema. The set piece is a linear pan-opticon of images and events, given unity through the magic of editing. Flaubert, as the cameraman, moves in and out of focus, craning in to catch an important strain of dialogue and panning out to capture the entirety of the surrounding spectacle. As is the case with cinema, context is derived from the clever sequencing of disparate images and actions, which are then made into a convergent whole by the connections the reader draws between the images. The descriptive power and the cut-and-paste movement of Flaubert’s Agricultural Fair glue all the disparate characters and dialogues into one neat super-organism of hypocrisy and seduction in the provinces. The set piece is an exercise in the grotesque; meaning that what comes across as funny in our first reading, seems tragic in our re-reading of it, and then, in a deeper third reading, is quite horrific.Flaubert’s description of the Fair succeeds in compressing all the characters of Yonville-l’Abbaye into the manifest character of a single body politic. The thick description of the assembled townspeople (and their cattle) gel to create a congruous density of scent, sense and color. The mass of “flabby, fair-suntanned faces” of the crowd are presented with no more distinction or detail than are the rumps of livestock.Set at each corner of the courthouse is a flag commemorating “Agriculture,” “Commerce,” “Industry,” and “Fine Arts,” in a garish presentation of civic dignity, what would nowadays be called ‘Rotarian.’ Embodied in this image of the four corners of each courthouse, is the idea of an agrarian utopia, reminiscent of wood-block prints from the 19th century where the farmer is leaning against his ox-plow and reading a copy of Harper’s. Industry barely fits into the spectrum of Yonville, and the Fine Arts are an outright joke, shoved in absurd extreme with “Commerce” and “Agriculture.” The Fair represents an extraneous, desperate effort—an attempt to celebrate a town that is in every aspect unremarkable and even awful. It is bare picture of the provinces, one which would essentially presume to render Emma and Rodolphe almost sinless for attempting to escape it through an affair.Yonville itself is a model of self-limiting provincial meanness and imposed conformity. In trying to present itself at its very best, the town is revealed at its very worst. The pomp, ceremony and patriotism celebrated there is a thin shadow over the sense of self-conscious inadequacy permeating the event. Binet drills his local fire brigade against the National Guard’s brigade, out of competition and spite. Later, Tuvache, the mayor, recoils as if stung when a prefect councilor shows up instead of the prefect himself. The crowd listens agog to the words of the councilor, who reaches to define a particular type of rural ‘intelligence’ that is hardly distinguishable from blind patriotism and good ignorance.At its keenest, provincial intelligence is a boorish kind, like Homais’s, one that yearns passionately to scientifically increase crop yield through the thorough study of manure. The case in the provinces is that you have dumb people who pretend to be smart (which is acceptable, because everyone knows Homais is a bore, anyways), and conversely, smart people, like Rodolphe, who are looked down upon for putting on airs and not acting dumb. By this declension, the ideas of rustic virtue and modesty celebrated at the fair are self-limiting strictures set to guard the insecure confidences of townspeople from the fearful potential of individuals who might be remarkable, and might some day distinguish themselves.The proceedings of the fair are a spiraling torus through which the primary action, Rodolphe’s seduction of Emma, lances through the center like a shuttle through weft. Together, they flit through the bedlam, held high by a sense of untainted inviolability. Bolstered by their own sophistication, Charles and Rodolphe are given leave to pass through the fair, disassociated, at least in their own minds, from the provincial fecundity surrounding them. They deftly sidestep the bore Lhereux’s attempts to intrude into their conversation. Moving through the spectacle they complain to one another about “the mediocrity of provincial life” and the sore lack of people who can’t recognize the cut of a good coat. They watch the councilor’s speech from the high, private vantage of the 2nd story council chambers, viewing the processes with the observant remove of dreamers at play. While the bourgeoisie and farmers listen to the speech below with mouths agape as if to eat the words, Emma is similarly absorbed by Rodolphe’s intimate diatribe on love, freedom, and passion.It’s puzzling to establish the measure by which traditional ideas of ‘goodness’ or ‘villainy’ could be attributed to the characters existing in the relative blur of Flaubert’s naturalistic world. Madame Bovary addresses the frailty of the best and most sincere human intentions. The theme is established at the book’s very outset when young Charles Bovary trys failingly to pronounce his own name, “Charovari! Charovari!” to the ridicule and punishment of his classmates and teacher. What is wrong in this case? Is it that Charles can’t pronounce his name, or is it that the classroom laughs at him for not being able to do so? Likewise, in the inter-weaving of Emma and Rodolphe’s mutual seduction amidst the ridiculous environment of the Agricultural Fair, one is not sure whether to criticize Emma’s weak integrity or pity her for the hopelessness of her circumstances.Rodolphe’s speech cuts between the hot-air political prating of the councilmembers. The inter-weaved juxtaposition creates an odd synchronicity between the two speeches, and both are seductions in their own way. For Emma, the speeches are representative of the two lives she can choose for herself: a country wife, or a mistress.Commerce and the arts are thriving everywhere; everywhere new channels of communication, like so many new arteries in the body politic, are multiplying contacts between its various parts; our great manufacturing centers have resumed their activity; religion, its foundations strengthened, appeals to every heart; shipping fills our ports; confidence returns; at long last, France breathes again!The councilmember’s words promise a ‘great day’ that has already arrived, wherein one may find the ultimate sense of satisfaction by offering him or herself to the public weal. His promises, ludicrous and absurd, represent the bland comfort existing within the structures of rural life. An example of the ends to that life is when Catherine Leroux, wrinkled; with hands gnarled by toil and possessing the stare of a farm beast, is called up to receive 25 francs and a token medal for obedience and duty to the provincial life. By becoming Rodolphe’s mistress, Emma is indiscreetly breaking pact with the town, laying her reputation open, ultimately, to the vicious grapevine of tongue-clucking and whispered judgement meant to destroy those who try to rise above their station.Adversely, Rodolphe’s speech, being a refutation of those notions of duty and an endorsement of the individual, makes a similar promise of an approaching ‘great day’.We feel the need to pour out our hearts to a given person, to surrender, to sacrifice everything. In such a meeting no words are necessary: each senses the other’s thoughts. Each is the answer to the other’s dreams. There it is then, the treasure so long sought for—there before us: it gleams, it sparkles. But still we doubt; we daren’t believe; we stand there dazzled, as though we’d come from darkness into light.Both promises, the civic dream and the individual one, are unsustainable in the world of Flaubert, where dreams wither under the ineptitude and inadequacy of those who nurse them. It is not good enough to say that promises are deceptions, for the characters lack the self-awareness to offer anything earnest in their statements. In the end, everyone is like the example of the young “Charovari!” They try their hardest and they fail. The sublime fails to exist in Flaubert’s world. Both seductions offered to Emma, civic and intimate, are unknowing lies, unable to pierce, for one second, the indistinct cloud which obscures meaning in life. No option offered to Emma is good enough to save her from decline and self-deterioration.Do you really not know, that there exist souls that are ceaselessly in torment? That are driven now to dreams, now to action, driven from the purest passions to the most orgiastic pleasures? No wonder we fling ourselves into all kinds of fantasies and follies!In this statement, Rodolphe is commenting, in some part, on the pointlessness of the ceremony below. The fair is the folly of the town trying to break free of its own limits, to attach itself to a fantastic ideal of the great French Society. Without knowing it yet, Emma and Rodophe are engaging in the same folly, by offering themselves to one another as an escape from reality. The further they attempt to distance themselves from social reality, the tighter the close walls of the provinces will lean into their affair, and all that will be left for Rodolphe and Emma is the inadequacy of each other.In light of what we learn about provincial life through the agricultural fair, can one blame Emma and Rodolphe for flinging themselves selfishly and recklessly into a doomed romance? For those who might still label Rodolphe a villain, let us translate his case through the moral lens of another great Modern mind. Chekhov wrote a famous letter to A.S. Suvorin addressing his anger towards the public’s reception of his first play Ivanov. Ivanov is an aging and depressed provincial landowner who spurs his wife’s death by initiating an affair with the young girl next door. Chekhov wrote that the ‘villain,’ is not Ivanov, as the public had interpreted him to be, but the blandly self-righteous rural doctor, a secondary character who unloads his own virtuous standards on the desperate Ivanov: “[The doctor’s] judgement about everything is preconceived. . . A man has an ailing wife yet he visits a rich woman living near by—there, isn’t he a scoundrel?” The temptation to make a neat moral incision of this novel cheats the complex frailty of the human spirit, which provides Madame Bovary with its greatest allure.
As Gustave Flaubert wrote the novel Madame Bovary, he took special care to examine the relationship between literature and the effect on its readers. His heroine Emma absorbs poetry and novels as though they were instructions for her emotional behavior. When her mother dies, she looks to poetry to decide what degree of mourning is adequate; when she becomes adulterous she thinks immediately how she is like the women in literature that she has read about. In one scene, Emma is with her second lover, Leon, rowing in a boat, and she begins to sing several lines from the poem “Le Lac” by the romantic poet Alphonse de Lamartine. The poem is about two lovers rowing on a lake as well, which is undoubtedly why Emma chooses this particular verse to sing. However, Lamartine’s piece expresses much more than the serenity of love, a depth that Emma fails to see. By having Emma naively invoke the words of Lamartine, Flaubert brings the heaviness of the poem to a scene of otherwise lighthearted beauty. This poetic reference not only suggests a greater depth to the scene, but also serves, through the hand of Flaubert, to allude to the death of Emma.Flaubert refers to Lamartine at the beginning of the novel when Emma’s mother dies. Emma “Ölet herself meander along with Lamartine, listened to harps on lakes, to all the songs of dying swans, to the falling of leaves, the pure virgins ascending into heavenÖ” (28). Emma uses this poetry as a way of inducing herself into sadness; she reads his poetry as a way of finding the right mood for her mourning. However, imitation of grief is the only thing that she achieves; her readings afford her no great insights other than her sadness. Later, when Emma calls once again on Lamartine to help her with her mood, she invokes one of the only lines of solace that the poem “Le Lac” possesses. She sings, while rowing with her lover, ” One night, do you remember / We were sailingÖ”(186). These lines, though they seem appropriate in the moment, barely scratch the surface of the poem’s meaning.Lamartine wrote “Le Lac” about Madame Julie Charles, a woman that he took with him one summer to vacation at the Lake Bourget. Lemartine fell passionately in love with Mme Charles. However, the following winter Charles fell ill and passed away, never to return to the lake. The poem discusses the happy memories of the summer, but that is not its primary purpose. Mme Charles’ death forces Lamartine to recognize the constant and continual passing of time, a theme that is very present in “Le Lac”. More specifically, Lamartine discusses the inevitable end of happy moments, such as the ones he shared with Charles. He begs time to “Suspendez votre course! / Laissez-nous savourerer les rapides delices / de plus beaux des nos jours!” (31-31). Throughout “Le Lac,” the death of Mme Charles is always forefront. It is her death that inspires the poet to revisit the lake, and it is her death that causes the realization of the passing of time. Although her actual death is only briefly referenced at the beginning of the poem when Lamartine comments on “des flots cheris qu’elle devait / revoir”(7-8), the idea of death remains present throughout the entire work. It is Mme Charles’ passing that spurs the poet’s realization of unstoppable time, and the vulnerability that the realization brings. He understands that even his own life is transitory; “l’homme n’a point de port, le temps n’a / point de rive;/ il coule et nous passons!” (48-50).When Emma sings from “Le Lac,” she likens her affair with Leon to the two lovers who enjoyed a night on the water just as they did. It is interesting, however, that Flaubert chooses to have Emma quote from a poem which possesses much more, when he could have chosen something that discussed only love just as easily. It is also significant that Emma is quoting a poem inspired by a woman who dies. Neither Emma’s choice of lines, nor the context in which she sings the lines suggests that she is aware of the death of Mme Charles, or the full meaning of the poem.Flaubert, however, is acutely aware of the meaning. The scene between Emma and Leon in many ways mirrors the scene in “Le Lac,” in both the scene’s setting and word choice. Flaubert , even before Emma begins to invoke Lamartine, indicates to the reader the scene’s likeness to romantic poetry by commenting “Öthey did not fail to recognize how melancholical and poetic it appeared to them”(186). Both writers choose to have the heroine break the silence; Mme Charles asks time to move more slowly and Emma begins to sing from “Le Lac.” This is significant because it brings reality into both moments. Mme Charles’ words remind the reader that time will continue to pass, inevitably ending her happiness; Emma’s words quoting the poem indirectly refers to the same realization.Both scenes are characterized with a sense of serenity, and both writers describe the serenity in a musical way. In “Le Lac,” Lamartine describes the moment, saying “que les bruits qui frappaient / en cadence / tes flots harmonieux” (21-23). Similarly, Flaubert uses sound to describe the calmness of the scene, saying “the square-tipped oars sounded against the iron oar locks; in the stillness, they seemed to mark time like the beat of a metronome”(186). The musicality of Flaubert’s words serves to unite the scenes not only in their serenity, but also in their connection with music. Emma chooses to sing her words, not speak them, a choice that invokes the musical word choice of the poem, and heightens the presence of music for Emma at that moment.Both Flaubert and Lamartine use the heavens in their descriptions. For Lamartine, he believes that he and Mme Charles are “sur l’onde et sous / les cieux” (19-20). Flaubert, as well, describes Emma with “her hands clasped, her eyes turned towards heaven”(186). Although this reference is clearly intended to parallel the word choice in “Le Lac,” Flaubert uses these words in a different way. Lamartine speaks of heaven because of its perfection; he and his lover are witness to its majesty because they are beneath its skies. Flaubert’s language is not as straightforward. It is as if Emma is following a script; to perfect the moment she must look at the heavens just as in “Le Lac”. Because her action carries specific purpose it is not as innocent as Lamartine’s. The purity of the moment is tainted; Emma looks to the heavens for the same reason that she sings.Similarly, both Lamartine and Flaubert describe the moon in their scenes. Lamartine comments on the moon’s reflection, saying ” Dans les bruits de tes bords par tes bords / repetes, / dans l’astre au front d’argent qui blanchit / ta surface /des ses molles clartes!” (84-88). In “Le Lac,” the moon provides reflections that add light, making everything brighter. Lamartine sees the moon as helping to make the night more beautiful. Flaubert, while using the same image as Lamartine, again gives it a layered meaning. Flaubert discusses the moonlight in the way that it affects Emma, saying “At times the shadow of the willows hid her completely; then she reappeared suddenly, like a vision in the moonlight” (186). The sentence is described from the perspective of Leon, who, enchanted by Emma’s sentimentality, adds to it by looking at her as a “vision.” However, instead of affording beauty as in “Le Lac,” the moonlight gives and takes sight. It distorts Emma’s image, passing her in and out of Leon’s perceptibility.The word “pass” is very important to both narratives. For Lamartine, it’s repetition is central to his theme of passing time. Flaubert, mirroring Lamartine, uses the word in one instant when describing Emma as she sings, saying: “The wind-born trills pass by him like a fluttering of wings.” This description serves to infuse the poem’s entire theme into this moment, this time without an ironic undertone. Leon and Emma are just as vulnerable as Lamartine and Mme Charles; happy moments will inevitably end. Also, by using the phrase “fluttering of wings,” Flaubert gives the passing Emma’s voice a physical, yet ghostlike quality, suggestive of the movement of a soul after death.Flaubert laces the entire scene with images of death. He describes how Emma’s “thin, musical voice died away over the water” (186), marking an end to musicality of the scene and suggesting that it is of a darker nature. Emma’s entire appearance enhances this idea; she is described as wearing a long, black dress that Leon believes makes her appear “thinner,” and “taller,” abstracting her normal appearance. The fact that Emma is hidden behind the shadows of a willow, and then reappears as a “vision,” also adds to her ghostly image, suggesting she is not always perceptible to the eye. The willow itself is a symbol of death and suffering; it is not an accident that Flaubert chooses this tree to obstruct Emma’s image. The moment when Emma clasps her hands and looks towards at the heavens is an insinuation towards death as well; it suggests her propensity for it, and it foreshadows her fate. Flaubert’s recurring allusions to death provide the final connections between the two scenes; like M. Charles, Emma will die before she can experience this moment again.The boat scene in Madame Bovary appears to be a simple moment between lovers, filled with romantic imagery. Even when Emma begins to sing, the lines she invokes are simplistic as well, drawing a connection only on the fact that both couples spent an evening on a lake. However, by choosing to quote “Le Lac,” Flaubert adds layers to the scene which serve many purposes. By continuing to draw parallels between the two scenes in both the word choice and action, Flaubert is not only able to point out how superficial Emma’s choice of song was, but also the irony of her words. Ultimately, the scene between Emma and Leon is just as fleeting as with Lemartine and M. Charles; their happy moments fade into something darker. Just as Emma cannot understand the importance of the words she sings, she does not understand the gravity of the moment she is in. Only the reader is aware of this depth, a depth achieved through the careful maneuvering of Flaubert.
In Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, the quest for the sublime and perfect expression seems to be trapped in the inability to successfully verbalize thoughts and interpret the words of others. The relationship between written words and how they are translated into dialogue and action is central in evaluating Emma’s actions and fate, and ultimately challenges the reader to look at the intricacies of communication. Flaubert’s portrayal of Emma’s reading habits provides the basic framework for evaluating the way she processes information. In the purest representation of Emma’s readership, she “picked up a book, and then, dreaming between the lines let it drop on her knees.”(43). Flaubert uses reading to establish Emma’s short attention span to any thoughts outside of her own. The book falling towards the floor symbolically creates the space for her illusions– notice Flaubert chooses the word “dreaming” instead of “reading,” stressing her imaginative tendencies rather than those of a critical nature. In representing Emma’s interpretation skills, her distortion of the material becomes a semi-conscious decision because she chooses to deviate from the original text, but at times her manipulation of words is more accurately described as misinterpretation. When Leon praises the entertainment value of the simplistic novels containing “noble characters, pure affections, and pictures of happiness,” she misses his further conclusion that “since these works fail to touch the heart, they miss, it seems to me, the true end of art” (59). The subtext implies that she is incapable of distinguishing differences in the quality of expressions and understanding emotional depth because it is these same novels that she judges as the pinnacles of expression. From the outset, Flaubert acknowledges that Emma’s quest is destined to failure because she is trying to imitate passion from material that lacks it initially. Ironically, Emma seems to recognize the implausibility of the ideals that guide her actions; she “detest[s] commonplace heroes and moderate feelings, as one finds them in nature (59). Flaubert seems to be asking how conscious Emma is in forming her delusions and subsequently how this relates to her accountability. Charles provides a comic foil for Emma’s inability to comprehend the “undefinable sentiments of love which she [tries] to construct from the books she read[s]” (206). He may undertake more serious reading endeavors such as “La Ruche Medicale,” but his more pronounced inability to interpret or even comprehend anything let alone stay awake “five minutes” demonstrates a more primitive version of Emma’s delusional state of dreaming (44). The second time Charles’ embarks on a “reading assignment” about how to perform surgery he can not even pronounce the scientific terminology about how to describe the medical deviations of the foot (125). Flaubert suggests that the words may run through a man’s mind but to be able to understand them in a relational context, comprehension, and pronounce them, expression, represents the challenges of the interpretive process. Charles’ mutilation of his patient embodies the distortion which the human mind creates in the interpretive process.By illustrating the difficulty in translating ideas between the different mediums of writing, speech and thought, Flaubert partially exonerates human beings for the inevitable distortion. Emma expresses the incompatibility of thoughts and words in describing her conversations with Leon: “they sometimes stopped short of revealing their thoughts in full, and then sought to invent a phrase that might nevertheless express it.” (168). Humanity appears doomed to live an existence in which “the human tongue is like a cracked cauldron on which we beat out tunes” (138). The incongruity of this metaphor reinforces the imperfect process of using words as the conduit for communication. Perhaps Leon’s “indifference to the vibrations of love whose subtleties he could no longer distinguish” suggests that repeated exposure to highly emotional material ultimately desensitizes man’s powers of interpretation (211).Emma’s appetite for “lurid novels where there would be scenes of orgies, violence, and bloodshed” (210) allows the audience to examine the consequences of exposure to extreme literature. The explosive action in fiction contrasts with the more monotonous activities of daily life, helping to explain why Emma begins to find “in adultery all the platitudes of marriage” (211). Emma seems quite capable of digesting the emotionally vacant, didactic instructions contained in her reading of fashion. Her ability to hang curtains according to the latest custom suggests that she can process clear and directive texts which allow little room for deviation from the author’s intent; yet she errs in reading novels as vehicles of the same instructional purpose. Flaubert implicitly suggests that the novel as a genre can be harmful if it overwhelms the senses to the point that they are dulled both in interpretation of the written word and life. He subtly creates the space for the reader to come to this conclusion by ironically making the story of Emma’s hysterics and tragedy seem uneventful, thus allowing the reader to better evaluate their use in the novel. Leon frames this issue when he asks, “Where could she [Emma] have learnt this corruption so deep and well masked as to be almost unseizable?” (201). Perhaps one might even be able to transfer some of the responsibility to novelists, the manufacturers of “this corruption” (201) that makes her insensitive to the extremes of emotion and action. Flaubert reminds us throughout that Emma makes a conscious decision to expose herself to romantic fiction. Even when she is advised to direct her attentions elsewhere when facing medical difficulties, “she prefers always sitting in her room reading (59). As Emma derives all of her visions of an ideal world from the flat constructs of a page, the shallowness of the inspiration pervades her character. Literary imagery and cliches saturate Emma’s conception of love, suggesting that her thoughts are little more than abstractions of that which she reads on the page.Love, she thought, must come suddenly, with great outbursts and lightning — a hurricane of the skies, which sweeps down on life, upsets everything, uproots the will like a leaf and carries away the heart in an abyss (71).Despite Emma’s search for eternal passion, the banality of her thoughts and failure to evolve beyond this dream prevent her from actually developing into a round character. Flaubert communicates to the reader by forcing him to watch Emma act out the same hopeless romantic vision with Charles, Leon, and Rodolphe and ultimately creates a scathing warning against living life through a novel. Emma’s physical state during pregnancy in which she was “filling out over her uncorseted hips” (62) creates a dimensional contrast to the flatness of “her affection” for her baby which “was perhaps impaired from the start” (63). Though Emma’s inability to interpret the emotional gravity of new life and the potential for new love suggests a deficit in her reading of life, Flaubert even implies her an innate disability in appropriate expression. Such a suggestion which might create sympathy for Emma, if she were not aspiring to be “the mistress of all the novels, the heroine of all the dramas, the vague she of all volumes of verse” (192). The consciousness with which she undertakes her goals creates a responsibility for her actions which an innate dullness or flatness of character can not excuse. Through letters Flaubert illustrates how Emma’s literal interpretation of the novels results in a consciousness that blurs the spheres of reality and fiction. Emma writes letters which are inspired by “a phantom fashioned out of her most ardent memories, of her favorite books, her strongest desires,” (211) and only in these “vague ecstasies of imaginary love” (212) is she able to find fulfillment, suggesting that Emma’s happiness will always be trapped by the confines of the page and her imagination. Letters provide an interesting vehicle to explore Emma’s attempt to express her herself. They represent her conscious attempt to capture the thoughts she has derived from the words of another on a page and raise an interesting question about how the ability to express emotions relates to one’s ability to interpret them. Again, Flaubert holds Emma accountable for her delusions because she recognizes the “fall back to earth” (211). Her insincere motivations for writing Leon to keep “with the notion that a woman must write to her lovers” further erodes any compassionate response from the audience (211). The motif of reading extends to the readers’ relationship to the text of Madame Bovary; Emma can be seen as both Flaubert as an author and as a representative reader of the work. It has been documented that Flaubert would lose touch with reality just as Emma does throughout the writing of the work; he would become so involved in his heroine’s plights that he often became physically ill. This strong identification with her as a character suggests Emma’s battles mirror his struggle as an author. Both search for ultimate expression facing the constraints of reality within a finite combination of words. In trying to bridge the gap between romantic visions and expressing them in real life, the words or the actions are always an inferior derivative of true feeling because “the variety of feelings are all hidden within the same expressions” (138). His exploration of Emma’s delusions could represent his fear that his audience is missing the message of his work, which is grounded in reality. Emma represents the innate frailties of a reader that will always distort how his message is received. Flaubert’s acknowledgement of the struggle for understanding between sender and receiver as represented in Emma challenges us to evaluate her interpretive abilities and more intimately, forces us to ask questions about our own readership. Just as he holds Emma accountable for any consequences of her interpretation and expression, he seems to be asserting that both he and the audience must accept mutual responsibility for the interpretation of the text.
The epistolary novel structure, first produced by accident in The Persian Letters by Charles Secondat de Montesquieu, is a series of fictional letters or other forms of communication. The structure allows a writer to present different people’s perspectives and experiences, often while they are in separate locations, while still advancing the plot of the novel. However, the epistolary technique depends on two things: the natural limitations of the individual letter writer’s perspective and the fact that the letter writer cannot communicate directly or in “real time” with the letter recipient. Although the epistolary structure can be extremely useful in terms of conflict and character development, it presents challenges to the author when the needs of the plot require characters to “write” in an unnatural way that interferes with the reader’s suspension of disbelief. This essay, using examples chiefly from The Persian Letters, will identify the key ways in which the epistolary structure contributes to character and plot development. It will discuss the weaknesses inherent in the structure, address problems presented by modern communication, and present an example of a modern science fiction novel that relies on epistolary tradition in a very successful way.
The Persian Letters were first published in 1721. A great commercial and critical success, the Letters were not originally intended to be a novel so much as a collection of interesting, though fictional, discussions and satires. It was not until well after publication that Montesquieu and others noticed that The Persian Letters had all the characteristics of a novel and could be marketed and presented as such, particularly after Montesquieu added a few key letters to the sequence to emphasize the dramatic elements of the story. As the work was translated and distributed, other authors noticed the potential of the “letter novel” and began using the structure themselves.
The epistolary novel provides outstanding opportunities for character development. Since the characters in an epistolary novel cannot respond to one another conversationally, they must “speak” at length in their unique narrative voices. In the process they reveal their biases, their mannerisms, their level of education, their emotional states, and their perceptions of other people. The reader sometimes receives more than one description of a character or event, and how a character describes something can say as much about the narrating character as it does about the subject being described. Usbek, for example, reveals himself as a self-absorbed hypocrite who lies to his friends.
One of the first challenges of writing an epistolary novel is in creating a plausible letter. Lengthy descriptions of settings, events, emotional reactions, and other subjects are believable only when the thing being described is unfamiliar to the letter writer, the recipient, or both. The satirical descriptions of the Pope, King Louis XIV, the Opera dancer, and others work brilliantly because the Persian travelers are looking at French culture and politics through foreign eyes with narrative voices that are already well established. The format also works when the characters are sharing allegorical stories about the Troglodites or events out of Islamic legend: one character is communicating something to another character that he or she cannot be expected to know.
The epistolary structure provides all the benefits of the first person singular narrator, including limitations in perspective that allow characters to guess wrongly, make mistakes, and make important decisions based on incomplete or wrong information. Misunderstandings are a useful source of character development and plot conflict. In The Persian Letters, Usbek punishes one of his Zachi for Zéphis’s indiscreet behavior with a female slave. He uses the Eunuchs to control and punish his wives, but the women play Usbek off against the Eunuchs and sometimes against one another. Meanwhile, one of Usbek’s wives has corrupted the Chief Eunuch and possibly others, and is using him to deliberately betray Usbek in the most hurtful way possible. The Chief Eunuch, confiding in a man he considers to be an old friend, says that he has been compromised and manipulated by a beautiful young woman, but he does not say who it is. The letter format allows anything not explicitly stated in the letter to be ambiguous. An astute reader might guess that the traitor in the seraglio is Roxana, because Usbek’s account of the young woman’s decision to run and hide in the seraglio corresponds a little bit with the Chief Eunuch’s account of the circumstances surrounding his moral problem, and because the Chief Eunuch dies suddenly after informing Usbek about the trouble in the seraglio.
Unreliable narrators are extremely useful to an author: there is no good way to know for certain who, if anyone, is telling the truth. In The Persian Letters events proceed until the disorder becomes obvious enough to be noticed outside the seraglio. The Chief Eunuch, for example, communicates only the vaguest version of the goings-on to Usbek, who responds furiously. Had Usbek and the Chief Eunuch been able to simply speak to one another, many of the misunderstandings could have been averted.
When using an epistolary structure, the author is in full control of timing and pacing. By allowing time to pass between letters, the author can compress the time and move to the next relevant event much like a Shakespearean play is divided into scenes that are always sequential but sometimes separated in time by hours, days, or more. To increase the reader’s sense of tension, the author can introduce other letters, subplots, and discussions of unrelated subjects. This has the effect of pausing one story line while advancing another. Even the time delay between when a letter is written and when it is received can advance the plot. In The Persian Letters, Montesquieu allowed four to six months of travel time for each letter to go from Isfahan to Paris or vice versa. Having to wait up to a year for a response to a question guaranteed that urgent matters could not actually wait upon Usbek’s decision. Usbek’s orders to enforce order in the seraglio do not arrive in time: the Chief Eunuch dies suddenly and is replaced by a man who does not open Usbek’s letter. Usbek’s next letter disappears because the courier is robbed. Such events, completely plausible in the 17th century, allow the disorder in the seraglio to grow unchecked until Usbek orders the sadistic Solim to enforce his will. The rigor and severity with which Solim obeys sets off a final rebellion. As a plot device, the delays work because of the distance and technology involved in corresponding by letter. Indeed, Samuel Richardson, known for his 18th century epistolary novels including the two-volume Pamela published in 1740, made use of purloined or intercepted letters as a plot device.
The epistolary structure has weaknesses. The narrative becomes artificial and unbelievable every time the author tries to present information that is known to one or both characters but unknown to the reader. Human beings never speak or write to one another about things that are familiar to both of them. They point out only what is novel or unexpected. For this reason, the reader never learns what colors the curtains are in Usbek’s seraglio or how many pillows Zachi has in her bedchamber. Nor do we have a reasonable physical description of Usbek himself. The reader’s imagination must fill in the blanks. When this principle is violated and the author sacrifices verisimilitude in order to convey information, such as in Usbek’s patronizing lectures about seraglio rules, suspension of disbelief becomes harder. Zachi’s spicy letter to Usbek, dated almost immediately after his departure, comes across as gratuitous eroticism at first. Only by the middle of the novel will the reader realize that each narrator recounts a version of the past that best appeals to them and that explains his or her actions in a positive way. Usbek’s decision to flee Ispahan, for example, cannot be based solely on his supposed inability to flatter people: he displays great skill in flattering learned religious men.
Lack of realism is a second major weakness of the epistolary convention. In order to suspend disbelief, the reader must believe that the letter writer is actually literate or writing through others. This is not always a reasonable assumption. Usbek’s wives and slaves show a remarkable level of literacy in a country and era wherein intellectuals were frequently put to death. Although it is plausible for Usbek, Rica, and the learned men with whom they communicate to be literate, the same assumption is not valid for the wives and lower-ranking slaves.
To be plausible, the epistolary novel requires physical separation between the letter writer and the addressee, because people only write things they cannot say in person. Usbek and Rica do not write to one another except when one of them is not in Paris, because it is more efficient to simply meet and talk in person. But the correspondence with Ibben in Smyrna and Rhedi in Venice is perfectly believable, because no other means for communication exists. This fact of logistics poses a problem for a modern author, because beginning in the late 19th and early 20th century, inventions such as the telegraph and telephone made it possible for people to communicate over long distances to have a real-time discussion. An epistolary structure is only possible if the novel is set in the distant past or if there is a reasonable explanation why the characters can’t simply talk to each other.
A final valid criticism of the epistolary convention is the impossibility of accurately or realistically depicting incidents in which there were no survivors. First-person death scenes are almost impossible to present plausibly. Roxana’s death, for example, is sensational but ridiculous. Having just murdered several of Usbek’s Eunuchs and taken poison, she supposedly has just enough strength to write one last letter of several paragraphs, address it, and send it off to be delivered by someone for whom delivering a letter is more important than a seraglio full of dead bodies. Contrast this with Gustave Flaubert’s Realist depiction of Emma Bovary’s death, with all its doubts, hallucinations, and gritty details. It required an omniscient narrator simply because the only person to experience Emma’s last interaction with Raoul, her troubled and hallucination-plagued walk home, her demands to the apprentice pharmacist to give her arsenic, and her agonizing death was Emma herself, yet part of the horror and pathos of her death comes from the sincere reactions of the other innocent people around her. Roxana’s death scene, by contrast, is almost comical.
Later authors found a way to modify the epistolary style to present objective information: they included other sources of written information such as newspaper articles, transcriptions of interviews, or diary style notes. In Dracula, published in 1897, Bram Stoker created a newspaper article and a ship’s log to describe an incident in which the crew and captain of a ship were all murdered during the voyage. These techniques allowed the modified epistolary novel to survive even into the modern day. The Martian was written primarily in a log-style format in which Mark Watney, an astronaut stranded on Mars, narrates his experiences in a verbal log because communications problems and physical distance prevent him from having a normal conversation with another human being. Modern authors also incorporate diary entries, interview transcripts, and other forms of written communication to vary the narrative style and to present information that cannot be conveyed by letter.
The epistolary format has changed significantly since its introduction. Reader expectations have shifted toward the vivid Realist-inspired descriptions of settings and characters, and changes in technology have rendered traditional letter writing almost obsolete. Unless a story is set in an era and culture when letter writing was common, the people doing the reading and writing were predominately literate, and the exchange of letters represented the most efficient form of communication between characters, a pure epistolary novel simply is no longer credible. But the influence of the epistolary novel can be found in the diary format, and hybrid formats that use epistolary structure selectively as plot and setting permit.
One of the most fascinating characters in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is the grotesque, blind beggar, who first accosts Emma during her travel from Rouen to Yonville. The beggar reappears in the presence of Emma near the end of the novel: as Emma lies in bed dying, the Blind Man passes under her window singing a bawdy song which ironically details her plight. At first glance, the blind beggar may seem to be little more than an outlandish and exaggerated character. However, there is more to Flaubert’s inclusion of this disconcerting character than merely strangeness. In both the appearance and behavior of the beggar, Flaubert invites an association between man and beast – more specifically, between man and canine. However, the beggar is not the only character of Madame Bovary who is associated with canines: nearly all notable events that contribute to Emma’s dissatisfaction and subsequent downfall are accompanied by the presence of dogs. The mingling of human and canine features in the Blind Man is paralleled by the spatial and behavioral convergence of the Blind Man and Emma in her dying scene. If the Blind Man mirrors the appearance of a dog, Emma comes to mirror the visage and gestures of the Blind Man. Flaubert conflates Emma and the Blind Man through their shared canine associations to illuminate the reckless pursuit of passions responsible for Emma’s demise. Moreover, Flaubert suggests that the Blind Man represents a monster within Emma, inescapable and horrifically fatal.
In Emma’s first encounter with the beggar, Flaubert characterizes him as unmistakably dog-like in appearance and action. First met in Part 3 Chapter 5, the beggar haunts the roads and crossroads, chasing after coaches like a dog. As with a canine, liquid oozes from his eyes and congeals “into green crusts that reached down to his nose.”  Interestingly, Flaubert notes that the mendicant’s nose has “black nostrils that kept sniffing constantly” (248), another salient connection between the grotesque beggar and canines, which normally have black noses and keen senses of smell. When the mendicant wishes to speak, he throws his head back “with an idiot laugh” (249) like a canine howling. When knocked off of the coach he was latched on to, the beggar’s voice, “a feeble wail at first, became shrill” (249), once again alluding to the noise of a howl: “It had a far away sound that Emma found overwhelming. It carried to the very bottom of her soul” (249).
The beggar’s song in this first encounter fatefully diagnoses the infirmity that leads to Emma’s demise: the unwavering pursuit of her romantic appetites. Sung in his shrill, dog-like voice with a tilted-back head and tongue sticking out like a dog howling, the beggar intones the following tune: “Maids in the warmth of a summer day/ Sing of love and love always” (249). This freestanding couplet relates to Emma in that she acts like a maid, or a young unmarried woman, constantly pursuing her passions without any regard for societal propriety. Like the beggar, she sings, but her song is merely about “love and love always” (249). It is initially through the beggar’s song that his prophetic role in Emma’s development is made apparent, as it identifies the dangerous trend in Emma’s behavior that has emerged by this late point in the novel.
The beggar’s canine associations are amplified in his next appearance in Part 3 Chapter 7. His “performance” (280), as deemed by Hivert, is a vulgar canine pantomime: “The Blind Man squatted down, and, with his head back, rolling his greenish eyes, and sticking out his tongue, he rubbed his hands on his belly and he let out a kind of muffled howl, like a ravenous dog” (280). The canine suggestions in this passage are evident not only in the last line, but in the beggars squatting position, rolled back head (as before) and protruding tongue. The dog-like overtones of this passage and the previous are not an anomaly: they constitute significant links in a chain of canine images that occur throughout much of the novel. Flaubert, in assigning the beggar both canine-like qualities and prophetic abilities, marks a connection between canines and omens of Emma’s fate.
These canine images frequently appear at moments of dramatically or psychologically crucial significance for Emma. When Charles arrives at Les Bertaux to set Roualt’s broken leg, “the watch-dogs in their kennels were barking and pulling on their chains” (13). Later, at the moment in which Charles decides to ask for Emma’s hand in marriage, dogs are heard barking in the distance (22). Notably, it is a dog that later prompts in Emma a complete awareness of her marital dissatisfaction with Charles. After Emma settles in Tostes with Charles, one of his patients gifts Emma a small greyhound pet, which she enjoys walking as far as the “beech-wood at Banneville” (41) to escape the confinement of her home. She enjoys watching her greyhound “running in circles around across the field” (41), and as she does so, she utters her first words of the novel: “Oh, why, dear God, did I marry him?” (41). Thus, there is a constant association observed between canines and those significant events which contribute to Emma’s miserable existence.
Flaubert’s canine symbolism also presents clues into the specific afflictions from which Emma suffers. Her pet is named “Djali” (41), which, according to Geoffrey Wall’s notes, is the same name of the goat owned by Esmeralda, the gypsy dancer, in Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris. Accordingly, Emma’s greyhound symbolizes her romantic yearning for passionate bourgeois love in the grand city of Paris. The greyhound’s Eastern-sounding name and connection with Hugo’s gypsy character also represents her desire to escape the banality of Tostes and later Yonville. Djali’s circular movement pattern prior to Emma’s first words of the novel foreshadows and epitomizes her lack of progression in the remainder of the novel, besides her advancement towards despair and eventually death.
Flaubert demonstrates the greyhound’s role as a symbol of Emma’s ultimate desire for an aristocratic existence and unimpeded freedom. Greyhounds are aristocratic canines, bred for chasing prey during hunts and for the bourgeois event of dog racing. Emma seems to identify with “the elegant creature” (42) and confides in it as she has never done nor will ever do with Charles: “comparing it to herself, she spoke aloud to it, as if consoling one of the afflicted” (42). Later, when Emma and Charles are moving from Tostes to Yonville, the greyhound runs away – just as Emma would like to do – and “she had blamed this mishap on Charles” (73). Monsieur Lheureux ironically consoles Emma with various examples of lost dogs who travel back to their masters after many years. However, Emma and readers understand that any creature fortunate enough to escape the captivity of Emma’s domestic life would never return. In this instance, the canine represents Emma’s ultimate desire for an aristocratic existence and the unhindered freedom with which it is associated. Thus, Emma identifies herself with her greyhound because it represents the end toward which she strides so passionately but will never realize.
However, Flaubert also compares Emma to canines based on qualities they actually share, not merely on canines’ representation of an end she fails to reach. After Emma’s tumultuous affair with Rodolphe concludes, Charles, in good-natured ignorance, offers Emma one of Rodolphe’s apricots, which causes her to faint. Homais comments to Charles that certain odors are employed in ceremonies to “dull the understanding and induce ecstasies” (193) and Homais recounts a story of Bridoux’s dog, which goes into convulsions at the scent of a snuff-box. He asks Charles, “Would you believe that a simple sternutatory could wreak such havoc on a quadrupled organism?” (194). In finding the case of Bridoux’s dog similar to that of Emma’s, Homais suggests an affinity between the two, strengthening the parallel already noted between Emma and her greyhound, albeit for a different reason. Bridoux’s dog reacts automatically and without thought to the stimulus of the snuff-box, just as Emma responds impulsively to the romantic novels she reads and to the trite, amorous clichés of her lovers, Rodolphe and León. Emma’s response to her lovers’ eloquent platitudes is a major contributing factor to her downfall. Therefore, Emma’s association with canines is dependent on both her romantic aristocratic delusions as well as her automatic pursuit of the passions, both of which lead her to a tragic end.
Flaubert indicates Emma’s desire to flee the tragic consequences of her indulgence in romantic passions through her distancing herself from the canine species. After Emma initiates her affair with León, she spends “three whole days of exquisite pleasure” (238) with him in Rouen. As Emma and León make their way toward a small island where they will eat lunch and embrace in the grass, Flaubert notes that “imperceptibly, the noise of the city was fading away, the rumbling of wagons, the tumult of voices, the barking of dogs” (239). The dying away of these sounds coincides with a brief “beatific state” (239) for Emma, as if she were temporarily free from the banality of the world the first three sounds represent. However, the subsiding of the dog barking is inconsistent with the previous example, in which Bridoux’s dog is introduced into the scene in order to demonstrate the same principle. Both cases are examples of associations between Emma and canines in regard to their shared automatic responses– for Emma, this is her immediate surrender to the passions. It seems that as Emma engages in her passions, she wishes to distance herself from the dogs with which Flaubert consistently associates her, such as through Homais’ story in the previous example. Because these associations eventually come to represent the effects of her actions, it is evident that Emma indulges in her sentimental appetites yet fails to foresee their tragic consequences. Emma seeks to flee association with dogs just as she seeks to flee the Blind Man, yet both images reappear to haunt her on the deathbed.
Immediately after swallowing arsenic, Emma is “seized by convulsions” (296) like Bridoux’s dog from Homais’ story. However, Flaubert draws an even more unnerving connection: as the poison overwhelms Emma in the final page before her death, Flaubert aligns Emma’s dying actions with the obscene actions of the grotesque Blind Man earlier in the novel. Flaubert writes, “Now her chest began to heave rapidly. Her tongue was sticking right out of her mouth; her eyes, rolling about, were turning pale” (304). In Emma’s first encounter with the beggar, Flaubert notes that his eyes were “rolling continuously” (248); in Emma’s second encounter with the beggar, Flaubert notes that “sticking out his tongue… he let out a kind of muffled howl” (280). Thus, her actions are directly linked to those previous actions of the beggar that so profoundly disturbed Emma. While Emma seeks to flee dogs and the Blind Man throughout the novel, they reappear in her final scene in the characterization of her dying actions.
The Blind Man then appears in person, passing under her window and singing the same bawdy song from Part 3 Scene 5, now with a six-line addendum: “Where the sickle blades have been/ Nanette gathering ears of corn,/ Passes bending down my queen/ To the earth where they were born/ The wind is strong this summer day,/ Her petticoat has flown away!” (305). This final addendum is fatalistic in the extreme. The reference to the ‘sickle’ foreshadows the death that awaits Emma, as the Grim Reaper was typically depicted as carrying a sickle while reaping living souls into death’s domain. Because the beggar’s song references the sickle for its banal, agricultural use in gathering corn, it also may demonstrate how Emma’s banal passions are entirely responsible for her death. Similarly, the agriculturally oriented petty bourgeois life is precisely the one she wishes to flee, guiding her down such a perilous path. These reckless actions literally guide her toward the earth, where she will be buried, just as Nanette positions herself to collect the ears of corn in the beggar’s song. The beggar also refers to Nanette as ‘my queen,’ alluding to the aristocratic ambitions which contribute to Emma’s tragic adultery. Emma ‘passes’ away due to her uncontrolled and aimless indulgences in her quixotic appetites, just like an object directed by indiscriminate gusts of ‘wind.’ Eventually, the strong winds of her desire figuratively blow her petticoat away, leaving Emma exposed and humiliated. As Emma imagines the beggar’s hideous face, one more “convulsion threw her down upon the mattress… Her life had ended” (305). This final ‘convulsion’ clearly connects Emma, once again, to Bridoux’s dog from Homais’ story and demonstrates how her impulse toward the passions instigates her demise.
The blind beggar provides an ironic homologue to Emma, as she becomes in one sense what he is in another: blinded, degraded and reduced to begging (to León and Rodolphe for money). Both characters end the novel in inexorable defeat: Emma through death and the beggar through his loss of the fight with Homais. Emma, like the beggar, does not fit comfortably in bourgeois society. This is the case for the Blind Man due to his horrid appearance and actions, whereas this is the case for Emma due to her peasant background and aristocratic aspirations. Thus, both characters, like dogs, exist in ambiguous positions: canines serve as domesticated and peaceable companions, yet they all descend from wild and vicious wolves. Canines’ ambiguous positions are particularly meaningful in reference to Emma, as her gender naturally places her in a domestic role, like a house-trained pet, yet she possesses the free-roaming and primitively passionate tendencies of the wolf. While Emma sought to flee the presence of canines on her excursion with León in Part 3 Chapter 3, she attempted to evade her own nature and its inevitable consequences. When the beggar finally reappears in her dying scene, Emma laughs frantically “at the imagined sight of the beggar’s hideous face, stationed in the eternal darkness like a monster” (305). Yet Emma fails to understand that this monster exists within her.
 Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives; Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Geoffrey Wall. London: Penguin, 1992. Print. 248