Madame Bovary’s preposterous philistine pharmacist M. Homais has four children, all with meaningful names: “Napoléon stood for fame, Franklin for liberty; Irma was perhaps a concession to Romanticism; but Athalie was a tribute to the most immortal masterpiece of the French stage” (I.3). The Irma business has me stumped, but I have read Racine’s Athalie (1691) and get the joke. The play is sincerely religious and Homais is a free-thinker, but as a “man of discrimination” he “condemned the ideas but admired the style, abhorred the conception but praised all the details.”
Generally anything Homais does or thinks is a target of scorn, but here he seems to be describing a large number of the readers of Madame Bovary. Also, perhaps, its author.
Madame Bovary is actually the fourth novel Flaubert wrote, if I am counting correctly. The third, the first version of The Temptation of St. Anthony, barely has any story or characters or any of the usual novelistic apparatus but is just, as Flaubert’s friend Maxime du Camp wrote, “harmonious phrases expertly put together…, noble images and startling metaphors” (Steegmuller, 163), and nothing else. Another friend, Louis Bouilhet, planted the seed of the real-life incident on which Madame Bovary is based as a vehicle to constrain Flaubert and allow him to correct his faults. But:
How could he [Flaubert] bear to spend several years describing such people as those? The prospect revolted him. (Steegmuller, 260)
More than one reader of Flaubert says “Hey – me, too!” But the subject obviously worked as a purgative.
The obstacle here is the notion of creative expression. The artist - any artist – is presumably trying to express something, and in a novel it is generally safe to assume that the characters and events of the story are a significant part of what he is trying to express. They take up so much room.
But what if the incidents and insights are only in the novel because the form of the novel requires them? Say that Flaubert chooses to write a novel, and as a result of that choice seeks to perfect every necessary element of the novel, but that whatever meaning he is trying to express is inherent in the creation of the object. Rohan Maitzen, champion of Middlemarch and a tradition not just different than but antithetical to Flaubert’s, wonders if Madame Bovary’s achievement lies “in its perfect realization of its own concept, perhaps.” Yes, I think so, and here we see the difference between the amateur and the professional. I had to read four books by Flaubert culminating in the sublimely absurd Salammbô to get this point; the English professor only needed one.
Flaubert’s purpose resembles that of his neighbor Claude Monet. Monet did not paint two dozen grainstacks because he wanted to express an idea about Normandy agriculture, nor did he paint his series of paintings of the Rouen Cathedral, the setting of the one of the best scenes in Madame Bovary, because of an interest in religion or architecture or the novels of Gustave Flaubert, but in both cases because the forms of the haystack and cathedral allowed him to explore changing light and shadow effects. Flaubert is creating a novel, though, not a series of paintings or a symphony, so he includes signifiers of novelistic meaning. It’s the light effects and harmonies he is after, though. That’s where whatever he is trying to express can be found. The opportunity to mock the Normandy bourgeois who irritate him so is just a bonus.