Madame Bovary
Provincial Morals
Gustave Flaubert
Adam Thorpe, Translator

(Modern Library)

      The evening's shadows were falling; the low sun, passing between the branches, dazzled her eyes. Here and there, all about her, in the leaves or on the ground, spots of light trembled, as if hummingbirds, flying to and fro, had scattered their feathers. The silence was everywhere; something sweet seemed to rise from the trees; she was aware of her heart, that was beating again, and the blood circling through her flesh like river of milk.

This is the first time I've done Madame Bovary since 1955, and after the first few pages I was wondering why I had to put myself through this torment again. Then after the first fifty pages I was agog at Flaubert's exquisitely detailed knowledge of French countryside and countryfolk from the "July Monarchy." Finally, after the next 100 pages I was wondering how I was ever going to disentangle myself, get some sleep, go to work the next day.

Emma Bovary is such a romantic dolt. She thinks that you are supposed to fall in love with the Casanovas and Don Juans of the world: in her case the fake nobleman Boulanger. Poor old Rodolphe. He just wants to diddle the country doctor's wife there at his country estate in Yonville, but once he begins to woo her (at the county agricultural fair, if you will believe it, with the peasants and noisy vapid political speeches and manure all about) she is his slave.

Then his little tyrant. She's a romantic tyrant, this Emma.

She's a country girl from Tostes, and if there were movie magazines around in 1830, she'd be subscribing to every one of them. Her fate as a restless dreamer is sealed when she goes to the ball at the country palace of the Duc of Laverdière, with its great halls and the fancy silver-and-damask meal, the "flower scents and elegant linen, the aroma of meats and the fragrancy of truffles;"

    The flames from the candles in the candelabra lengthened on the silver dish covers, the cut-glass crystal, dulled by the condensation, sent back wan rays; bouquets were lined up the length of the table, and, on the wide-bordered plates, the napkins, tricked out to look like a bishop's miter.

Flaubert being Flaubert, he had to stick the Marquis's father-in-law up there at the head of the table. "An old man ate, letting drops of sauce fall from his mouth. He had bloodshot eyes and wore a little pigtail tied with a black ribbon."

    Emma's eyes returned of their own volition to that old flap-mouthed man, as to something extraordinary and august. He had lived at court and slept in the bed of queens!

(Flaubert is big on monstrously ugly creatures sprinkled about to taunt Emma. Near the end of Madame Bovary, as she is racing around trying to borrow 8,000 francs to pay off her debt to the creditors of Yonville, she runs into a blind man lolling about there in the dusty road, set there by the author, we suppose, to remind her of the unreality of beauty --- especially hers:

    The blind man sank down onto his knees and, with head thrown back, rolling his greenish eyes and sticking out his tongue, he rubbed his belly with both hands, while he let out a sort of muffled howl, like a famished hound. Emma, seized with disgust, flung him a five- franc piece over her shoulder. It was her entire fortune. It seemed to her glorious to cast it away thus.)

§   §   §

Madame Bovary is certainly about love and lust and adultery and misplaced passion and the odd notions of the poltroons, the country folk of Normandy (and the rest of us). Mostly it is our dear foolish blind-hearted village-bemusing Emma who is as slow on the uptake as she is gorgeous. We get a shot of her being chased about by Rodolphe; but once captured, she continues to think --- poor dear --- that this stud is going to be the romantic hero of her life. He, of course, wearies of her, but she finds ways to needle him: in her letters and in person (she ultimately sneaks into his bedroom): to charm, cajole, whisper, nag, bedevil, cry, tempt, bore, berate, finagle, grasp, lambaste, and martyr herself, finally driving him mad with her incessant don't-you-still-love me? stuff. This Emma is a firecracker.

No, she's a Bastille Day explosion that lights up all of the country town of Yonville. All Rodolphe wanted was a diddle, but he got a full-blown dose of how-am-I-gonna-get-out-of-this? His final letter to her is a masterpiece of I-really-must-be-off-now: " I carry away the thought of you like a talisman," he burbles "I am leaving. Where? I have no idea, I am mad! Adieu!" And he signs it: "Your friend." Your friend!

§   §   §

Meanwhile the reader is treated to one of the great 3-D visions of small town life in the 18th Century French countryside, complete with gorgeous vistas, smells, tastes and sounds, flowers and trees and fields and animals and an absolutely charming tiny peep-hole vision into the folk life of the Rouen country. It's a vision of what they do all day (gossip), what they eat (potatoes), what they drink (cider), what they think (what is that dratted doctor's wife up to now?) At the end, while poor Emma is lying, tongue extruded, eyes popped out, skin empurpled (she ate huge hands full of arsenic), the focus is on the ghastliness of her actual dying --- we get a recurrence of the monsters we have seen before, this poor writhing creature on the bed, "her eyes open extravagantly wide: and her poor hands crawled over the sheets, with that dreadful and gentle movement of the dying who seem to want to cover themselves over already with the shroud."

Meanwhile, while she is expiring, there is a long and very funny intellectual badminton game going on between the atheist pharmacist Homais and the local curé, M. Bournisien. It is your master ironist Flaubert who deems that poor Emma will not poison herself over one of her lovers, but because she couldn't pay the bills for her years of love-courtship --- cloth, dresses, shoes, pocketbooks, candlesticks, drapes, furniture, artifacts that she bought to show the people of the village that she was something, not just a poor bourgeoise adulterer.

There is much to capture the reader here. One is Flaubert's (and the translator's) wonderful way with words (see the introductory paragraph above, the moment after Emma's first seduction by Rodolphe). There is, too, Flaubert's charming, scandalous wit that engaged the French authorities so that they tried, in 1857, vainly, to stick him in the hoosegow for obscenity ... although, as a good example, we never get to see Emma when she is debauching herself with lover #2 --- the law-clerk Léon --- for it all takes place in a hackney coach trundling about Rouen, giving the reader a surprise tour of the rue Grand-Pont, the place des Arts, the quai Napoléon, the pont Neuf, and the statue of Pierre Corneille. Every time the driver slows, a voice from within calls out "Carry on!" "No. Straight on!" and "Well, go on!" Finally, "in the middle of the day, in the open level country,"

    at the moment when the sun at its fiercest beat down upon the old silvered lanterns, a bare hand slipped under the little curtains of yellow linen and threw out some torn scraps of paper, that scattered on the wind and alighted further away, like white butterflies, on a field of red clover all in flower.

It was the note that the now unseen Emma had written to her companion in the carriage. She wrote it the morning before, telling him, definitely, why she could never see him again.

--- Emily Ford
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