Analysis of the Agricultural Fair Scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

March 12, 2019 by Essay Writer

Analysis of the Agricultural Fair Scene in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary In writing Madame Bovary, Flaubert would often spend days in search of “le mot juste”. As a result, not only his sentences but his scenes are beautifully crafted. One such example is the agricultural fair scene in the novel where the town gathers to celebrate achievements in farming. As a plot devise, the fair is important because it helps bring together Emma and Rodolphe. It is during this scene that Rodolphe seduces Emma and they begin their ill-fated affair. However, the importance of this scene extends far beyond its plot function. Flaubert creatively constructs the scene such that the councilor’s speech and Rodolphe’s speech are juxtaposed and each mocks the other. Flaubert also uses this scene to criticize Emma’s romanticism and the stifling mediocrity of the French bourgeoisie. Altogether, this scene contains many of the broader themes of the novel and is emblematic of Flaubert’s brilliant use of irony. Perhaps the first thing to notice while reading this chapter is how Flaubert places his characters in the scene to create three different planes of action. At the very bottom is the faceless crowd gathered for the Fair: “the crowd came into the main street from both ends of the village. People poured in from the lanes, the alleys, the houses…” (83). Mixed with the people were the beasts: “drowsy pigs were burrowing in the earth with their snouts, calves were bleating, lambs baaing…” (86). Situated above the faceless crowd are the town officials, including the councilor giving the speech. And placed above all of them are Rodolphe and Emma who “had gone to the first floor of the town hall, to the ‘council-room’…[so] that they could enjoy the sight there more comfortably” (89). The physical location of the characters is interesting in this scene because usually when one character is placed above another, it also suggest some sort of implicit moral superiority. Here, however, even though Emma and Rodolphe occupy the highest plane, they cannot make that claim as it is in this council-room that they begin their adulterous affair. Not only between planes, but within each plane of action, Flaubert sets up interesting contrasts and parallels. For example, in the lowest plane, at the street level are the mass of people and animals. Flaubert describes the townspeople as “all…looked alike”(88), perhaps to signify that the monotony and insignificance of provincial bourgeoisie life has made everyone indistinguishable from one another. Even more harshly, Flaubert draws parallels between the crowded mass of people and the crowded mass of animals by using similar language in describing both. For example, at the beginning of the scene, all the animals were herded into a small enclosure for food, “and above the long undulation of these crowded animals one saw some white mane rising in the wind like a wave….” (86). Contrast this with the end of the scene, when all the people were ushered together for the feast, so crowded that “sweat stood on every brow, and a whitish steam, like the vapor of a stream on an autumn morning, floated above the table between the hanging lamps” (95). The floating “whitish steam, like the vapor of a stream” recalls the earlier description of the animals’ “white mane rising in the wind like a wave”, and the equivalence is complete. Although action is happening on three different planes, Flaubert integrates the stories so that he can cut from one to another seamlessly. The best example of this would be the councilor’s speech at the fair, during which Flaubert shifts his focus between the speaker and Rodolphe and Emma constantly. The effect of such parallel structure is heightened irony. While the speaker is talking about the greatness of farming: “you, farmers, agricultural laborers! You…pioneers of a work that belongs wholly to civilization!” (90), Emma and Rodolphe are talking about “provincial mediocrity” (87) and the stifling nature of provincial life. While the speaker is praising the townspeople, “you, men of progress and morality” (90), Rodolphe succeeds in seducing Emma and the two begin their affair. More specifically though, by cutting between the two scenes, Flaubert is mocking both Rodolphe’s insincerity and the speaker’s pomposity. The councilor’s clichés about progress, morality, and patriotism are matched only by Rodolphe’s clichés about passion, love, and being “born for each other” (92). As the scene continues, Flaubert quickens the pace by inter-cutting more frequently between the two speeches until single sentences are contrasted with each other. When Rodolphe asks Emma “why did we come to know one another?” (93), his speech is immediately followed by the president’s exclamation, “for good farming generally!” (93), suggesting that their relationship is one of animal instincts. Another example is when Rodolphe tries to convince Emma that they are destined together by fate: “Just now, for example, when I went to your house.” “To Monsieur Bizat of Quincampoix.” “Did I know I should accompany you?” “Seventy francs.” (93) The juxtaposition of the two speeches suggests that Emma is trying to get money for her favors, which ultimately becomes true later in the novel when she tries to win Rodolphe back in order to get money to pay off her debts. Moreover, this juxtaposition highlight the insincerity of Rodolphe’s intentions, because every time he makes a declaration of love, his speech is mocked – here the money suggests that he has ulterior motives. Other examples of this include when he tells Emma “I shall carry away with me the remembrance of you!” (94), which is immediately followed by the president’s announcement, “For a merino ram!” (94). At the climax of Rodolphe’s courtship, he tells Emma, “You are good! You understand that I am yours! Let me look at you; let me contemplate you!” (93), which is followed by “Flemish manure!” (94) – again, Rodolphe’s intentions are mocked and shown as insincere by Flaubert. Thus, we can see, Flaubert’s use of structure for satiric effect works to highlight both the pomposity of the councilor and the insincerity of Rodolphe by placing their speeches side by side. This parallel structure is employed by Flaubert not only for ironic contrasts, however, it is also used in this scene to highlight some of the dominant themes prevalent throughout the novel. In the previous example of the manure, Flaubert not only mocks Rodolphe but also Emma and her highly romanticized view of life. Emma yearns for the life she reads about in novels, and “tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books” (21). It is precisely this disparity between her romantic ideals and the realities of provincial life that drives her to Rodolphe who exploits her weakness by talking to her in these romantic clichés. Flaubert criticizes this exaggerated emotionalism and makes the point that romanticism is in decay by comparing Emma’s romantic ideals to manure. Another theme touched on in this scene is the boredom of provincial life. Various characters throughout the novel all express this same sentiment. Emma explains that it was “domestic mediocrity [that] drove her to lewd fancies, marriage tenderness to adulterous desires” (68). In this scene, both her and Rodolphe “talked about provincial mediocrity, of the lives it crushed, the illusions lost there” (87). Emma’s sentimentality, melancholy, and frivolous desires are contrasted in this scene with Catherine Leroux, the woman who won a silver medal for fifty-four years of service at the same farm. In a way, this woman could be seen as Emma’s opposite, possessing the fidelity and perseverance that Emma lacks. Flaubert describes the old woman as being dignified by “something of monastic rigidity” (95), yet at the same time, “in her constant living with animals she had caught their dumbness and their calm” (95). As much as Flaubert scorns Emma’s romanticism, he is also harsh toward this alternative, describing her standing before the jury as “thus stood before these radiant bourgeois this half-century of servitude” (95). Earlier in the scene, Flaubert makes fun of the pharmacist Homais’ tedious, self-aggrandizing speech about the importance of chemistry to agriculture. The author mocks the bourgeoisie’s pretensions to knowledge and self-importance. Thus, we can see in this scene at the agricultural fair, Flaubert uses irony not only to mock the insincerity of Rodolphe or the pomposity of the councilor’s speech, but also to criticize both Emma Bovary’s romantic ideals and the mediocrity of the bourgeoisie. He does so by first creatively constructing three planes of action and then inter-cutting between the two scenes of the councilor’s speech and Rodolphe’s courtship. The net effect is to create a three-dimensional scene that points out the stifling monotony of provincial life as well as the hollowness of Emma’s romantic escapes. Works Cited Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Barnes & Noble Books, Inc., 1993

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