The Spiritual Doldrums of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary

July 18, 2019 by Essay Writer

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.

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