The Canine Blind Man and Fate in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

May 8, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.” [1] 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.

[1] Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary: Provincial Lives; Translated with an Introduction and Notes by Geoffrey Wall. London: Penguin, 1992. Print. 248

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