Gustave Flaubert wrote his novel Madame Bovary in the mid-nineteenth century as a satirical comment on the upper middle class, those who were just rich enough to pretend to be rich. Flaubert loathed them and wrote his novel to make them appear as the fools that he thought them to be. His loathing for the upper middle class of 1850’s France stemmed from the ideals which they held. Flaubert saw his fellows as a generation lost to the meritless and frivolous dreams of the French Romantic movement.
French Romanticism was a movement through all the creative arts towards idealising the world which artists constructed. Although equally present in music and visual art, Flaubert focused both his hatred and his satire on the literature of the time, this reactionary nature earned him the title of a “naturalist”. This was however something that Flaubert hated; the Naturalistic movement was one that focused on specifics and on realism in a work, whereas Flaubert sought to make his story one that was applicable to any setting. Though his attention to detail in places mirrors that of a realist or naturalist writer, this is not his essential purpose.
Flaubert defies any attempt to fit his work to a particular movement or style in French literature, though there is little doubt that his work Madame Bovary is a reactionary satire of French romanticism and of the bourgeois society that regurgitated the clichï¿½s of the movement. Each word in the novel is carefully chosen, so the book becomes a painstakingly constructed trap which ensnares the thoughts of the reader and guides them to the conclusions that Flaubert wants us to make. Although every word in the novel is vital to Flaubert’s purpose, there are certain key passages that are particularly pivotal to the book. Among these is his description of the agricultural fair at Rouen in Part II Chapter 8. One section of this describes a conversation that occurs between Rodolphe and Emma in the provincial fair that surrounds it.
The passage begins with a monologue from Rodolphe: what he expresses in the passage is a fairly clichï¿½ set of ideals from the romantic movement. He talks of “Striving souls” and “beating hearts” . Particularly typical is the idea of two souls matched by fate that cannot be drawn apart. However despite the words of the text the tone is not one of romance. Flaubert intentionally marrs Rodolphe’s words by introducing them with the sentence:
“Rodolphe had moved in closer to Emma, he was talking in a low voice, speaking rapidly”
This has the effect that Rodolphe appears to be making a clumsy attempt to seduce Emma, rather than simply expressing noble sentiments. Another tool that Flaubert uses to make the entire situation still more comedic, is by consistently contrasting the everyday provinciality of the agricultural fair with the frivolous fantasies in which the two “star crossed lovers” engage. This is used consistently throughout the passage, but it makes its first appearance in introduction to this section: Flaubert talks of bleating lambs and cattle, then suddenly Rodolphe says:
“Don’t you find this social conspiracy revolting? Is there one sacred feeling that they do not condemn?”.
This adds to the reader’s feeling that Rodolphe and Emma are completely in a world of their own with little or no connection to the reality of the bovine conspirators. The reader should note the over-punctuation which creates a disjointed tone:
Oh! Come what may, sooner or later, in six months, ten years, they will be together, will be lovers, because Fate ordains it, because they were born for one another.
Flaubert runs the entire monologue into a single paragraph. This has the effect that we are left with the impression of a clumsy attempt at seduction muttered quickly under the breath.
In the next paragraph Flaubert describes the sensations that Emma feels. He writes of Emma’s observations of Rodolphe. Ironically much of the passage is devoted to describing the smell of Rodolphe’s pomade and to the fresh scent of the ivy climbing a nearby house, but one can only imagine the onslaught of odours that would campaign against ones nostrils in a rural agricultural fair. Flaubert’s writing here mimics that of French Romanticism, his style is an exaggeration of the literary genre that he seeks to mock. This is perhaps also a reflection of the feelings that Emma wants to have as much as the feelings that she does have.
The next paragraph contains the concluding section of the Councillor’s speech. One should note the immediate change: Emma has been lost to the scent of Rodolphe’s hair, and then suddenly the councillor shouts out “Endurance! Perseverance!”, ideals which are in stark contrast to Emma’s thoughts of desire. This serves to make Emma appear petty, concerned only with those matters that are emotive and frivolous.
Flaubert makes another sly stab here, this time at the church.
Endurance! Perseverance! Heed neither the voice of habit, nor the over-hasty teachings of rash empiricism! Dedicate yourselves above all to the improvement of the soil, to good manure, to the development of the various breeds, equine, bovine, ovine and porcine.
If one reads the opening sentences from the Councillor’s speech it becomes clear that his manner of oration is based on the stereotype of a “hellfire and damnation” preacher: the resemblance can perhaps be most clearly seen in the way he cries out virtues, and in “Heed neither the voice of habit, nor the over-hasty teachings of rash empiricism” a sentence that is quite biblical in its construction if not in its subjects. This is certainly a caricature of an evangelical preacher. This impression is aided by the Councillor’s introduction:
“…she could hear… the voice of the councillor psalming out his phrases”
Mimicking the style of a over-zealous padre serves to mock the church by imitation. Applying this same manner of speech to such a mundane topic as agriculture rather than religion serves to demystify it, making it appear comical. Lieuvain then dismounts his pulpit and is replaced by another speaker.
Flaubert takes the opportunity of introducing the new orator to contrast the trivial nature of Rodolphe and Emma’s discourse with the profound speech of Monsieur Derozerays. This is done by contrasting pairs of sentences throughout the paragraph, alternating between describing the lovers’ conversation, and describing the speech. This technique begins thus:
Accordingly, praise of the government played a lesser role; religion and agriculture were rather more in evidence… Rodolphe, with Madame Bovary, was talking dreams, premonitions, magnetism.
We now move a little lower on the page and find a similar contrast:
…Cincinnatus at his plough, Diocletian planting his cabbages and the emperors of China bringing in the New Year by planting seeds, the young man was explaining to the young woman that these irresistible attractions had their origin in some previous existence…
Flaubert clearly wants to make a mockery of the whole situation. He is trivialising these matters of the heart by comparing them to the hardworking people of the fields, where the labourers are planting seeds for the New Year. Flaubert continues to alternate between describing the speech and describing the seduction. The contrasts between the two begin subtly but as we continue down the page they grow less and less so. By the time we reach the bottom of the page Flaubert has begun to intermingle the words of Rodolphe, speaking of love and destiny and of all the ideals of French romanticism and Derozerays, who talks of money of work and of that which is concrete and substantive:
– Did you know that I would be escorting you?
– Seventy francs!3
– A hundred times I wanted to leave, and I followed you, I stayed.
– As I shall stay this evening, tomorrow and the day after, all my life.
Flaubert’s purpose in this entire extract is to satirise the seduction. More importantly, it is to show that the ideals that are shared by the Bourgeoisie and the Church concern matters that are emotive and are therefore trivial compared to those things concrete such as land, money and food. Flaubert trivialises the entire Romantic genre by setting a clichï¿½d romantic conversation, that proliferates with the language and metaphors that permeate the literature that he is satirising. He then places this exaggeration of the Romantic movement into a situation that is overwhelmingly provincial and agricultural. This serves his purpose of mocking the petty bourgeoisie and the Romantic movement.