The Effect of Literature

May 28, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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