Well, I deeply enjoyed Madame Bovary. Flaubert has an interesting way of producing a scenario of which he clearly disapproved (the adultery of a married woman) in a way that nevertheless revealed her as a flawed, fallible, sympathetic human being.
In this post, I’m going to be looking at the absence of female friends in Emma’s life, the effect of the male gaze and the significance of the colour blue on her narrative.
One of the most poignant scenes of the book comes near the end of Emma’s life. She has been romantically disappointed, financially ruined, and abandoned by her lovers; in her terror, she runs to the house of the wet nurse who cared for her daughter Berthe when she was an infant:
“Mère Rolet,” she said as she reached the nurse’s house, “I’m choking!…Unlace me.”
She fell on to the bed; she was sobbing. Mère Rolet covered her with a petticoat and stood close by her. When she made no reply, the woman moved away, took her wheel, and began spinning flax. (p.286)
It ought to be noted that Emma’s own mother died before the narrative of the novel began; readers have never met her. Her mother-in-law viewed Emma as a competitor for her son’s love, and harangued and harassed Emma to run her household in the same way as Madame Bovary, senior, would run hers. Nor has Emma had a female friend and confidante other than her whippet, Djali, who had the good sense to run away before the merde really hit the fan. Emma is surrounded by men and the male gaze, so it is deeply symbolic that here, at the end of her tether, she runs to the nearest symbol of maternity she can find: Mother Rolet, whose vocation is to nurse children. In her despair, Emma seeks out maternal comfort; note also that she is covered by a petticoat (the sartorial symbol of femininity) and that Mere Rolet begins to spin (an occupational symbol of femininity). Betrayed by the men in her life, Emma attempts to find acceptance in an archetypal femininity her sensuality has so far excluded her from – and she is fatally rebuffed.
What’s the matter with her? the nurse was wondering. Why has she come here?
Speaking of the male gaze, I noticed something quite interesting about the way in which Emma was seen: the men who look at her never see her clearly. There is always something oblique about their gaze:
[Charles] saw her in the mirror, from behind, between two candles. Her eyes seemed even darker. (p.46)
She was wearing a little cravat made of blue silk…whenever she moved her head, half her face was screened by the fabric or else was pleasingly revealed. (p.79)
Whatever her intentions regarding her own presentation, Emma is caught in a perpetual burlesque: seen only in shimmering reflections, or caught in a strange involuntary striptease that reveals or conceals her own face. Geoffrey Wall, in his introduction to the Penguin Classic text, puts it very succinctly: ‘The four men who look at Emma fasten their eyes on her nails, eyes, teeth, hands, hair and feet. Just the edges of her body, just the little details. Their vision of Emma – and we are offered no other – is decidedly fetishistic.’
Emma is in no way a feminist icon, or at least Flaubert does not present her as an admirable woman. Although we can applaud her desire to take control over her own life, Flaubert does not endorse her actions. He refers to her continually as ‘corrupted,’ and the last time readers see her poisoned corpse, it is vomiting a black liquid that soils her pristine white wedding dress. Readers are thus encouraged to understand Emma, but not to admire her. As Nabokov says in his lectures, adultery is the most conventional way to rise above the conventional.
Finally, I observed that the colour blue appears at crucial moments in Emma’s life. She wears blue when Charles firsts see her, her wedding cake has a blue layer, she wears a blue veil to her first illicit liaison, the first time she contemplates taking her own life she is very aware of the bright blue of the sky, and when she successfully commits suicide, the poison she uses comes from a blue jar. Even her funeral is surrounded by an azure haze. Now, I don’t know enough about the significance of the colour blue to the era and to contemporaneous French readers in order to make a sweeping statement about its meaning (for example, blue didn’t become a masculine colour until the 20th century, so that’s out). However, I do think it’s significant that blue has been associated with the Virgin Mary for centuries, and Emma continually flirts with religious devotion throughout the text – hoping to find in God the love she couldn’t find amongst men.
Nabokov points out Flaubert’s use of luscious language, bemoaning the butchery of translators all the while. He calls the text a prose poem, as Flaubert precedes the word ‘and’ with a semicolon: ‘this ‘semicolon and’ comes after an enumeration of actions or states or objects; then the semicolon creates a pause and the ‘and’ proceeds to round up the paragraph, to introduce a culminating image, or a vivid detail…descriptive, poetic, melancholy, or amusing.’ So if you do re-read Madame Bovary, keep your eyes out for ‘semicolon and’ – my Penguin copy maintains this poetry, and it really is beautiful.
Our next book is The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. See you soon!
p.s. did you know I have an Instagram? It’s true! Come say high: Nabokov Cocktail x