fiction files redux discussion

Group Reads > Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert

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message 1: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
OK, so Madame Bovary.

I propose we break the discussion into the three parts the book is broken into, with the following dates as beginning points for the discussions:

By November 8, I will post some materials I've collected and some basic questions, of course welcome to input and pre-discussion from anyone in the group.


Discussion starts Saturday, November 13 with Part One.

Discussion of Part Two (and it has 15 chapters so we will go a bit longer on that one...) we will start discussing @ the 22nd of November.

Discussion of Part Three, taking into account Turkey Day in the US, will begin December 8.


The discussion start dates are really just to avoid spoilers and give people a reading schedule. Beginning a new section does not preclude discussion of previous chapters, etc.

The more the merrier -- even if you're not participating, if you've read it and have something to say, please do! I know there are lots of Madame Bovary lovers here who may not have time to read with us but would have some amazing things to say.

If you've ever read a book with me leading before, you know that I'm pretty flexible with dates and how we discuss things (though I will do everything I can to keep the dates on track since it's a whole novel).

My only guidelines are that if you have strong feelings one way or another about the book, that you be able to back up your perceptions with the text itself; and that we all be considerate of and generous with each other's opinions, thoughts and feelings.

message 2: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Oh! And I will be using the new Lydia Davis translation. But because people will be using different translations, when we refer to the text, let's note chapter numbers and general locations of text/scenes, not page numbers.

I happen to think that a variety of translations makes things more interesting. (I will also pick up a French version, for reference's sake since I can read it.)

message 3: by Elizabeth, bubbles (new)

Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
Brilliant new epithet, Shel. :) This is the first time I have seen a moderator moniker change.

I'm in for the Lydia Davis translation complete with that lovely cover.

message 4: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Oct 30, 2010 08:27AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I'm just going to post some interesting tidbits I find before we begin. (Warning: I deliberately avoid academic approaches, including feminist readings...)

Supposedly, Flaubert considered social interaction to be a barrier to his creativity and was notoriously reclusive, not to mention severely hacked off at the bourgeoisie. He had an affair with a married woman, Louis Colet, and parts of Bovary are drawn from his experiences with her. Apparently, the married poet was not pleased:

Amor nel cor

It was for him, for him whom she loved like a god,
For him, callous to all human sorrow, uncouth to women.
Alas, she was poor and had little to give
But all gifts are sacred that incarnate a soul.

Well! In a novel of traveling-salesman style,
As nauseating as a toxic wind,
He mocked the gift in a flat-footed phrase,
Yet kept the fine agate seal.

Amor nel cor, in Italian, means "love in the heart" or "everlasting love."

message 5: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Oct 31, 2010 11:01AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
From the introduction in the new Lydia Davis edition:

Flaubert chose to create characters who are less than admirable and to treat them with ironic objectivity -- he remarks in another letter, as he works on the scene between Emma and Leon, "This will be the first time, I think, that one will see a book that makes fun of its young leading lady and its young leading man." Yet he goes on to say that "irony takes nothing away from pathos." Which is echoed by Vladimir Nabokov in his lecture on the novel: "The ironic and the pathetic are beautifully intertwined."

A lot of the intro is dedicated to what Flaubert was trying to accomplish -- almost a journalistic method of plot and character development -- just the facts, just the details tell the story.

In place of the author's comment, then the details of the scenes and the acute psychological portraits must convey everything -- and, for Flaubert, the direct dialogue, too, functioned to portray the characters more than to move the plot forward.To be effective, the details must be closely observed, carefully chosen, precise, and vivid..."

message 6: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Oct 31, 2010 11:06AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
More details to watch for, and to keep an eye on our responses as readers:

Flaubert's irony is present in the eloquent juxtapositions he creates between the "poetic" and the brutally commonplace, with an effect that is sometimes humorous, sometimes shocking, but that always draw us up short, breaks the mood.

Our emotional responses to the incidents of the novel are never entirely unmixed, which is of course one of the sources of its power.

And, to sum up, the combination of the stylistic choices and the story itself...:

What he is trying to achieve in this book, instead, is a style that is clear and direct, economical and precise, and at the same time rhythmic, sonorous, musical, and "as smooth as marble" on the surface, with varied sentence structures and with imperceptible transitions from scene to scene and from psychological analysis to action.

And finally, what did Flaubert have to say?

"What a bitch of a thing prose is! It is never finished; there's always something to redo."

message 7: by Adrian (new)

Adrian | 250 comments This book is soooooooooooo boring. No car chases or explosions. It doesn't get good & creepy until halfway through, when they make the deformed kid stick his leg in a box and he starts screaming after a while. Still not as good as a Saw movie.

I vote we just discuss the new Saw movie. It's in 3-D.

message 8: by Adrian (last edited Oct 31, 2010 12:56PM) (new)

Adrian | 250 comments For the sake of reference, after reading the novel, take a look at Nabokov's remarkably detailed "lecture" on the novel. Includes photos of his heavily annotated copy of the book, and buried in his remarks is a demonstration of his close reading when he provides evidence that the novel is not so realistic after all.

Nabokov on Madame Bovary

message 9: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Yay! Nabokov was my next stop. I will read this and pull out what I feel are the key points.

Sorry. No zombies, either.

message 10: by Dan, deadpan man (new)

Dan | 635 comments Mod
Adrian wrote: "This book is soooooooooooo boring. No car chases or explosions. It doesn't get good & creepy until halfway through, when they make the deformed kid stick his leg in a box and he starts screaming af..."

I was walking past the town's movie theatre and it's marquee said it was Saw 7 that was out. There's seven of these pieces of shit?!

Also, despite Adrian's kind words I think I am going to attempt this one. Though I can't promise I'll finish it or stay on schedule! Right now I am weighing the option of buying the Davis translation or just checking out the Steegmuller translation we have here in the library.

message 11: by Elizabeth, bubbles (new)

Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
Dan, I agree about SAW. Why has the film industry produced seven SAWs and not even one (acceptable) DUNE? Boooooo.

Back to business....

Part one has some beautiful vignettes. Maybe I am wishing this into the text, but the imagery just feels French. I will finish this one for sure.

message 12: by Adrian (last edited Oct 31, 2010 09:54PM) (new)

Adrian | 250 comments Shel wrote: "Yay! Nabokov was my next stop. I will read this and pull out what I feel are the key points."

The "lecture" is actually a combination of several class lectures in which he led his students through the novel. Much of the summary can be skimmed over. He questions the novel's claim to realism at the top of page 146.

As an instance of synchronicity, after writing the earlier post this afternoon, I went to the local Borders bookstore with a 40% discount coupon and bought the new paperback edition of The Stories of Vladimir Nabokov. (This is the third edition that's been released, since the publisher keeps incorporating lost material that has been found in archives.) The cashier was an elderly woman, about 70, who was dressed as a leprechaun for a Halloween promotion; her advanced age made her appear to be a zombie leprechaun, which added to the eldritch festivities. She commented on the book and then told me about her late husband, a publisher who had met Nabokov at a party when the film version of Lolita was released. Nabokov was cordial, but Mrs. Nabokov hovered nearby and let it be known after a few minutes when you were supposed to depart from their presence.

Wasn't that an unexpected anecdote? And how often do you get to chat with a female zombie leprechaun? Much more interesting than anything in that dead frog's book about Madame Ovary.

I vote that we discuss the new Jackass movie. It's also in 3-D.

message 13: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
You have the best stories. I started reading what you posted and it did look like a classroom lecture. How cool would it have been to be in Nabokov's class?

And only if this movie comes after it:

message 14: by Elizabeth, bubbles (last edited Nov 01, 2010 12:20PM) (new)

Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
This is fun. I'm done with part one and reading Austerlitz until after the 13th.
Shel, What kind of meeting do you hold to discuss the text? Will there be a specific time? Is it voices, video or type it all out?

I am sure this thought is obvious, but I wish I could redo my English degree with all of today's technology tools.

Edit: Sorry for the irreverence. Fixed.

message 15: by Martha (new)

Martha Kate | 194 comments Dan wrote: "Adrian wrote: "This book is soooooooooooo boring. No car chases or explosions. It doesn't get good & creepy until halfway through, when they make the deformed kid stick his leg in a box and he star..."

Hey Dan, I'm stuck with Steegmuller since that's what is on my shelf.

I'm ditching my "other" bookgroup for November (they're reading Kingsolver's Lacuna - not sure I could get through it) to make sure I have plenty of time for Flaubert. Can't wait...

message 16: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Elizabeth, I am not nearly so star trekky (and in fact, according to Adrian, I'm actually a sick fuckhead, so probably shouldn't be allowed to do anything on a webcam ;).

[Actually I work in the web industry, and methinks that if Skype would allow us to do a group video chat that would be awesome, though we may end up talking more about rum than Emma.]

On the 13th I will start the conversation with my initial thoughts and then everyone just jumps in with what they think. I keep the conversation moving, but usually don't have to work overly hard to do so... and eventually we move into part two but the conversation is wide open. I just generally like it when people are nice to each other, generous, and back up their opinions in the text.

Yay! Smarty Kate and Dan are coming to the par-tay!

message 17: by Adrian (last edited Nov 02, 2010 10:32PM) (new)

Adrian | 250 comments Shel wrote: "How cool would it have been to be in Nabokov's class?..."

I would like to have been in the same class when Thomas Pynchon was a student. Nabokov didn't remember him very well, but Mrs. Nabokov, who routinely graded the student papers, recalled that he would alternate between cursive writing & printing his answers for some odd reason. (I notice that some online sources are now disputing whether the elusive Pynchon ever took the class.)

Extracurricular reading: People who become interested in Flaubert & his work would probably enjoy Flaubert's Parrot by Julian Barnes. It's a literary novel which is, among other things, an examination of literary attitudes toward Flaubert. There's a funny chapter dedicated to Emma Bovary's eyes. Depending on the translator, you may notice that Madame Bovary's eyes change color during the course of the novel. This is due to Flaubert's choice of words, and Enid Starkie, a famous Flaubert scholar, believed this was an example of carelessness. Barnes has his narrator defend Flaubert and launches an assault on Ms. Starkie, pointing out that her scholarly biography of Flaubert is graced by a prominent illustration of Flaubert, but which is actually a picture of his best friend -- so who is careless?

message 18: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

message 19: by Dan, deadpan man (new)

Dan | 635 comments Mod
I am actually reading the Aveling and Man translation right now. I am not very far in but so far have found it pleasant going.

There's a great description of the 19th century equivalent to drunk driving!

message 20: by Hugh, aka Hugh the Moderator (new)

Hugh | 271 comments Mod
Some folks may find this interesting.... This is from a letter Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet as he was writing Madame Bovary. I think it gives a great insight into the sheer amount of work went into every sentence....

7 April 1854
I have just made a fresh copy of what I have written since New Year, or rather since the middle of February, for on my return from Paris I burned all of my January work. It amounts to thirteen pages, no more, no less, thirteen pages in seven weeks. However, they are in shape, I think, and as perfect as I can make them. There are only two or three repetitions of the same word which must be removed, and two turns of phrase that are still too much alike. At last something is completed. It was a difficult transition: the reader had to be led gradually and imperceptibly from psychology to action. Now I am about to begin the dramatic, eventful part. Two or three more big pushes and the end will be in sight. By July or August I hope to tackle the denouement. What a struggle it has been! My God, what a struggle! Such drudgery! Such discouragement! I spent all last evening frantically poring over surgical texts. I am studying of clubfeet. In three hours I devoured an entire volume on this interesting subject and took notes. I came upon some really fine sentences. "The maternal breast is an impenetrable and mysterious sanctuary, where... etc." An excellent treatise, incidentally. Why am I not young? How I should work! One ought to know everything to write. All of us scribblers are monstrously ignorant. If only we weren't so lacking in stamina, what a rich field of ideas and similes we could tap! Books that have been the source of entire literatures, like Homer and Rabelais, contain the sum of all the knowledge of their times. They know everything, those fellows, and we know nothing. Ronsard's poetics contain a curious precept: he advises the poet to become well-versed in the arts and crafts -- to frequent blacksmiths, goldsmiths, locksmiths, etc. -- in order to enrich his stock of metaphors. And indeed that is the sort of thing that makes for rich and varied language. The sentences in a book must quiver like the leaves in a forest, all dissimilar in their similarity.>/i>

message 21: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Hugh wrote: "Some folks may find this interesting.... This is from a letter Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet as he was writing Madame Bovary. I think it gives a great insight into the sheer amount of work went in..."

Thank you for that post -- in the Lydia Davis edition she talks about this very thing -- how much work went into these pages, how much he wrote that he cast aside. Sometimes one page a week, but he had written 50 others... and tossed them.

Knowing all of this is making me read this book far more carefully than I otherwise might. I mean, sentence by sentence -- such deliberation, such effort.

message 22: by Jodi (new)

Jodi | 26 comments I've got Steegmuller, too. Just jumping in now so hopefully I won't be too far behind.

message 23: by João (new)

João Camilo (JCamilo) | 258 comments Shel wrote: "Hugh wrote: "Some folks may find this interesting.... This is from a letter Flaubert wrote to Louise Colet as he was writing Madame Bovary. I think it gives a great insight into the sheer amount of..."

I think I remember a letter where he mentions 3 pages that took a month..

message 24: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
So, just a few things to think about as you read...

* Issues of class & convention, and how they are represented

*Orientalism -- the "narrator"'s attitude toward the exoticism, and a potential excuse to forego conventional morality, that the Orientalism movement (such as it was) offered

* What does the youth of Emma and Charles have to do with who they end up becoming? And how does Flaubert treat this? (I have to say, it's very modern psychology of him.)

*Their parents and peripheral characters -- I am watching them closely, because it seems they are used to draw a picture of external perceptions of society, and also what kinds of behavior are and are not acceptable. But in this different way from anyone I've read from that period.

I'm drawing some pretty stark comparisons between other writers of that era, including both the brutal Hugo and the breathless Balzac. (I have a lot of exposure to them.) It seems to me that his writing in isolation as he did fed this wholly new style that I've not read in 19th century French lit.

message 25: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Nov 13, 2010 05:50AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I woke up this morning and rested my elbows on the windowsill. My hair fell across my cheek in soft ribbons and my eyes started changing colors (that was a little freaky, I must say). I thought, what day is it today? Surely not another day to walk around my boring little garden. Oh, no. Today is November 13. It's time to kick off Madame Bovary.

First, I've never read it, so this is like uncovering new treasure, for me. I have read a ton of French writers, many from this period, and I've never read this one. It is SO very, very different. And I SO love this book.

(I'm going to try to keep this high level and not throw in the several dozen passages I have underlined. That's kind of hard.)

What Flaubert is doing with point of view, diction and style, I find amazing. In the opening pages, it's not just 3rd person omniscient, it's like a highly precise camera zooming in and out, moving in and out of the character's consciousness, stepping back to show judgments about what is proper and acceptable -- from the beginning, it felt so very, very real. Which is what he's going for, I know, but I've never read a novel written so far away from my own time that brought me right into the lives of the characters.

This first section seems to me to be about what is on the outside and what is on the inside, at a variety of levels. What is considered acceptable, or fashionable, and what actually happens in day-to-day life as it's really lived. How decisions get made. Love lost, love gained. The disappointment.

Also, unreality and reality -- Emma's aesthetic and emotional life develops in a vacuum. I watch my 11 year old daughter swoon as she reads Twilight and think, well, I guess it's ok to start out in that place but I hope she doesn't stay there... where Emma seems to stay, in a haze of Orientalism, chivalry, courtly love and a life that is perpetually aesthetically pleasing. Most of us have a piercing of that veil at some point, but she seems to believe life will really turn out "that way" -- and in this sectio we begin to see the letdown that inevitably happens when it doesn't.

How do you feel about the main characters? I think that's important, how we feel about them, what our gut response is.

What do you think of the minor characters? I particularly liked Emma's father, and the old soldier at the ball who completely ignored what was expected of him and was allowed to get away with it because... he was a war hero.

OK, just one quote, from early in Chapter 9:

In her desire, she confused the sensual pleasures of luxury with the joys of the heart, elegance of manner with delicacy of feeling. Didn't love, like a plant from India, require a prepared soil, a particular temperature? Sighs in the moonlight, long embraces, tears flowing over hands yielded to a lover, all the fevers of the flesh and the languors of tenderness thus could not be separated from the balconies of great chateaux filled with idle amusements, a boudoir with silk blinds, a good thick carpet, full pots of flowers, and a bed raised on a dais, nor from the sparkle of precious stones and shoulder knots on servants' livery.

message 26: by Dan, deadpan man (new)

Dan | 635 comments Mod
Believe it or not I have actually finished part one on time which has got to be some kind of record. Thus far what I have enjoyed to most are Flaubert's descriptions of the events in the novel, namely the wedding and the ball at the rich guys mansion or castle.

It is interesting to me that Emma grows bored of her city life and gets annoyed at Charles for being unsophisticated or inelegant at the ball. Yet she is the one unfamiliar with (or, new to the) urban life.

Shel wrote: "This first section seems to me to be about what is on the outside and what is on the inside, at a variety of levels. What is considered acceptable, or fashionable, and what actually happens in day-to-day life as it's really lived. How decisions get made. Love lost, love gained. The disappointment."

I definitely think you are right about this Shel. Expectations were high and the reality of life was unable to meet them. It, so far, seems to illustrate that which many novels illustrate: Humans are creatures that make mistakes and miscalculations. It's what we do, we fuck things up for ourselves and others all the time.

I also like your description Shel of the camera zooming in and out and it may be helpful for me to keep that in mind as I continue reading.

As for how I feel about the characters Charles seems somewhat aloof and not really seeing the signs of Emma's unhappiness too well. As for Emma, I am not quite sure what to think at this point but I get the sense that she's going to get annoyinh and I am going to dislike her by the end of the novel.

message 27: by Elizabeth, bubbles (new)

Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
Hi Shel and Dan. Please excuse me for checking in from my mobile, because I'll have to add passages later.

The feeling I get from this novel is something measured, contained and delicate. I feel innocent excitement from each scene like the way I felt as a kid when I opened my jewelry box over and over again to see the tiny ballerina twirl.

I visualize Emma with that dove gray parasol making the light dance over her face next to Charles who seems to stretch a human's ability for neutrality.

I agree whole heartedly that GF's moments feel like cinematic or photographic vignettes. I love Shel's description of behind the lens perspective.

If this discussion were happening in person, I would have attempted one or more layers of that cake. Complete with swinging Cupid.

message 28: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Nov 14, 2010 05:39AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
That's interesting, Dan. I found the ball to be the culmination/climax of the first section but I found the chapters on Charles and Emma's respective childhoods more interesting. Or is the announcement that she's pregnant... that's practically a Dickensian cliffhanger. Will Emma grow up? :)

I don't think we're supposed to like them, but they do spring to life as real people, to me. And people do seem to end up with strong feelings about Emma. So I kinda want to keep a finger on the pulse of what people think and feel as they read.

Measured, contained, delicate. For sure, Elizabeth.

message 29: by Elizabeth, bubbles (last edited Nov 14, 2010 04:11PM) (new)

Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
There isn't even a half hero here yet, maybe a character who acts their age is on the horizon?

I am interested in the gender statements...

Charles exhibits a lot of characteristics that are stereotypically strong, yet the only thing he's ever pursued without female influence is Emma herself.

EDIT: Sorry, let me clarify... I said sterotypically strong because of the percieved strength and level of education that goes along with being a doctor. I didn't see him as being presented as strong by Flaubert.

Also, when Emma's beauty is examined, it is from such an asexual perspective. The way her fingernails are kept... the shape of her hairline...

Stop me from trying to dissect this myself and post something from the study trove about gender roles in french literature....

message 30: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
No, go right ahead, please... I was looking at them as representing different approaches to life, an embrace of the sensual and real vs. someone whose reality doesn't live up to the sensuality she thinks she should indulge in... not focusing so much on gender, which does certainly play a role in terms of what's expected, acceptable.

I didn't see Charles as stereotypically strong. I saw him as kind of bumbling and boring, and that as long as he's happy, why wouldn't she be.

I thought the shifting color of her eyes was about the changeability of her soul. But maybe I'm reading incorrectly...

I don't know about anyone acting their age, though. I mean, I'm 37 and I have no idea how I'm supposed to act.

message 31: by Danielle (new)

Danielle | 9 comments The brilliance of this novel begins, indeed, with the first word:

"We were in class when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy..."

This "we" of the opening chapter is obvious enough, bringing the reader into the scene directly, making him complicit with the children's harassment of Charles, but it's Flaubert's stunning ability to subvert his own text that, in this chapter specifically, warrants greater attention.

"The new boy, standing in the corner behind the door so that he could hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen and taller than any of us. His hair was cut square on his forehead like a village choir boy; he looked reliable, but very ill at ease. Although he was not broad-shouldered, his short jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have been tight about the armholes, and showed at the opening of the cuffs red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings, looked out from beneath yellowish trousers, drawn tight by suspenders. He wore stout, ill-cleaned, hob-nailed boots."

What has Flaubert done here? We're told Charles is "standing in the corner behind the door so that he could hardly be seen," yet then Flaubert proceeds to give us an in-depth, indeed almost painful description of the boy.

And he does it again: "It would now be impossible for any of us to remember any thing about him." All right. Can't remember a thing? "He was a youth of even temperament, who played in playtime, worked in school-hours, was attentive in class, slept well in the dormitory, and ate well in the refectory." And on and on, recounting the man's entire life when we've just been told that it would be IMPOSSIBLE to remember a thing about him.

What is Flaubert doing here? What purpose do these small and subtle subversions serve? Why contradict your own text?

The most apparent theory present in the novel, and I've found one that helps to get some grasp on both Charles and Emma, is that of Plat's Pharmakon (as described by Jacques Derrida in his book, Dissemination).

The Pharmakon is a Greek term meaning both Poison and Cure, which Socrates, via Plato, ascribed to writing. Socrates famously never wrote anything down because he felt it lead to a lazy mind--why participate in rhetorical discussions that require effort and the possibility of embarrassment when you can just read your information? Writing can be a poison in that the reader may learn a great deal of information with no requirement, regard, or assurance that s/he will understand what has been read. We know there is a great difference between learning and understanding, which is Socrates' main point.

Flaubert understood this also. Indeed, he tells us quite clearly that "[Charles] understood nothing of it [his studies] at all; it was all very well to listen--he did not follow. Still he worked; he had bound note-books, he attended all the courses, never missed a single lecture. He did his little daily task like a mill-horse, who goes round and round with his eyes bandaged, not knowing what work it is grinding out."

Charles is a perfect example of the Pharmakon. He gets frustrated and quits his studies, understandably fails his exams, then goes back, crams and memorizes like crazy, and passes. He becomes a doctor (albeit a second-rate one) without any understanding of the science applied.

Even more so, in these opening pages, Flaubert gives us even greater insight into Charles' character that will play an enormous role throughout the novel. When Charles arrives for his medical classes, we're told: "The course list that he read on the notice board stunned him: lectures on anatomy, lectures on pathology, lectures on physiology, lectures on pharmacy, lectures on botany and clinical medicine, and therapeutics, without counting hygiene and materia medica--all names of whose etymologies he was ignorant, and that were to him as so many doors to sanctuaries filled with magnificent darkness."

Of whose etymologies he was ignorant? Do we remember what the boys were studying in class? Latin. His village cleric even taught him Latin, yet he cannot recollect enough to grasp the etymologies here? Even more so, Flaubert tells us that, as a schoolboy, "We saw him working conscientiously, looking up every word in the dictionary, and taking the greatest pains. ... But though he knew his rules passably, he lacked all elegance in composition."

So Charles is capable of memorization, of completing the task by looking up definitions and taking great care in formulating a sentence or cramming for a test, but he has no capacity for creative problem solving. He cannot compose; he cannot contextualize, extrapolate, imply, innovate, or come up with solutions of his own. Even when he thinks of Emma, after they initially meet, we're told that he only thinks of her as he's just seen her or as they first met. He doesn't even fantasize! He doesn't have the capacity--Charles sees solely what is right in front of him, with no capacity to imagine what might be beyond the door.

Emma, on the other hand, is the complete opposite...though in the same vein. She has intense imaginative capabilities but zero conception of understanding what is right before her eyes. Avital Ronell's book, Crack Wars, examines Madame Bovary through the lens of addiction, with Emma on constant binges of narrative delusion. In Book I, Chapter VI, Flaubert tells us of an encounter with a romantic story served to Emma and her father on their dinner plates, with "The explanatory legends, chipped here and there by the scratching of knives"--Emma literally devours these words, and we're told of swallowing long chapters of novels smuggled into the convent.

One distinguishing feature of Flaubert's writing is his absolute deliberateness. Each word of his was evaluated, agonized over, with many words in the English sadly failing to capture many of the double-entrendres and puns at play, but the many, MANY references to eating and consumption are very intentional. Emma displays many of the qualities of an addict, her narcissism included, and the borderline-vampiristic imagery attributed to her is not without consequence.

Flaubert's use of time is also quite fascinating. His first wife is allotted a paltry few pages while a carriage ride sometimes lulls on for nearly as long. Why does he skip forward in time during what seem like important events? Then he forces us to sit in a carriage during an excruciating journey...for just that reason. If you're ever reading this book and come to a part that drags on, take a look at the setting--there's likely a reason.

Finally, for my introductory remarks *ahem*, I'd like to state how much I disagree with many "experts" that Flaubert's narration is completely detached, the embodiment of Realism, with no thought or comment on the characters. What utter nonsense. While it is true that Flaubert does not judge the actions of his characters, he absolutely judges them. Charles has a face that is "almost interesting" and conversation "dull as pavement." The narrator is often scathingly brutal, and quite funny at that, but the idea that Flaubert is not present as an author in his narration is complete bullocks.

Madame Bovary is so intensely misunderstood, and indeed if you were to read the sentimental and romantic prose he uses to ironic effect and not get the irony, I can see where that misunderstanding comes from, but it's truly one of the most seditious novels I've read, where form meets function and some of the most beautiful ink to paper describes everything from torrid sex to shit smeared on the hem of a wedding dress. Flaubert manages to smear everyone with shit, guffawing from his grave, for both those who realize the ingenuity of his work and those that remain blissfully complicit in their ignorance.

message 32: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Thanks for all this, Danielle.

What caught my eye here was the description of Charles' first marriage. There are so many of these little stories dropped in for us, and Flaubert leaves out the right details while providing us with a picture of a marriage in which Charles seems to be... Emma. His wife just wants a little more love, attention. But Charles is rescued by the circumstance of his wife's death, whereas Emma is not.

I thought it was a brilliant picture of a marriage, actually. The details we have are all we need to know without being hit over the head. Like the dinner after the Charles' and Emmas' wedding, or the procession itself where we are given a perfect positioning of everyone in terms of class, manners, and coarseness.

Detached? Interesting. I haven't read a lot (ok, well any) of the critique of Flaubert but detached isn't what I would say. Even as I thought of that feeling of the camera zooming in and out, I didn't think detached -- I thought a world so completely imagined, the inner and outer workings so complete, and Flaubert picking out the details he wants us to have to build his story. What's that quote, about writers who know what to leave out?

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João Camilo (JCamilo) | 258 comments I think Bakhtin studies about polyphony, also based on another supposed detached narrator with realistic tendencies, is the best guide here. The author has always a voice and this is misunderstood as the author is absent or cold. For purposes only, Bovary was a critical work, so something of Flaubert must be there, just like Bovard and Pecuchet. In many aspects, Flaubert irony is the closest french thing I saw to Voltaire (as much as they are style wise different)...

Well, the novel language in XIX moved from the more direct comentary of the texts (very usual), trying to find forms to present a single narrator perspective (Call me Ishmael), to present this fiction of the absent narrator. I do not think Flaubert is one of the characters, but he is beyond all of them, just like dostoievisky is all karamazov...

message 34: by Hugh, aka Hugh the Moderator (new)

Hugh | 271 comments Mod
Wow. I’m not sure what I can really add after such strong opening remarks from others. I’m tempted to lurk a bit and see how things go... (It's sort of like sitting back to watch chessmasters like Jcamilo open with the notoriously confounding Montpellier Gambit.) But I'll share a few thoughts...

I “read” it years ago, but I’m not exactly sure what book I must have read; perhaps it’s the intervening years or Lydia Davis’ translation, but I don’t quite remember it being this, well, Funny.

I love the scene where mom is doing her best to help Charles win the hand of the wealthy – and ugly – woman against other suitors. “To achieve her ends, Mère Bovary was obliged to supplant them all, and she very skillfully foiled even the intrigues of a pork butcher favored by the clergy.” A formidable foe indeed.

Dan and Shel: I agree that part of the pleasure of reading this is language. The marriage scene that takes up Part I, Chapter 4 is astonishing in the same way the third chapter of The Great Gatsby (one of my favorites in literature) is – with that cinematic sweep over the crowd to give us the exquisite details that make it all come to life.

And Danielle: I also agree with the comment that Flaubert is anything but detached. I think that folks may be confusing the surgeon-like care he has with language with a remove. Hardly. His hands are immersed in the belly of this story examining every pulsating capillary. He actually quite brutal in his criticism of both Charles and Emma:

“As for Charles, he did not try to ask himself why he took pleasure in going to Les Bertaux.” The man's ignorant of his own desire! And there is Flaubert’s wonderful observation on page 17: “the boldness of his desire, protested against the servility of his behavior.”

Again, one of those hilariously ironic scenes is when Père Rouault “sympathizes” with Charles about the great sorrow he is surely experiencing at his wife’s death. It’s a touching full paragraph: “I would go off into the fields to be all alone; I would fling myself down under a tree, I could cry, I would call out to the good Lord.”[And the older man is just getting warmed up!] – Sure, that’s EXACTLY how Charles reacted when his first wife died!

Because Flaubert is such a relentless surgeon, I think it’s hard for this modern reader weaned on Heroes, Anti-heroes, and Heroines, who wants some indication from the author about who I should Like. He seems (and this may get to those critics who accuse him of being detached) to be more interested in showing us the water in the subjective fishbowl each of us live in. One of his biggest Themes seem to be the question of Art vs. Sentimentality – the idea that Art done badly can f**k us up (see: Emma) as much as Art ignored (see: Charles) can leave us hollowed out.

There is so much to discuss and I will do as I promised at the start, go back and review the other comments to answer a few of Shel’s comments and bask in the linguistic insights of Danielle’s…. But I do want to leave one question which gets to the specificity of the title of the book itself: why is it in Part I, Chapter 9 – after calling her “Emma” through pretty much the entirety of the Chapter, after reporting that “Emma’s health did not improve” just two paragraphs earlier, does Flaubert, notorious for his attention to le mot juste end Part I with the single, ten word declaration: “When they left Tostes, in March, Madame Bovary was pregnant.”

message 35: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Nov 14, 2010 06:13PM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I think the hardest part of talking about this book, for me, will be not spending time typing out all of the turns of phrase I admire... all the details I adore, the irony and yes, humor (like children sleeping under the furniture after the wedding dinner... damn, those people could par-tay) and draw up into the loftier themes. I mean, they pop into my head while I read but I just love the voice so much.

I do think the narrator is Flaubert, and I don't think his intention is un-knowable. (I know not many people will agree me on that one.) I think he is by turns offering scathing critique and a gentle, tender touch to his characters. To the world that surrounds them, less tenderness. More... seeing through human institutions for what they are.

Interesting comparison to Fyodor, another writer I adore. And it is true, say in Brothers K, that there is a narrator who seems to be watching his characters bounce off of each other like sound waves in an echo chamber.

And of course she is Madame now, Hugh. She's about to become a real woman by poppin' out a baby. I tend to believe that childbearing and childbirth, as nasty as it was, as earthy and bloody and messy and deadly and primal as it was (IS, actually), was a pretty good equalizer from a class/wealth/societal perspective.

message 36: by Hugh, aka Hugh the Moderator (new)

Hugh | 271 comments Mod
Shel wrote:
* Issues of class & convention, and how they are represented

I think this is probably what I was getting at by my question about the way Part I ends and the title of the book. I'm pretty sure my own little epiphany is something most folks already got, but I guess I have been chewing over why the book is not called: Emma Bovary, Emma and Charles, or The Bovarys! (This last one seems to cry out for an exclamation point.)

She is such a central part of the narrative in the way that Jane Eyre, David Copperfield or Ethan Frome are... so I've been struck by the choice of "Madame".

Yes, it may be a "childbearing and childbirth" issue you refer to, but to me the character/creature "Madame Bovary" would not exist without the kind of person Emma Roualt was and the person Charles Bovary is together. "Madame Bovary" is a social construct. (I know that's not exactly Breaking News... but it goes deeper...)

While Flaubert isn't exactly a "touching" kind of writer, I found a passage on page 52 poignant: "She would delight him with countless niceties; it was sometimes a new way of fashioning paper sconces for candles.... The less Charles understood of these refinements, the more captivating he found them."

Like his earlier desires, Charles is pretty much clueless. He is so self-focused that these ministrations by Emma leave him dazzled and "capitvated" but little else. He's in love with what she is for him and what she does. But he has NO interest in why she does it.

Of course, Emma is not doing this because she cares about Charles as much as she's trying to IMPRESS him to try to stay awake to read those medical journals (contrasted on the same page; where is barely able to stay abreast of what's happening in his profession). She wants him to GET UP and make a better life for both of them, so that she can enjoy those things she dreams of.

But Charles, poor Charles, is content because he already HAS a "Madame Bovary". She - on the other hand - has a different sense of what "Madame Bovary" MIGHT BE.

message 37: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Nov 16, 2010 06:00AM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I agree - that is the moment, it would seem, that Flaubert is signaling to us that our character becomes ... the main character she is meant to be, maybe it's even her being born, a result of that period of discontent that leads them to move -- although I am pretty sure she doesn't know she's pregnant. There is more to unpack in the birth/pregnancy/becoming picture we are getting there that gets back to Elizabeth's gender role comment from earlier. Anyone care to run with that one? :)

I have deliberately not started Section 2, but maybe she will become the Mme people either loathe or love.

As someone who's only really heard and read about other people's responses to this book, it seems like people do either love the characters or hate them, are bored out of their skulls, think she's selfish, think the characters are unredeemable, etc. I'm reserving judgment.

So far I think we are being presented with two people who, given not the exact same circumstances but enfolded in the same kind of society, respond to the world very differently. I don't know yet if we are simply being set up to see two people in relief of one another, or two people with two distinctly different lenses through which life is viewed being thrown together, or if we are learning something about where their marriage is going (when Mme decides to stray, does Charles notice?).

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Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
I'm getting started reading part two armed with a handwritten cheat sheet of concepts raised during this thread.

Between part one and part two I readAusterlitz. I accidentally stumbled upon Emma's most drastic foil in the literary world. Austerlitz reset my sensibilities in a manner that isn't exactly wearing off yet.

The big question I have right now is whether or not Emma's path and behavior will ultimately change her character.

The writing is so rich, I will end up enjoying it either way.

message 39: by Danielle (new)

Danielle | 9 comments We discuss the characters' likability with the same presumption that anyone should be likable as Flaubert faced in his day. That is the truest sense of Realism in Madame Bovary, for me--that the characters aren't good or bad, heroes or anti-heroes, but just plain people with their own selfish motivations like the rest of us, with unexpected redeeming qualities that still fail to save their souls. It is Realism also in that there is no plot, per se, but there are people, and things happen to those people, and things happen because of those things, etc.

Far from asking why the book is titled Madame instead of Emma Bovary, I wonder that the novel begins with, and indeed ends, with Charles. And indeed, the Madame of the title does not apply solely to Emma, but to Charles' mother, to his first wife, and to Emma. Furthermore, the main crux of Emma's troubles is that she is stuck being Madame Bovary; the title of her life is itself the albatross with which she is trapped in an existence she believes has ruined all of her capabilities, her fantasies, her dreams of everything the title, name, and state of Madame might have given her.

Emma dreamed that becoming Madame Quelquechose should have been anything but what it is, when in fact any Madame would have been an immense disappointment, because the mundane aspects of truly knowing anyone is beyond her comprehension: "She loved the sea only for the sake of its storms, and the green only when it was scattered among ruins."

I quite think Madame Bovary is the perfect title, layered in complexities of story, character, emotion, contradiction, dreams and brutal realities for all involved. Still, I think the story had to begin and end with Charles to have the same impact. Charles is Emma's prison, and it's vital for us to know him before we know her so we can comprehend how she feels, even if we disagree with her. Imagine reading the book in a different order--beginning with Emma's life with nothing to contrast it to, no understanding of what this girl is heading into. It would have far less weight, no context or implication.

Still, I am curious about your thoughts about why Flaubert did this.

message 40: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Nov 17, 2010 07:56PM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I actually don't think they are supposed to be likable and that's not what I'm going for -- I think they are supposed to be people we can or can't relate to in varying ways, but I have noticed over the years that people seem to have a strong response to these characters in particular.

To me, that signals really good characters and so the response is worth discussing, that gut response. It's based on our own experiences and perspectives, sure, but it's also based on what Flaubert is doing, where he's taking us. One of the great things about our group is that we do have strong responses, and we usually back them up with the text. And we have really different perspectives, and so very different readings.

For my part, having been a wife, in being a mother of a girl, and in remembering what it was like to be a young woman, can relate to her, and can admire that while she is stumbling, while she may be misguided and come across as callous, at least she's looking, at least she is trying to figure things out in her own way. I can see myself as a younger woman, as caustic and black-and-white as I was at the time, not liking her very much, thinking she is provincial, silly, and uncaring about others.

The way that he pairs up Charles and Emma, at least in the first section, I think is about showing two people mirroring one another. Charles is allowed to roam the village, he bumbles through school (I would NOT want him so much as putting a bandaid on a cut), Emma dreams her way through it, trying to find something to be passionate about, becoming bored but not wanting to admit it... both of them are terrifically superficial.

And the mothers... their mothers...

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Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
Yesterday I read the metaphor comparing Emma's loss of Leon to the dying Russian campfire in the snow. I wish every time an author wrote a great metaphor she or he would embrace it so enthusiastically.

I was gone last weekend on a busy trip, so I am just now finishing part two. Where are you, Shel?

message 42: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
I am a bit behind and started section 2 this morning.

I am going to try to go chapter by chapter, or theme by theme, which may help our discussion a bit.

The first chapter of part two goes to great lengths to describe the new place Emma and Charles will live, which we don't get in section one (or, at least, in a much more limited way). Of the area they move Charles' practice to, during the approach, I started writing down phrases and thoughts I viewed as key:

-without character
-"language is without expressive emphasis"

-Much of the land is left to pasture and the farmland that does exist not very fertile, but the townspeople won't change how they do things

-The windows on houses in the country look like they have "fur caps pulled down over eyes"

-The Virgin Mary's cheeks look like an "idol from the Sandwich Islands" (hilarious, actually)

And the most "exotic" home in town belongs to its most pompous resident, the pharmacist.

What could this possibly MEAN!? :)

message 43: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Nov 24, 2010 06:03PM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
The first scene at the inn is hilarious. This has to be one of my favorite sentences:

"He was skilled at all card games and a good hunter, he wrote in a beautiful hand, and in his home he had a lathe on which he spent his time fashioning napkin rings with which he cluttered his house, with the jealousy of an artist and the egotism of a bourgeois.

I laughed out loud on the plane and my kids told me I was weird.

The pharmacist ... apart from being a blowhard, I don't know... I think he's going to be trouble.

message 44: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Nov 24, 2010 06:46PM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Leon. Ah, Leon.

So Leon is Emma's mirror.

Early in Chapter 2, I think we get what seems to me to be the essence of their connection...

"Have you ever had the experience," Leon went on, "while reading a book, of coming upon some vague idea that you've had yourself, some obscure image that comes back to you from far away and seems to express absolutely your most subtle feelings?"

..."these days, what I really adore are stories that can be read all in one go, and that frighten you. I detest common heroes and moderate feelings, the sort that exist in real life."

"Yes," observed the clerk, "those works that don't touch the heart, it seems to me, miss the true aim of Art. It is so pleasant, amid all the disenchantments of life, to be able to let one's mind dwell on noble characters, pure affections and pictures of happiness. For me, living here, far away from the world, it's my only distraction; Yonville has so little to offer!"

And very late in Chapter 4, as Emma begins to compromise herself (not unlike Lily in House of Mirth):

... they felt the same languor invading them both; it was like a murmur of the soul, deep, continuous, louder than the murmur of their voices. Surprised by a sweetness new to them, they did not think of describing the sensation to each other or of discovering its cause. Future joys, lik etropical shores, project over the immensity that lies before them their native softness, a fragrant breeze, and one grows drowsy in that intoxication without even worrying about the horizon one cannot see.

This is such an intoxicating passage... even I was totally swept up in it and didn't think of "compromising" one's reputation.

And more later, because I have to take my kids to see Harry Potter.

message 45: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (last edited Nov 24, 2010 06:41PM) (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
An interesting gender point, made by the narrator early in Part II, Chapter 3, after the birth of their daughter:

A man, at least, is free; he can explore every passion, every land, overcome obstacles, taste the most distant pleasures. But a woman is continually thwarted. Inert and pliant at the same time, she must struggle against both the softness of her flesh and subjection to the law. Her will, like the veil tied to her hat by a string, flutters with every breeze; there is always some desire luring her on, some convention holding her back.

So, I don't disagree with the subjection to the law bit so much... but I wonder, what do you all think of that? And what about this inert/pliant/softness/subjection that makes will so fleeting and desire such a pull?

message 46: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Look! Me and Emma, at the beach.

[image error]

message 47: by Elizabeth, bubbles (new)

Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
Je suis fini! I became terribly impatient after finishing part two.

Literary Sandwich: The Emma and Charles

A delicate slice of camembert uncomfortably rests on top of a hacked off chunk of rustic bread. The whole sandwich is then sprinkled liberally with powdered sugar and served cold.

message 48: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
So... is anyone interested in continuing...?

message 49: by Elizabeth, bubbles (new)

Elizabeth (RedBrick) | 221 comments Mod
Shel wrote: "So... is anyone interested in continuing...?"

It was very interesting to connect with this novel with some academic insights. I really appreciated the part I discussion as I finished the book.

Merci, Shel! I loved the experience. Having the benefit of everyone's observations made it so much more fun.

I'd love to discuss what happened in the last two parts of the book, but when I looked back at my notes, they all seemed comically lame. They reminded me of that Chris Farley skit on SNL when he interviews someone and asks "Remember when you...." over and over again.

So... Now I am finishing The Code of the Woosters, and I'm looking forward to reading Ask the Dust this week. Considering that Martyn has designated it as is his second favorite novel behind Ulysses, I suppose it will take some concentration.

Hope everyone had a nice thanksgiving and is enjoying heading into the holidays. Today in Chicagoland, it's snowmen and sledding!

message 50: by Shel, ad astra per aspera (new)

Shel (shelbybower) | 946 comments Mod
Elizabeth, usually we go through the whole book the same way. I am happy to continue. I just didn't want to be the last person at the party mumbling at the fireplace. ;)

I figure with the holidays things are getting crazy for at least a few people, so I'm going to keep going with Section 2 this week.

Yesterday, within 20 minutes, my kids had built 2 snowmen in front of our place! One of the things I love about Chicago is that you are pretty much guaranteed a White Christmas, which is something that never really happened in other places I lived (not reliably, anyway).

OK. On we go, with Emma!

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Austerlitz (other topics)
Flaubert's Parrot (other topics)
Ask the Dust (other topics)
Ulysses (other topics)
The Code of the Woosters (other topics)