Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Fishmongers, cigars, knives, and broken bridles - Madame Bovary's motifs

Gustave Flaubert uses imagery and ordinary objects to create an elaborate pattern that complements the surface meaning of the novel, or ironically comments on the surface meaning, or is perhaps completely independent of it but nevertheless neato, interesting or beautiful or meaningful for its own sake.  I know, I know, everyone does this.  Everyone does it now, in 156 AMB (Anno Madame Bovary).

Flaubert was not really the first fiction writer to build up this kind of pattern – he was never the inventor of any of the innovations critics, and I, commonly associate with him – but he thoroughly systematized a number of elements of the novel into something more or less new.  This is what I mean by Madame Bovary being less fun to write about.  So I’ll drop it.

No, one digression.  Mostly an innovation in fiction is little more than a new emphasis on some aspect of fiction that was there all along, perhaps inherent even in the act of storytelling.  But hasty and easily distracted readers like me have to be trained by an especially insistent novelist to see what has always been right in front of me.  Thus the strange phenomenon of discovering that Cervantes and Don Quixote already did everything.

An example of the patterning, a guest at the wedding of Charles Bovary and Emma Roualt:

The bride had begged her father that she be spared the usual pranks.  However, a fishmonger cousin (who had actually brought a pair of soles as a wedding present) was just beginning to spurt water from his mouth through the keyhole when Roualt came along and stopped him, explaining that the importance of his son-in-law’s position didn’t permit such unseemliness.  (I.4)

Early in her marriage Emma, dissatisfied with provincial life, becomes obsessed with the idea of Paris.  I think this is the only other fishmonger in the novel:

At night when the fishmongers passed below her window in their carts, singing La Marjolaine, she would awaken; and listening to the sound of the iron-rimmed wheels on the pavement, and then the quick change in the sound as they reached the unpaved road at the end of the village, she would tell herself: “They’ll be there [Paris] tomorrow!”  (I.9)

So not only do we have a pair of passages with fishmongers, but in both cases they are associated with waking Emma.  Flaubert is using what at first seems like an unnecessarily fussy detail to link the two scenes.  At a high point in Emma’s life, a fishmonger was beneath her, while later she absurdly associated them with glamour and escape.  For good measure, throw in a curious scene near the end of the novel in which Emma is awakened by the “metallic clang” of “a wagon laden with long strips of iron” (III.6), just after Emma has experienced a sort of parody of the life she imagined in Paris.

The entire novel is built like this.  Returning from the ball in I.8 “they had to stop: the breeching broke, and Charles mended it with a rope,” while the romantically indulgent finale of Emma’s seduction (“her blood flowing in her flesh like a river of milk” and so on) is punctured by “Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending a broken bridle with his penknife” (II.9).  Back in the first scene, Charles discovers a fancy cigar case, lost by the nobleman who hosted the ball, so again Flaubert gives me two chances to remember the connection.  Later Emma gives Rodolphe a cigar case; she also gives him an expensive riding crop, which takes me back to the riding crop in the scene where Charles and Emma first meet (I.2).  A riding crop and a broken bridle are just part of the elaborate horse motif (Vladimir Nabokov tears into it with gusto in Lectures on Literature).

And is there not a scene in which Emma, not yet seduced, is embarrassed that her oafish husband  (“like a peasant!”) carries a knife? There is: II.5.

Little of this is visible on a first pass, even though Flaubert makes use of so many strands.  It was only near the end this time that I discovered the barking dog motif.  I would figure out how the scenes with barking dogs were connected if I had kept track of where they were.  Next time.

This is what I usually mean when I say someone writes like Flaubert.  It is really very difficult to do.

All quotations from the Francis Steegmuller translation.


  1. Yes, the barking dogs are clearly versions of Cerberus. The howling dogs are different! And I'm beginning to think that much is being made of pots and pans and other domestic furnishings, but I keep getting distracted by Emma's daydreaming so I'm not sure.

  2. Just the kind of symbolism which I am pretty sure is not to be found in Flaubert, the Greek stuff. He builds the meaning of the motifs, to the extent they have any meaning at all, out of the stuff of the novel.

    There are some wonderful paired daydreams, Charles followed by Emma.