Madame Bovary I: “in all of Flaubert there is not a single beautiful metaphor”

It’s odd reading a very famous novel for the first time. It’s like meeting a celebrity in person (or so I imagine). It is intensely familiar and yet strange at the same time: it is exactly what it always appeared to be, and yet it is no longer an idea of something but the thing itself. And so it has been for me with Madame Bovary–it is exactly what I thought it would be, and yet it is more than that, and also, less than that.

What did I know about Madame Bovary before I read it? Well, the basic plot, of course. So, no surprises there. And that it is celebrated as the perfection of a very particular idea of what a novel should be. I’m tempted to say that the idea is for a novel to be nothing like Middlemarch, except that would be anachronistic, and also, much as Madame Bovary is not like Middlemarch, it is also very similar to Middlemarch (or at least to particular subplots in Middlemarch) in ways that inevitably provoke me to comparison. But I’m going to save that for my next post on Madame Bovary (provisionally entitled “The Doctors’ Wives”). Tonight I have a more modest agenda, which is simply to remark on and quote some of Flaubert’s metaphors. Overall, you see, I didn’t like Madame Bovary very much at all. The pending comparative post will go into my reasons for that, and it will all get very thorny. But I was delighted with Flaubert’s language. (I am relying on Lydia Davis’s translation of Flaubert, but, and I am sure someone will correct me if I’m wrong, details so concrete and specific seem likely to translate quite precisely.)

I should qualify that statement: I was delighted with Flaubert’s figurative language. “Flaubert’s aim,” Davis writes in her introduction, “was to write the novel ‘objectively,’ leaving the author out of it. . . . his technique is to present the material without comment, though occasionally a comment does slip in. To report the facts objectively, to give a painstaking objective description . . . should be comment enough.” Davis goes on to note that “in keeping with his plain, almost clinical approach to the material, he schooled himself to be very sparing with his metaphors,” and indeed he is. Davis cites Proust regretting the consequences and complaining “that in all of Flaubert there is not a single beautiful metaphor”–which Davis promptly rebuts with a very beautiful metaphor indeed. There’s not much beautiful about Madame Bovary or its language most of the time, though: Flaubert is both unsentimental and unsparing. “They had to lift her head a little,” he tells us, as the women dress Emma’s corpse for her funeral, “and at that a stream of black liquid ran out of her mouth like vomit.” An extreme example? Maybe, but it epitomizes Flaubert’s ruthlessness. (The entire death scene, in fact, is unrelentingly awful, and then as if the bile isn’t bad enough, Homais punctures her temples several times while cutting Bovary a lock of her hair. That detail, surely, is gratuitous! It’s a cruel book, to us as well as to its characters.)

Apparently, though, for Flaubert, part of being painstakingly objective is finding just the right metaphor to make sure we see (or feel, or hear) the novel’s details exactly. “Beautiful metaphors” are not really the point: his metaphors aren’t decorative but informative. But they are also little spaces for Flaubert to have some fun, to play. Davis tells us Flaubert had a “tendency to wax lyrical and effusive” and that in writing Madame Bovary he very deliberately wrote “against his own natural inclinations.” It is certainly an astonishingly controlled book, claustrophobic and oppressive (qualities that not only suit his aesthetic agenda but reflect his social critique). I think that’s why it was such a relief every time he let loose just a little bit. Sometimes his images are ironic, sometimes poetic, sometimes comical, sometimes just so apt they induce a tiny shiver of appreciation. They tend to reflect the tone or attitude of a particular character, as Flaubert (like George Eliot, though to different ends) relies heavily on free indirect discourse. Emma, unsurprisingly, tends to think in the romantic clichés of sentimental fiction.

A few examples:

he would ride along ruminating on his happiness, like a man continuing to chew, after dinner, the taste of the truffles he is digesting.

the incendiary glow that had reddened her pale sky was covered over in shadow and by degrees faded away . . . her passion burned itself to ashes . . . and she remained lost in a terrible, piercing cold.

It was the first time Emma had heard such things said to her; and her pride, like a person relaxing in a steam bath, stretched out languidly in the warmth of the words.

She recalled all her natural fondness for luxury, all the privations of her soul, the sordid details of marriage, housekeeping, her dreams falling in the mud like wounded swallows . . .

Emma was like all other mistresses; and the charm of novelty, slipping off gradually like a piece of clothing, revealed in its nakedness the eternal monotony of passion, which always assumes the same forms and uses the same language.

Hers was a sort of idiotic attachment full of admiration for him, of sensual pleasure for her, a bliss that numbed her; and her soul sank into this intoxication and drowned in it, shriveled like the Duke of Clarence in his butt of malmsey.

She would undress roughly, tearing the thin string of her corset, which would whistle around her hips like a slithering snake.

All that her mind contained of memories and thoughts was pouring out at once, in a single burst, like the thousand parts of a firework.

16 thoughts on “Madame Bovary I: “in all of Flaubert there is not a single beautiful metaphor”

  1. Susan Messer May 19, 2012 / 1:46 pm

    Hmmm. This is very interesting to me. I read Madame Bovary about five years ago, for the first time (pre-Lydia Davis translation), and was surprised and a little embarrassed that I didn’t like it very much, that I didn’t find my way in emotionally or any other way. I blamed it on the translation, asked around a little bit, to see what else might be out there that might be better, didn’t find any good answers. Then, I heard that Davis was translating it, but I’m sure I read somewhere that she didn’t like the book very much (did you read that also, or did I make it up?).

    This thing about the metaphors is interesting. Thanks for setting out a string of them there. I think that first one, about the truffles is very effective. I like that one about the Duke of Clarence, too, but not sure who he is, or what the butt of malmsey is. Still, it makes me curious, engages me. I do perk up every time I hear Lydia Davis talking about Proust though, as I and three companions are deep into a close reading of her translation of Swann’s Way. That is where you find metaphors that make you swoon.


  2. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 19, 2012 / 4:00 pm

    Julian Barnes, in his superb LRB review of the L Davis translation, includes a quote from Davis about not liking the novel (drop down to the end). Barnes does a lot of passage-to-passage comparison of translations.


  3. Rohan May 19, 2012 / 8:49 pm

    Susan, I agree about the truffles, and it was the steam bath one that first made me think I should really be keeping track of these metaphorical moments. I particularly liked the Duke of Clarence one because he was Richard III’s brother (and, in Shakespeare, one of Richard’s victims), so it played right into my peculiar obsession. If you go to the Tower of London now, they actually have a wine barrel with a kind of video image of his drowning face in it…too weird! Some of the others really are not original or striking on their own but reflect the characters who think them very well–a risky strategy, in case we should think it is the novelist who thinks of sunsets and fireworks!

    Tom, that’s a splendidly interesting review indeed, and the last paragraph is, to me, the most interesting bit of all, as somewhere in there is what I want to write about next. Also, I hadn’t even noticed the novel’s subtitle and was chagrined as well as pleased at the Middlemarch reference Barnes points out.


  4. Susan Messer May 20, 2012 / 2:00 pm

    Thanks, Tom, for that link. Always good to know one has something right.

    Rohan, I was thinking about the truffle metaphor, and what lifted it above the others for me is the specificity of the truffles. They have such a distinctive taste/smell/aftertaste; the process of digestion does tend to follow one for a while. Perfect. (Like that dusty glove discovered behind the bed that you once quoted when discussing a different novel; can’t remember which it was.)

    Sensory details are almost always the most effective, but the others you list, even though they are tactile, are more general–the steam bath, the mud, the cold, and so forth.


  5. litlove May 20, 2012 / 5:58 pm

    It’s funny how Madame Bovary really is not a likeable book. I don’t know of anyone (and it would have to be a perverse person indeed) who could read it and say, wow, I really enjoyed that! On the whole, I’m in the camp that thinks a lot of the novel is about Flaubert picking away at realism with his literary tweezers. If people really might walk briskly down a street in real life, how many times might authors use this phrase before it was condemned to the half life of cliche? (All the scenes between Emma and Rodolphe are just brilliant in their excessive and parodic use of cliche.) But I’ve noticed in Flaubert that when he gets to a scene of particularly brutal violence, he forgets all about his fears and just writes it straight, like a punch in the face. It’s horrible, but effective. If you can ever bear it after this, my particular favourite Flaubert is his Trois Contes, which I think just gets translated as Three Tales. He goes for the throat of realism in the almost unreadable ‘Herodias’, which is another piece I cannot bear to read and yet admire in retrospect. But you also get the gift of ‘A Simple Heart’ which is what he wrote when George Sand taxed him with being unable to create a sympathetic character.


  6. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 20, 2012 / 11:42 pm

    Wait, wait, wait.

    I don’t know of anyone (and it would have to be a perverse person indeed) who could read it and say, wow, I really enjoyed that!

    No. We all know of lots of people who really enjoyed Madame Bovary. Many of them are quite famous: Zola, Maupassant, Tolstoy, Nabokov, Eça de Queirós, Vargas Llosa, James Wood, Julian Barnes. Another – and I need to add some empty words here just to create some distance from that list – writes under a nom de plume at Wuthering Expectations.

    What do all of these people have in common? Hint: not perversity. The last named, at least, is as normal is blueberry pie.


  7. Rohan May 21, 2012 / 10:55 am

    Perhaps the word “enjoy” is not quite the right one? There’s “appreciate” or “admire.” Or I suppose there are different kinds of enjoyment. I certainly admired (I might even say that I appreciated) Madame Bovary. It’s a hard book to warm to, though, isn’t it?


  8. Litlove May 23, 2012 / 4:14 pm

    Yup, I think it’s the definition of enjoyment that’s really at stake here, and seeing as we can’t at this moment ask Nabokov or Julian Barnes, I’d be really interested to know what you mean by ‘enjoy’, Tom. I admire Madame Bovary immensely, I think it’s a hugely significant book, it’s a bench mark of mine. But ‘enjoy’ Emma Bovary’s story? As a woman I could not do that. I guess thats another can of worms to open when it comes to your list of people who did enjoy it, AR – they are conspicuously male. 😉


  9. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 23, 2012 / 11:08 pm

    Although we cannot ask Nabokov or Barnes, it turns out other people have asked them about Madame Bovary and then left a record in writing. For example when he is asked what he read as a boy Nabokov answers “I relished especially the works of Wells, Poe, (etc.), Flaubert, (etc.)” and in another says “By the age of 14 or 15 I had read or re-read all Tolstoy in Russian, all Shakespeare in English, and all Flaubert in French” (Strong Opinions, pp. 42-3 & 46). Or I could turn to the 42 pages on Bovary in his Lectures on Literature and see if there is any sign of enjoyment:

    “We now start to enjoy yet another masterpiece, yet another fairy tale. Of all the fairy tales in this series, Flaubert’s novel Madame Bovary is the most romantic. Stylistically it is prose doing what poetry is supposed to do.” (p. 125)

    For Julian Barnes, please see his Paris Review interview, where he is reticent: “I admire his [Flaubert’s] work absolutely and read his correspondence as if it were written to me personally and posted only yesterday.” He does not use the word enjoy, so perhaps the author of Flaubert’s Parrot in fact does not enjoy Madame Bovary.

    A. S. Byatt admits not to enjoyment but only “love” (see paragraph 2), and writes “I can equably sympathise with the central person in the book, who is” – readers of Wayne Booth can guess the object of sympathy.

    It is also worth searching for “Nathalie Sarraute” and “Madame Bovary.”

    My definition of “enjoy” is ordinary English usage. “[T]o take pleasure or satisfaction in” suggests Merriam-Webster. I read the description of Charles Bovary’s hat and think “Wow, that was good. I really enjoyed that. I hope there is more like it in this book. (reads some more) There is!”

    The winky smiley fellow means that the argument at the end is just a joke, I guess, so there is no need to engage with it? I never get those right, and I am clearly misreading the argument.


  10. Rohan Maitzen May 24, 2012 / 9:30 am

    Byatt’s piece is great, of course–thank you for the link!–and I can see an affinity between her fiction and Flaubert’s too, in that she too can be ruthlessly unsentimental. When she says “Our sympathy for her is like our sympathy for a bird the cat has brought in and maimed. It flutters, and it will die,” I wonder: who (or what) in Madame Bovary is the cat? There is one point at which Flaubert (or is it Emma?) attributes Emma’s frustration to the limitations placed on women, but I never had the impression from the novel overall that Emma is presented as a case study in anything but individual failing.

    Unlike Byatt, I do not find the (implied) novelist particularly sympathetic — inventive, observant, yes, but pitiless, and also limited, because he shows us a world without the sincerity and kindness that are a part of life along with the folly and the pretense and the selfishness. I want a book that includes some of the best we can do along with our worst or most pathetic aspects–I want not just Mr. Bulstrode but Mrs. Bulstrode, comforting him when he has fallen, not just Rosamond but Dorothea. Maybe when I’m a half-century older, if I live so long, I will feel differently. Is this just a matter of taste, or of my personality or character in some way? Is it an artistic preference, or judgment? You see why I anticipated that things would get thorny.


  11. litlove May 24, 2012 / 11:52 am

    Well, I am in sympathy with Rohan’s comments here but can’t get up quite so much sympathy for Tom’s argument. For one, thing, just because Nabokov or Barnes appreciates something, I don’t see that I should have to. But that’s not an intellectual argument particularly. And the winky thing only means in this instance that bringing gender into reader response issues really is a can of worms and it is perhaps best not to go there or at least to narrow down the question we really want to discuss or be at it forever.

    I am not sure that I can separate out ‘enjoyment’ of something like Flaubert’s descriptions (which I will certainly describe as powerful, astute, evocative, sometimes cunning) from the overarching story of Emma’s downfall at the hands of manipulators and idiots, not to mention her own reckless and intolerably frustrated nature. Like Rohan, I cannot see that it is anything other than a case of abject and ugly failure – failure of a society, failure of circumstance, failure of compassion, failure of understanding, failure of possibility. In my reading of the book these are portrayed to us as serious failures, desperate ones. The character of Homais stands for everything that is bitterly and blackly wrong about provincial France, and he is a sharply-honed weapon in Flaubert’s narrative arsenal. I did not, however, enjoy Flaubert’s undoubtedly exquisite portrayal of him. Even if Flaubert encourages us to laugh at his antics, I didn’t feel this was laughter born of good humour at him and what he does, but the laughter of despair and derision. (Something, incidentally that Martin Amis identifies in Nabokov’s use of laughter in Lolita.)

    Nor did I enjoy the portrait of Emma’s marriage, or the wretched liaison with Rodolphe, nor Emma’s desperate attempts at seduction with Leon, nor her eventual death. Well, you get the picture. I can find other words for my admiration, but not that one.

    But you can enjoy him, Tom, I can’t (and why would I want to?) prevent you from having entirely personal responses of your own, nor do I devalue your own sense of enjoyment. If that’s what you feel, you feel it, and good for you. Perhaps the real issue here is that you don’t like my use of the word ‘perverse’ in the original post? It still seems to me, well, odd, to enjoy something like Emma’s death (I took neither pleasure nor satisfaction in it). But by all means go ahead and change my mind on that if you want to.


  12. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 24, 2012 / 1:10 pm

    My argument is not that litlove or anyone should appreciate or enjoy Madame Bovary because someone else does, or for any other reason. I do not see the slightest hint of that argument in what I wrote. I have not made any argument for the novel.

    litlove claimed that no one can or has ever enjoyed the novel, or no one who is not “perverse.” That claim is factually inaccurate. That is my entire argument.

    You cannot separate Flaubert’s writing from the story he tells. Many good readers cannot (or do not want to). Some others can and do. The readers in the “can and do” group enjoy the novel more than those who cannot. That is exactly the point of the first link I included, the one that goes back to me. Many of the ruthlessly unsentimental readers are also writers. Writers can be awfully cold-hearted readers.

    Why do you reduce enjoyment of a complex object like a novel to enjoyment of a fictional character’s death? Mario Vargas Llosa wrote a book about how profoundly important Madame Bovary was to him, how much he loved it (he is ruthlessly sentimental), but you will have trouble finding a passage about how much he enjoyed her death. Nor will you find this in Byatt’s article or Nabokov’s lectures or Barnes’s interview.

    Rohan, “limited” – yes, definitely. Flaubert did not comprehensively expand the reach of the novel. He tightly constricted the novel in order to work on a few aspects of it. Much like some of his contemporaries, painters who abandoned subject for form or color and composers who abandoned melody for harmony.

    I do not think enjoyment of the book is entirely taste or temperament. Flaubert (and Eliot and Dostoevsky and other unusually gifted or powerful writers) are making an implicit argument about what the novel should be and what it can or should do. They give the thoughtful reader a lot to argue against. Booth’s model is perfect here, isn’t it? If you come to find the implied author sympathetic, enjoyment likely follows. If you don’t, you will always be on the outside to some extent. Whether we can find that sympathy is not just taste but the result of an ethical and aesthetic argument with the writer.


  13. Litlove May 25, 2012 / 5:03 am

    Ah, I get it. I often wonder why we don’t argue well together, Tom, but for my part it’s because our approaches are so different. I think I’ve altered my position since that original remark about enjoyment, to saying, essentially, that a reader’s feelings are a reader’s feelings. They can’t be altered or swayed, or dictated by others, but in that respect, value judgements are a boring way to approach a novel because all we can do is say: It’s enjoyable – no it isn’t – yes it is! etc. I mean sure, that original remark was rhetorically excessive. But I don’t think that’s the most interesting or useful part of the discussion we’re having.

    But in that vein, your remark: ‘Why do you reduce enjoyment of a complex object like a novel to enjoyment of a fictional character’s death?’ isn’t true either. There are many things I list that I didn’t enjoy about Flaubert’s novel.

    What I felt I was actually arguing was that ‘enjoy’ seemed too blunt and simplistic a term for Flaubert’s novel, which to my mind encourages a complex emotional response. That one might well be horrified or disgusted or saddened or blackly entertained by its different parts, and sure, that the writing can be enjoyed too.

    I feel you are reading my use of the word ‘enjoy’ as some kind of disparaging judgement on the novel, and I’m not saying that. I’ve said all along that I admire it profoundly in many ways.


  14. Litlove May 25, 2012 / 7:57 am

    I felt I should come back to tidy up a piece of wording in my last comment, What I really appreciate in a literary discussion is the way it obliges me to be clearer and more precise about what I think. I’m interested to know what I really mean, and what I think holds good about a novel. I’m not sure I often hit that on the head at the first attempt.

    So to be accurate, I should say that our discussion so far has moved me to the position of thinking that to ‘enjoy’ Madame Bovary suggests a reaction that is not quite complex enough for a complex book. And we do agree on that point, that it is a complex book. And I appreciate your point that ‘taste’ in literature can be broken down into ethical and aesthetic arguments with an author. But given that those can be – and I think in the most interesting books are made to be – part of an ongoing process, that question of response to a book is more dynamic and unstable than the judgements that come to be chosen in the aftermath of reading might indicate. I feel at the moment unconvinced that ‘enjoyment’ alone will cover the response to Madame Bovary.


  15. Amateur Reader (Tom) May 25, 2012 / 10:54 am

    Not disparaging the novel, not at all. Some enjoy Madame Bovary; some do not.

    You, however, are now using the word “enjoy” to disparage readers of the novel, specifically those who naively claim to enjoy it. The response of those who think they enjoy the book is simple. Those who do not enjoy the book have a complex response. “Admire” also signifies a complex response. Just not “enjoy.”

    By this standard, no complex work of art can be enjoyed. Middlemarch also “encourages a complex emotional response.” Shakespeare, Beethoven, Michelangelo, Homer – forget about it.

    I feel at the moment unconvinced that ‘enjoyment’ alone will cover the response to Madame Bovary.

    Who was making this argument?


  16. Litlove May 25, 2012 / 3:02 pm

    Still feel you are picking on out-of-context pieces of what I say, rather than actually understanding the line of my argument. I’m not disparaging anyone who uses the word ‘enjoy’. Where do I say that? To say enjoyment is not the sole emotion provoked by a work of art is surely not that contentious? Or indeed disparaging of enjoyment? It’s not implied. Enjoyment is one among many responses that arise and are replaced by others.

    I don’t really want to have a last word that doesn’t value and unite both of our positions here. I can’t quite think of one! But I appreciate the way you make me consider more carefully what I write, and I hope that you’ve also got something out of the discussion.


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