When I came across the description of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert as a “seminal work of realism”, I was a little surprised. It’s true I hadn’t finished cooking my thoughts on the book, but I wasn’t thinking anything along those lines. On closer examination, I could see that yes, much of the narrative is startlingly realistic. What I had been thinking a lot about though was point of view and how purely Flaubert draws his scenes through the eyes of the point of view character, usually Emma Bovary. While the author sets the dialogue and events down without judgment, his descriptions of the natural world reflect the character’s inner lives. And initially I was thinking of how unrealistic this was—that the trees, the birds, and the winds all respond to the fluctuations of the character’s feelings. But on closer examination, I couldn’t ignore that the rest of the story is put down in a detailed and realistic style.
Up to the near end of the book—Emma Bovary’s death—the story is told without narrator comment, unflinchingly, “Emma’s head was turned toward her right shoulder. The corner of her mouth, which remained open, was like a black hole at the bottom of her face; both thumbs were bent inwards toward the palms;”. The incredible detail Flaubert uses in this story, demonstrates that without a doubt there is something worth thinking about in this story of love, infidelity, and unfulfilled desire. He is showing us his characters so clearly, indicating that they are indeed worth a close examination. At the very start of the story, we are given this description of Charles Bovary’s hat:
It was headgear of composite nature, combining elements
of the busby, the lancer cap, the round hat, the otter skin cap
and the cotton night cap—one of those wretched whose mute
ugliness had great depths of expression, like an idiot’s face.
Egg-shaped and stiffened by whalebone, it began with three
rounded bands, followed by alternating diamond-shaped
patches of velvet and rabbit fur separated by a red stripe, and
finally there was a kind of bad terminating in a cardboard-lined
polygon by a long, extremely thin cord, forming a kind of tassel.
The cap was new; its visor was shiny. (2)
We know from this very first scene that Charles Bovary is a character we should pay attention to, and though he is in fact rather simple and boring, it’s clear that he’s a character crucial to the story, that we need to pay attention to.
The narrator does not take time to divulge to us what he thinks of Charles Bovary’s simplicity or Madame Bovary’s extravagances, excesses, and infidelity. But, the time he spends describing them urges—look, look, there’s something worth seeing here.
There seems sometimes a kind of dishonesty in the “honesty” of realism, because the truth is that we know the judgment is there even when the writer chooses not to share, which raises questions about whether “realism” is even possible when it comes to imaginative art.
And imaginative art indeed! Flaubert’s way of becoming his character’s in his descriptions of the natural world add depth to an otherwise realistic style. A nod and a wink perhaps to the reader in these moments of excess that reveal the writer behind the words, as in, “…her heart leapt. The flames in the fireplace cast a joyful, flickering light on the ceiling;” (89), or “She was now suffering through her love, and she felt her soul slipping away at the memory of it, just as a wounded man, as he lies dying, feels his life flowing out through the bleeding gash. Night was falling and the crows were flying overhead” (271).
This pairing of the realistic and imaginative is appropriate for a story about a young woman consumed by her own passionate nature. This makes me think of Hemingway’s purely realistic story “A Soldier’s Home” and something I recently read in an interview with Toni Morrison about how when she’s writing she doesn’t think about genre classifications, she lets the writing decide its form. And this is one great benefit of being a writer today. Over time, and with experimentation and entire literary movements: there are so many models to pull inspiration from, so many distinctions of form and style. I think this can be crippling too if one tries to either be too pure of form or too purposefully experimental. The work really should decide the form. And so it seems it was with Madame Bovary. Flaubert’s friends urged him to write something in the style of realism, and he did. It is no accident that he chose a story about a woman whose romantic nature is her undoing and who he is noted as saying was a fictional representation of himself. His was a romance with words and attention to them, a belief in stories driven by the artistry of the language, not the unfolding of events. As Madame Bovary did, he wanted the best of things that could be read in books. Perhaps if Madame Bovary had turned to writing instead of real people (men with whom she married and had affairs), she could have found the contentment she so passionately sought.