«2.1 Introduction In January 1857, Gustave Flaubert received a summons at his address in Croisset to attend court to face charges that the publication ...»
Literature and Ethics: Learning
to Read with Emma Bovary
In January 1857, Gustave Flaubert received a summons at his address in Croisset to
attend court to face charges that the publication by instalments of his novel Madame
Bovary in the journal Revue de Paris was an “affront to public and religious decency and
morals”1 [11, pp. 251–257]. At the end of the preceding year the editors of the journal
had been assailed by a growing number of indignant letters from provincial subscribers “outraged” at the novel’s immorality, as well as a notiﬁcation from Napoleon III’s ofﬁcial censor that the Department of Justice was investigating the novel with a view to prosecution. Flaubert, who usually kept at a studied distance from the press, plunged into the case, preparing his own defence and soliciting help from friends in high places.
“It is all so stupid that I have come to enjoy it greatly,” he wrote to his brother Achille2 [12, p. 226]. The leading trial lawyer Antoine-Marie-Jules Senard, who had been a friend of Flaubert’s doctor father, offered to defend him. In the event, Maître Senard made much of Flaubert’s family connections and the support of distinguished public ﬁgures, aided no doubt by Flaubert’s diligent trawl for “embarrassing quotations drawn from the classics.” His closing argument also made sophistic capital from the fact that Emma dies at the end of the novel: she had expiated her crime in death and readers had duly been encouraged to be virtuous through fear of what might happen if they themselves were to quit the straight and narrow. It was, in Maître Senard’s summing up for the defence, “an incitement to virtue through horror of vice” [12, p. 227].
“Outrage à la morale publique et religieuse ou aux bonnes mœurs”: Flaubert’s correspondence around the time of his trial is gathered in its entirety in volume II of his Correspondance, published in the Pléiade edition , and abridged in translation in Steegmuller’s indispensable book, The Letters of Gustave Flaubert [12, pp. 217–235]; see also Florence Vatan’s reception history in Pensée morale et genre litteraire [5, pp. 139–157].
Letter to his brother Achille, c. 20 January 1857.
I. Bamforth (*) General Practioner and Freelance Scholar, Strasbourg, France e-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org P. Macneill (ed.), Ethics and the Arts, DOI 10.1007/978-94-017-8816-8_2, 9 © Springer Science+Business Media Dordrecht 2014 10 I. Bamforth The case was dismissed, and Flaubert retreated to his study to reﬂect on the strange effects of publicity. In view of the press coverage which his novel had attracted it was almost certain to be a commercial success on its publication in book form, but it infuriated him that the trial had drawn attention away from what he felt was a work of genuine artistic merit. It was also his boast to friends, no doubt salted with a dose of wry irony, that he had written a book that was “moral by its effect as a whole”3 [12, p. 222]. But Flaubert’s understanding of morality certainly wasn’t shared by his provincial readers. His impulse had always been iconoclastic. At the very beginning of his creative life, aged 18, he had announced his credo in no uncertain terms: “If I ever do take an active part in the world it will be as a thinker and demoralizer. I will simply tell the truth: but that truth will be horrible, cruel, naked”4 [12, p. 9]. Four years before he published Madame Bovary, he had told his former mistress and correspondent Louise Colet that moralising should not be part of a genuine artistic creation: the critical gaze should take form as if it were describing “natural history, without any moral preconception… When we will have become used to treating the human soul with the impartiality that goes into the study of matter in the physical sciences we will have taken a great step”5 [11, p. 450] He was greatly disturbed by what he called the ‘moralising rage’ of his contemporaries—“la rage moralisatrice”6 [11, p. 543]. To be a ‘moralisateur,’ the kind of person who presumes to offer others moral instructions and lessons was no commendation, certainly not on Flaubert’s lips.
Flaubert knew that a particular kind of morality worked itself out in the act of writing. He was after all a French writer, and keenly aware of the illustrious tradition of ‘moraliste’ writing from the time of from Montaigne, Pascal, La Fontaine and La Rochefoucauld, and to which he himself was to contribute with his pithy set of commonplaces and platitudes The Dictionary of Received Ideas, which he started collating in 1849,7 at the time he was writing his great novel. The French adjective ‘morale’ is close to its Latin root mores, which implies in the widest sense human usages and customs, even styles of life—in short, human behaviour. It even embraces what we now understand as anthropology. Flaubert, after all, had given due warning: he subtitled his Letter to Edmond Pagnerre, 31 December 1856.
Letter to Ernest Chevalier, 24 February 1839: even at this young age Flaubert seems to have sensed it would be his life’s calling to “épater les bourgeois” (shock the bourgeois), irrespective of the fact that he was an arch-bourgeois himself, not least in socio-economic terms. It is as well to remember however that Flaubert, like all artists, had an investment in a uniﬁed culture; and that only a decadent civilisation could possible consider it the function of social institutions to foster subversion.
Letter to Louise Colet, 12 October 1853 (my translation): this attitude would be taken to its logical conclusion in Emile Zola’s project of the ‘experimental novel,’ around 1890, in which the experimentation is meant to be taken straight. But this assumption hides a morality of its own, as I suggest in the Conclusion. Zola’s mistake was to think that as a novelist he was contributing to science rather than the more diffuse activity called ‘literature.’ Letter to the Princess Mathilde, 1 July 1872.
Le Dictionnaire des Idées Reçus was published posthumously, in 1911. Its aphoristic form brings it squarely within the French moraliste tradition, which is conventionally dated from the publication of Montaigne’s Essays in 1580, and can be either digressive, as in Montaigne or Voltaire’s writings, or pithy and lapidary, as in the maxims of Rochefoucauld or Chamfort.
2 Literature and Ethics: Learning to Read with Emma Bovary 11 novel ‘Mœurs de province.’ It was an announcement that he was offering a new kind of novel: provincial customs and manners were going to be put under the microscope.
And to do that he had to devise a new narrative style. “There really is a time before Flaubert and a time after him,” writes James Wood [21, p. 39]: what we think of modern realist narrative form is his discovery. Flaubert used the French imperfect as past tense, as Marcel Proust noted, in a way that allowed him to mix the important and the unimportant; he stepped back from what he was describing, deferring emotion and even judgement. Such was the indeterminate nature of the famous indirect free style (‘style indirect libre’). Even here, in his manner of writing, Flaubert was thumbing his nose at the prosecutor or, better said, at the ‘legal model’ itself—insofar as readers expected the author to signal to them how they ought to feel and think about the behaviour of his characters, and judge their various intrigues and manoeuvrings.
And where morals are at issue, there are women involved. Emma Bovary is a scandal. Her education hasn’t prepared her for the life she is going to lead. The age of miracles is long gone but it is for miracles that she pines—and what she learns from books turns her head. Like Cervantes in that great European classic Don Quixote, Flaubert in Madame Bovary shows us there is no such thing as ‘pure’ imagination; the imagination is always the plaything, for better or worse, of a collective game. And sometimes nature imitates art; for a novel never simply presents, it represents. In both novels, as Jean Starobinski observes, the novelistic imagination takes as its theme the ravages of an imagination corrupted by its very receptivity to novels: we have to read simultaneously on two different levels [17, p. 228]. Emma is aroused only if her imagination works on her, and tells her what she is doing is part of her great ideal of self-sacriﬁcing love. She wants to feel, but it is precisely that element of volition that falsiﬁes her feelings. So she has her ﬁrst giddy love affair with the young boarder Léon and then a second one, more desperate, with the Paris fop, Rodolphe, who rapidly treats her “like any other mistress.” She becomes sexually aggressive and loses her idealism, returning to her ﬁrst love Léon, who is taken aback by her desperation: she is now what used to be called a ‘fallen woman.’ She is the only high-stakes gambler amongst calculating rationalists and prudentialists. Conﬁned to her room with the symptoms of sexual cloistering her maid tells her of a woman she knew with similar symptoms which had ceased on her marriage.
“Mine,” replies Emma, “didn’t come on until I got married.” It would take a blind man not to recognise that Emma Bovary is patently the ﬁrst ‘desperate housewife’—taking her cue from books and magazines, caring for her possessions more than her child, looking for solace in the arms of a lover.
2.2 The Historical Background
To understand these questions we have to return to the nineteenth-century, and breathe the slightly stuffy atmosphere of the French Second Empire, which in many respects was not overly different from the Victorian era. One of the deﬁning events of the nineteenth-century is the success of the novel itself, which had gone from being a picaresque, fantastic and often droll adventure of objects as well as persons to a genre which seemed to reﬂect modern conditions and dilemmas far more faithfully than any other art-form: it was not slow in ﬁnding a widespread and dedicated readership, especially among female readers.8 But where Diderot had defended the novel in his article ‘In Praise of Richardson,’9 [7, p. 1059] as being the broad road to moral elevation precisely because it appealed not only to arguments of reason but to the imagination, it had, barely over half a century later, become suspect—and precisely on those grounds. Charles Dickens’ tenth novel Hard Times (1854), whose publication history is contemporaneous with that of Madame Bovary, opens with Thomas Gradgrind’s booming defence of ‘Facts,’ which alone deserve to be taught.
“Teach these boys and girls nothing but Facts. Facts alone are wanted in life. Plant nothing else, and root out everything else. You can only form the minds of reasoning animals upon Facts: nothing else will ever be of any service to them. This is the principle on which I bring up my own children, and this is the principle on which I bring up these children. Stick to Facts, sir!” [6, p. 1].
Physicians were quick to denounce novels as one of the major causes of hysteria, and a contributory factor to the calls for emancipation that rippled through the social order. Emma’s own problems in the novel were attributed to her avid reading of sentimental novels, and her mother-in-law describes the booksellers where she acquires them as “poisoners.” Just after its appearance in book form, Madame Bovary was described by the literary critic Gustave Vapereau in an annual review of new novels as “the history of a young woman in whom a convent education and the reading of popular novels have developed her taste for luxury and pleasure and her instincts out of proportion with her birth and the position in society to which she can rightfully aspire” [19, p.48, cited in 5, p. 141]. Emma’s behaviour in the novel was a threat to the social order. Female desire was subversive. The fact that she took pleasure in the act of adultery was the mark of a grossly ungoverned sensualism: she was neglecting her duties as a mother and spouse. She was lascivious and the novel consummated “the shipwreck of art and that of morality.” Flaubert was accused of writing ‘brutal literature’10 whose truths were all physiological, and which showed no understanding of the “psychology of intellectual and voluntary forces that It is not without interest that the ﬁrst two translations of Madame Bovary into English were by women: the ﬁrst (unpublished) was made by the English governess of Flaubert’s niece Caroline, Juliet Herbert, and the second (published, in 1886) by Karl Marx’s daughter Eleanor, who was herself to die, like Emma, of self-poisoning. As discussed by Julian Barnes in his long essay-review, Madame Bovary is the most retranslated novel in English, appearing most recently in a reworked version by the American novelist Lydia Davis (2010) of which Barnes is not uncritical .
Diderot’s important essay ‘Eloge de Richardson’ ﬁrst appeared in Journal étranger, 1762.
The title of Jean-Jacques Weiss’s contemporary review [20, p. 1].
2 Literature and Ethics: Learning to Read with Emma Bovary 13 sustain the good ﬁght against the shock of sensation, and check the assaults of desire” [4, p. 191].