Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert
Flaubert’s ground-breaking prose works have established a firm level of acceptance and respect among literary critics. His novel “Madame Bovary,” once scandalous and controversial due to its powerful and evocative verisimilitude and its portrayal of an adulterous woman, who is simultaneously a strong, heroic protagonist, is now generally regarded as one of the most important novels ever written and also as one of of the most influential works of literary realism. The novel created ambiguity in its moral themes, and has rightfully attained grand stature by modern critical standards.
The novel’s structure, style, and symbolism have in fact been heralded as the birth of the modern novel. The qualities evident in Madame Bovary which distinguish as one of the most influential examples of literary realism are also those qualities which exert a direct opposition to literary romanticism, the style which was “king” prior to the advent of literary realism. Flaubert’s refutation of romanticism is carried out not only through the theme and character of Madame Bovary, both of which offer radical departures from the romantic notion of story and character. but through the “nuts and bolts” of his prose style as well.
The strength and deliberative power of Flaubert’s prose, its deft and illuminating detail, as well as Flaubert’s uncanny ability to fuse varying perceptions of time and, in effect, to create simultaneous time, simultaneous perception within the confines of a well-wrought narrative style anticipates modern conceptions of prose. Flaubert hoped that his prose would ring with the rhythms of poetry while also showing an accuracy for detail and observation usually reserved for scientific discourse. The resulting alloy manifests a sophisticated resonance which, while easily comprehended, lends itself to multiple readings and successive interpretations:
THE château was a modern building in the Italian style,* with two projecting wings and a flight of three steps. It lay spread out at the far end of a great expanse of greensward on which a few cows were grazing among the well-spaced clumps of large trees. Small groups of shrubs, rhododendrons, syringa and white-flowering hawthorn, showed rounded and uneven tufts of green along the winding course of the gravelled drive. (Flaubert, 1998, p. 41)
Stylistic devices like those used in the above-passage (and others) are a good fit for modern audiences: the plentiful implementation of realistic detail (a device useful in blurring the lines between illusion and reality). Flaubert’s descriptive passages often combine intricate collections of detail and these observations are often narrated in a recounting, with objects and qualities being enumerated without any overt linear unity and seemingly without figurative or symbolic connotation. This combination of poetic language and realistic detail creates a lyrical form of literary realism which is almost unique to Flaubert.
Such apparently non-linear reasoning serves to couch Flaubert’s narrative style in the free-associative figurative language of the unconscious, of the dreaming self, of the poetic relationship of the world and its objects to the viewer and to one another. There is often a tendency for a feeling of ordinariness or banality evidenced in Flaubert’s observational and descriptive passages; however, this pedestrian, nearly exhaustive attention to detail is counterbalanced by poignant, emotional resonances. This is the opposite of the approach taken by romantic literature which seeks, rather than musical diction combined with realistic detail, lyric diction with associative or metaphorical detail.
As mentioned above, the combination of precise, technical language with emotive, metaphorical language creates a density and tension in even the most seemingly banal passages of “Madame Bovary.” Additionally, Flaubert’s predilection for cliches enhances the realist connotations of his prose style, while simultaneously opening the door for such banal of cliched passages to elevate ensuing, more profoundly meditative or connotative passages. In this way Flaubert’s realism embraces aspects of highly sophisticated and detailed linguistic “truth”, fusing colloquial and technical language. The overall impact of this fusion of theme and style is one of superb literary expression, an expression which in representing the full strata of perception from the banal to then sublime, and often in the same passage.
If Flaubert’s refutation of romanticism is rooted in his prose style, it also flowers in more obvious ways: specifically in regard to its theme and its protagonist. While the romantic notion of literary protagonists remained rooted in the “classical hero” and involved permutations of the “quest” motif and other highly-recognizable, archetypal components, Madame Bovary involved the story of a realistic character in a realistic situation. Some might and have even called the events of the novel “melodramitic” and “banal.” Just as Flaubert’s prose style is a unique blend of “romantic” or at the very least poetic diction and gritty, realistic observation, his creation of Emma Bovary reflects a multi-faceted variation on the traditional protagonist.
Just as Bovary was, herself, an unusual candidate for a novel in Flaubert’s time, her story, which is a seamless outgrowth of her deeply imagined character was — in Flaubert’s time — regarded as deeply controversial and perhaps even obscene. While literary romanticism reached
to articulate the myths and dreams which were seen as empowering or at least inspiring to people, literary realism, in Flaubert’s hands, as articulated in Madame Bovary, aimed to present an authentic portrayal through exceedingly studied narration of a realistic life in realistic conflict with the very real society which was expected to read and understand the novel. Because literary realism aspired to be sociologically aware and perhaps even prescriptive, it ran contrary to the impulse of literary romanticism which aspired to by mythologically aware. Flaubert’s prose style, themes, character, and sociological expression in Madame Bovary all combine to create one of the most important novels, and one of the key rebuttals to literary romanticism, in all worlds literature.
Flaubert, G. (1998). Madame Bovary: Life in a Country Town (Hopkins, G., Trans.). Oxford:
Oxford University Press.