Friday, June 29, 2012

The meaning of Flaubert's meaninglessness - he condemned the ideas but admired the style

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.


  1. In the Goncourt journals there is a reference to a speech at Flaubert's funeral that was full of "Homaiseries" (and I thought that the movie of MB that we saw might have been directed by the pharmacist).

    The selections from the Goncourt journals that NYRB keeps in print includes a conversation between Dumas and Bishop Dupanloup, recorded on March 16, 1875. NYRB's selections are in English, but in's French, the conversation runs

    Un mot de Dupanloup à Dumas:

    «--Comment trouvez-vous MADAME BOVARY.

    --Un joli livre.

    --Un chef-d'œuvre, monsieur... oui, un chef-d'œuvre, pour ceux qui ont
    confessé en province.»

  2. All right, this is good stuff. First, your joke about the movie made me laugh, and then the quote from the Bishop, once I figured it out, made me laugh again.

    The Bishop is, from his own experience, attesting to the accuracy of Madame Bovary.

  3. If by "confesse" the Bishop means "taken confession" then it's a funny joke and I get it. My French is almost nonexistent so I'm guessing.

    I'll have to think more about the "form over content" idea. There are certain novelists for whom the premise is almost irrelevant, who could write a highly-individualistic and formally complex work around any old idea. The idea is to these novelists just the bare planks of the stage upon which they'll dance and leap and do amazing things. Some of these novelists write tremendous, great books.

  4. That's right, the Bishop was confessing his parishioners and hearing the most interesting things.

    New Novelist Nathalie Sarraute, a Bovary devotee, argues that if anything Flaubert did not go far enough. "What is the use of showing the character. That distorts things." And so on. Flaubert himself wrote a bit about the perfect novel being about nothing. But he wrote plenty of other things, too, so I will not push that too far.

    It was really Salammbô that pointed me in this direction. Easier to see that one as a novel of pure art or display than Bovary.

  5. I had missed the very subtle joke relating to the names of Homais' children. It really is exquisite, isn't it? As well as Athalie, I love the naming of one of his children Irma, "perhaps as a concession to Romanticism": I would interpret this as Flaubert taking a pot shot at himself. He wasn't, I think, entirely joking when he famously said "Madame Bovary, c'est moi" I can't help seeing Flaubert as a writer who couldn't let go the ideals of Romanticism, even as he realised how hopelessly unrealistic they are. The tragedy of "Madame Bovary" is certainly, in part, the tragedy of the specific characer Emma Bovary: it is also, I think, a tragedy of the failure of those Romantic ideals that Flaubert appeared unable to relinquish. And Flaubert, being intelligent and self-aware, so no reason to exclude himself from his own satire.

    While I do take your point that the characters & incidents are present because the form of the novel demands their presence, they cannot be dismissed, I think, as merely subsidary: I agree that Monet painted Rouen Cathedral not because he was specifically interested in religion or in architecture, but I do think that he painted it because he was interested in the way the changing light affects the way we see Rouen Cathedral - the way we see *Rouen* *Cathedral*, and not something else.

    Possibly, music is the only art that can be ebtirely abstract, and even there I have doubts.

  6. Flaubert is ultra-Romantic, yes, in some ways a lot like Emma. Much of his technique is just a method to tame his Romanticism. Do you know the "Irma" reference? It must be a reference to something. Chateaubriand?

    The characters and so on can be dismissed as subsidiary - later writers have done it. I have seen it done. Flaubert did it himself, although as I said above, I do not want to push that point too far.

    I am unconvinced by the point about Monet, but the flimsiest evidence would convince me. He presumably wrote letters, too.

    I have seen hundreds of paintings that I would happily call "entirely abstract" - you are a lot stricter than I am!