I recently read Madame Bovary by Gustav Flaubert because various critics that I respect kept referring to it and its style as ground-breaking. Ever since Madame Bovary, James Wood says, novels are called upon to have to have a style. I had read it in college but did not remember it as a novel that particularly moved me. But in this reading, I found it to be the masterpiece it is usually considered to be. I read the English translation by Eleanor Marx Aveling, the first English translation, in the Barnes and Noble classic paperback edition. I feel that I have not yet penetrated truly what this book is about, although it surely depicts the hapless life of someone who lives in narcissistic illusion as well as the damage wrought by others who are the same but in a different style. Flaubert once said that Madame Bovary was actually a portrait of himself and that he had dissected himself without mercy. But I have a feeling that the devil is in the detail, and it would take other closer readings to approach an understanding of all that Flaubert means to say.
Aside from its psychological accuracy, I thought the book was a major achievement because of its use of language and image. Flaubert's descriptions of settings are so vivid that often I felt as I were in the scene myself. He also passes, seemingly without transition but without the slightest jolt, from the inner thoughts of one person to the next.
Sometimes we find a novel that uses images in a brilliant and beautiful way, but the poetry of these images almost runs like a counter plot to the book--that is, they run parallel with the story but are not part of it. In Madame Bovary, it is the images that raise the pathetic story of Madame Bovary to the level of art that is concerned with profound matters. His precise and poetic use of language serves to bring out the truth of the psychological moment, to say that which is so difficult "to put into words." For instance, the following paragraph took my breath away. It describes Madame Bovary's lover, Rodolphe, just before he sets down to the task of writing her his jilting letter. He shuffles around in the souvenir box of his love affairs and thinks about all the women who have written him love letters. Flaubert writes:
"In fact, these women, rushing at once into his thoughts, cramped each other and lessened, as reduced to a uniform level of love that equalised them all. So taking handfuls of the mixed-up letters, he amused himself for some moments with letting them fall in cascades from his right into his hand. At last, bored and weary, Rodolphe took back the box to the cupboard and said to himself, 'What a lot of rubbish!' Which summed up his opinion; for pleasures, like schoolboys in a school courtyard, had so trampled upon his heart that no green thing grew there, and that which passed through it, more heedless than children, did not even, like them, leave a name carved on the wall."
In my poetic paucity, I cannot imagine how Flaubert ever came up with such an image, which describes perfectly, as he wanted, what this man's heart was like and how it got that way.
This is but one of many such examples in Madame Bovary, and I am not surprised to read that Flaubert agonized over his work and spent hours upon hours on it. Earlier in the novel, Flaubert hints at his yearning as an artist as he registers Rodolphe's blase attitude toward Madame Bovary's effusive pleas of love for him:
"Because lips libertine and venal had murmured such words to him, he believed but little in the candour of hers; exaggerated speeches hiding mediocre affections must be discounted; as if the fulness of the soul did not sometimes overflow in the emptiest metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of his needs, nor of his conceptions, nor of his sorrows; and since human speech is like a cracked tin kettle, on which we hammer out tunes to make the bears dance when we long to move the stars."