Sunday, December 20, 2009

Review of Madame Bovary

Here's the first of my reviews of Great Books:

Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert, 1856. Glossy's rating: 6.5 out of 10. Read in French. Flaubert's rating in C. Murray's Human Accomplishment: 24 out of 100.

This novel both starts and ends with the story of Charles, the title character's husband. Emma, his wife, thinks that Charles is incredibly boring, which to her mostly means that he's lacking in ambition and masculinity. He is also not very smart, though he does have a lot of other enviable traits.

Charles is honest, hardworking, conscientious, uncomplaining and relatively good at his chosen profession (he's a country doctor). In Flaubert's time, just as in our day, for a physician to be good he had to consciously practice as little of his craft as he could get away with. We're told that Charles doesn't prescribe much to his patients besides laxatives and sleep aids, always fearing that he'd hurt them with anything more substantial. Flaubert was a son of the chief surgeon of the biggest hospital in Normandy, and he obviously knew the realities of the medical profession well. The only proactive medical decision described in the book - the unnecessary maiming of a stable boy named Hyppolite - is conceived and urged not by Charles, but by the pharmacist Homais, who is the novel's biggest villain.

If Charles is so great, why does Emma hate him so much? The answer is suggested by the nature of the men with whom she chooses to cuckold him. Emma's first lover Rodolphe is the most macho character in the novel, with the possible exception of the international opera star Lagardy whom she can only admire from afar and of a mysterious vicomte she once meets at a ball, and whom she can't have either. Rodolphe had had a lot of affairs and is never shy or insecure about anything. Unlike Charles, who truly loves her, Rodolphe can easily go in and out of the baroque, flowery language in which seducers usually talk in the cheap romance novels Emma had been devouring since childhood.

Her second lover, Leon, is somewhere between Rodolphe and her husband on the all-important manliness scale. When he tries to seduce her, she repulses his initial advances and he shyly apologizes. A description of that is followed by a revealing sentence: "Emma was seized with a vague fear at this shyness, more dangerous to her than the boldness of Rodolphe when he advanced to her open-armed". Eventually Leon gets the hint.

Emma's impatience with Charles's literal-mindedness and her strong desire to be lied to are made explicit in a scene that follows the death of Charles's father. Charles is being typically sincere about his mourning, shedding tears and saying all the things people usually say when their loved ones die. Emma is so bored with all that that immediately afterwards she welcomes the chance to talk to the shopkeeper and usurer Lheroux, who practically drowns her in insincerity every time they meet. Lying, noticing other people's lies - those things are less boring to her than honesty for the same reason that the romance novels she reads are more interesting to her than the real world.

Because of their secularism most modern reviewers of this book concentrate on the corrosive effects on Emma only of the sappiness and romanticism of the novels she loves so much. Charles's mother, however, diagnoses a very different problem when she calls them "bad books, works against religion, and in which they mock at priests in speeches taken from Voltaire. But all that leads you far astray, my poor child," she goes on. "Anyone who has no religion always ends by turning out badly."

Does it say anything about Flaubert himself that he put such words into a novel that ends with the heroine's suicide? Can it really be that Charles's mother was speaking for the novelist here? Perhaps. While Flaubert has obvious sympathy for Emma, he never shows any such feelings for the pharmacist Homais, a militant secularist who mocks Christianity on dozens of the novel's pages. Homais is portrayed in a negative light in every single scene in which he appears, while his biggest adversary in arguments over religion, the priest Bournisien, is usually shown sympathetically.

One of the fun things about reading any classic novel is finding all of its inevitable anachronisms - things that point out how radically our world has changed since the book was first published. For example, early in the novel Flaubert goes on for a while about how ugly Charles's hat was. Nothing made in that period seems ugly to us now, does it? Fine art museums built in the 21st century routinely look worse than 19th century prisons.

It's hard to believe now that Flaubert had to defend this essentially moralistic tale in court against charges of immorality. He was especially criticized for the phrase "platitudes of marriage", incorrectly believed by some at the time to vaguely justify Emma's adulteries. Modern would-be censors would far more likely be incensed by the mention of "the ardent races of the south", which appears during a description of the singer Lagardy.

Emma and Charles implicitly agree with each other about their respective values in the sexual market. He can't believe he managed to marry someone so far above his league. She can't believe she ended up with someone so far below hers. Since they come from very similar economic backgrounds, their mismatch has nothing to do with social class. It is biological in nature - one of the obvious problems is that Charles simply doesn't have enough testosterone to be able to genuinely attract women of Emma's level of beauty.

Is what's good in the sexual market good for a civilized society as a whole? It's hard to believe that Flaubert would have been uninterested in that question while writing this book. He had certainly depicted Charles as being more productive and useful to the world than Emma. And at the very least, Charles holds his own on that score against Leon and Rodolphe. By far the most emotionally moving part of the novel is the last chapter, which concentrates on Charles’s fate after his wife’s death.

If you read up on Flaubert, you'll inevitably learn that he worked hard on his style. He spent countless hours getting each word of each sentence just right, treating his novels almost like poetry. I liked Flaubert's clear sense of morality and his unsentimental insightfulness about relations between the sexes, so I would have been happy to report to you that I loved his use of language as well. But that would be a lie. Having read the whole thing in French, I found its style clear and unobtrusive, but nothing more than that. Since French is not my native language, I very well could have missed some of the great man's stylistic subtleties. However, I did not find anything extraordinary about the language of the two English translations I've looked through either. If the translators involved were aware of Flaubert's stylistic awesomeness, then they clearly failed to reproduce it in English. This is, of course, not impossible, so I should probably withhold final judgment on it.

1 comment:

  1. Although I don't know much about this, I think that Flaubert's notion of a highly polished style was to tell the story realistically, clearly, and unobtrusively with a minimum of words. Few words but perfectly chosen. Flaubert might have deliberately tried to minimize poetry or alliteration that might distract from his minimalist style.