by Patrick Baker
What results from a reading of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary is first and foremost that the reading of novels is dangerous business. Well, certain novels. Romantic novels. Stories of love – not merely its consummation but more importantly its indulgence, its feeling on the bone, its transfiguration of the soul. What is different about the novel in question? Despite its (for the time) breathtaking depiction of the physical act of love and the ceremonies of courting, it would in no way inspire anyone to infidelity, much less to the foolish notion that love leads to happiness. Flaubert’s novel is an antidote to the Romantic novel. It explodes the commonplaces about Cupid’s gift, or, as it were, affliction, revealing it as the insistent self-delusion of the distressed mind. Passion is not the release or realization of the self; it is the self’s will to power manifested in a sick, perhaps the only, kind of possession open to the middle classes: the possession of another’s body, thoughts, and time, the conquest of another self.
Flaubert explodes not only the myth of love but also that of pastoral bliss or simplicity. An obvious appreciator of nature and the pastoral setting, he is disarmingly honest about its ugliness. Romanticism’s Caravaggio, he describes oil floating atop rivers, broken-down dwellings, crumbling chateaus, the precise anatomy of cows, and a ubiquitous shabbiness. Of humans, only two content characters appear in the book, and only one of them might incite emulation. The first, whom no man could ever desire to imitate, is Madame Bovary’s indolent husband, Charles, content because oblivious to the point of solipsism. The other is her father, Père Rouard, content because he has what he needs, knows what he has, and respects what he has had in the past. He is simple but no fool, calculating but not deceptive, caring without limit. Yet for all his fine traits he is destroyed by the self-immolation of his daughter, whom he could lead to nothing better than a bourgeois existence.
As for the French bourgeoisie of the nineteenth century, which might just be Flaubert’s true protagonist, it appears as an utterly execrable collection of nobodies: enlightened, self-important apothecaries, tavern-keepers unwilling and cantankerous, lascivious administrators, distracted vicars, busy-body homemakers, incorruptible lathe-operators, and earnestly incompetent medical officers pleased to masquerade as full-fledged physicians. And let us not forget the desperate housewife played by the title character. The poor below them fare even worse – only a filthy blind man enters the scene. As for the aristocracy, they are party-goers, horse-chargers, broke diamond-bearers, but above all corrupters. No one would err in calling them nobles.
The only escape for a woman who has had visions of ecstasy – in this case the direct result of a juvenile flirtation with the Church, the reading of Romantic novels, and a single attendance at a ball – is to take comfort in the arms of illicit love. She will naturally fall prey to the aristocracy, although an up-and-coming specimen of the professional class, so long as he is thoughtful and sighs in all the right places, can equally claim the lien on her heart. What she yearns for is a fantasy of kings and princes, mistresses and ladies, being swept off her feet and waltzed around a room until dizziness overcomes her. Her heart has been penetrated by the ancien régime, whose twin pillars of greatness – Church and nobility – were emasculated by the Revolution, Napoleon, Voltaire, and decades of Restoration. Her tragedy is that her heart can never realize its desires, for modernity has rendered them illusions. The noble, the gallant, the beautiful, the majestic, the austere, the unapproachably foreboding – they have all vanished in a puff of semi-democratic nullity. The import of Madame Bovary is not that a lustful woman will not be satisfied by an affair, but that modern man would do best to forget his longing for a grand existence. That beautiful possibility has been obliterated by the benighted boringness of science, embodied perfectly in the doltish medical officer Charles Bovary. For we are all married to him, and we are all quietly desperate. But who among us has the strength of will to autodestruct in the name of transcendence? Or is that, too, worthless Romanticism? There is no way out, except perhaps to follow Flaubert’s example and write about it.