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From Chris Kraus’s Introduction to Madame Bovary
Flaubert has often been credited as being the Father of Realism. Madame Bovary, his first and most classically plot-driven novel, has been labeled as “realist” because of—as many critics would have it—the author’s choice to depict “mediocre” and “vulgar” protagonists circling around a subject as “trite” as adultery. Like much criticism, these readings tell us a great deal more about the critics than the novel. Implicit in such statements are the assumptions (a) that there is anything “trite” about the conflict between human desire and the social demand for monogamy—which, as we will see, was applied selectively in Flaubert’s time to the lower reaches of the French middle class; and (b) that the author himself was immune to the trashy and fickle illusions embraced by his characters.
Writing in 1964, critic and novelist Mary McCarthy describes Emma Bovary as “a very ordinary middle-class woman with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings. Her character is remarkable only for an unusual deficiency of human feeling” (“Foreword”; see “For Further Reading”). Sensing, perhaps, a need to distance herself from the proto-feminist implications of Emma’s dilemma, the brilliant, prolific McCarthy could only describe her as “trite.” Instead, she chooses to valorize Charles for his unfailing love of his wife—a love that is no less misguided and false than Emma’s romantic illusions.
Except for the brief deathbed appearance of Dr. Lariviere, a man who “disdainful of honours, of titles, and of academies . . . generous, fatherly to the poor, and practising virtue without believing in it, . . . would almost have passed for a saint if the keenness of his intellect had not caused him to be feared as a demon” (p. 265), all of Flaubert’s characters are equally flawed and deluded. There is the rapacious, progressive pharmacist Homais and the dull-witted Charles, who loves his young wife for all the wrong reasons. Pleased with himself for possessing such a fine wife, Charles is so completely seduced by Emma’s well-rehearsed feminine wiles—her new way of making paper sconces for candles, the flounces she puts on her gowns, her little wine-red slippers with large knots of ribbon—that he cannot see her unhappiness. There is Emma herself, whose suffering never opens her eyes to the misfortunes of others. Her affairs, and her two lovers themselves, Rodolphe (the seducer) and Leon (the poet of adultery), prove to be equally untrustworthy and disappointing. There is Lheureux, the usurious loan-shark and salesman, and a large cast of pompous officials and idiot villagers. In a novel that is so technically modern and ground-breaking, it is interesting to note that Flaubert draws on the medieval slapstick tradition of naming his characters after their foibles: the Mayor Tuvache (“you cow,” in translation); the booster-ish technocrat Homais (“what man could be”: “homme,” the noun “man,” cast, like a verb, in the future conditional tense); and Lheureux, the purveyor of expensive false dreams, his name taken from the French word for “happiness.”
Finally, it is the very idea that romantic love could be conducive to happiness that is most deeply discredited. When Rodolphe makes Emma fall in love with him at Yonville’s agricultural fair, it’s not exactly Rodolphe she falls in love with. When she is caught in his gaze, the little threads of gold in his eyes and the smell of pomade in his hair sets off a rapture of memories of all of the men she’s been in love with. Because she is in love with love, Rodolphe merely serves as a trigger, and at the time this is marvelous. But as the novel moves on, Emma behaves more and more like an addict. By part three, chapter six, when the novelty of her affair with Leon begins fading, Emma summons an imaginary Leon in a letter-writing delirium. “But while she wrote it was another man she saw, a phantom fashioned out of her most ardent memories, her finest reading, her strongest lusts, and at last he became so real, so tangible, that she palpitated wondering, without, however, the power to imagine him clearly, so lost was he, like a god, beneath the abundance of his attributes” (p. 241). After this free-basing binge, Emma “fell back exhausted.” These “transports of love” gave way to a “constant ache all over her.” (In Crack Wars: Literature, Addiction, Mania, philosopher Avital Ronell extrapolates from this metaphor with wild perfection.)
“There is no goodness in this book,” wrote Charles-Augustin Sainte-Beuve, the most eminent critic of Flaubert’s time, in an otherwise favorable review of the novel. And yet the book breathes with compassion. Preparing to write the scene of Emma and Leon’s first meeting, Flaubert describes a strategy that informs the whole book in a letter he wrote in the early 1850s to his sometime-lover and literary confidante, Louise Colet: “My two characters . . . will talk about literature, about the sea, the mountains, music—all well-worn poetical subjects. It will be the first time in any book, I think, that the young hero and the younger heroine are made mock of, and yet the irony will in no way diminish the pathos, but rather intensify it” (The Selected Letters of Gustave Flaubert).