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«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 ...»

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2 Literature and Ethics: Learning to Read with Emma Bovary 17 about mutual solitude within the marriage: she cannot console her husband because he is incapable of expressing his own feelings, unable to declare himself to her. And he has no inkling of her inner life either. Each talks past the other. And another famous little phrase—“everything and herself had become unbearable”—points, as Julian Barnes remarks, in its simple but unidiomatic deployment of the conjunction, to the deed that will ultimately dislocate Emma’s self from the world entirely [1, p. 10]. Flaubert is appealing to us to respond to a sign not apparent in the usual envelope of symbolic experience. No wonder he once told Louise Colet in a letter that “it is possible to put an immense love in the story of a blade of grass”18 [11, p. 558].

2.4 Conclusion: The Ethics of Reading

This restitution of felt experience, the illusion of things being present in their immediacy requires great artistry, is what he called “the alchemy of style.” To be an artist was to adopt a professional ethics that requires the artist to turn away from easy options, to develop a taste for a thing well done, to work without a thought for gain or glory, and to learn a kind of patience—“talent is a long patience,” as the famous French naturalist Comte de Buffon had said in the previous century. Needless to say, all these characteristics were Flaubertian traits: he was famous for his perfectionism and tirelessness in his pursuit of the right word (“le mot juste”), telling Louise Colet that he had once spent a week trying to finish a single page. It was as if the responsibility towards the work in progress outweighed any other kind of moral or social task. While this purist attitude towards what he was writing might suggest a writer willingly removed from the cares of the world (Flaubert was not above portraying himself as an ivory-tower recluse), his work was no apology for an art-for-art’s sake aesthetic, or for an indifference to worldly concerns. Literature was about discovery, as much as it was about the recognition of experience.

And if that is an accurate depiction of Flaubert’s writing, the corollary of his ethics of writing is an exacting ethics of reading. After all, that is precisely what besets Emma: she discovers that the commonplace activity of reading—an act universally regarded as a mere means for passing the time or assimilating information—may save or damn you, depending on how you read. To assume, like the later French novelist Emile Zola—who took Flaubert’s ‘natural history’ thesis to the point of dissociating judgements of fact entirely from those of value—that characters are not responsible for their actions, being subject to the determinism of physical laws, is itself to adopt a moral stance, not just an experimenter’s ‘point of view’: Flaubert on the other hand still has a creator’s residual sympathy for his fallen creatures, and concern has its limits. He is just as finite and fallible as Emma, a guilty agent in the midst of his own creation. “Rabelais, Michelangelo, Shakespeare and Goethe,” he wrote in a letter while composing his novel, “seem to me pitiless… They are bottomless, infinite, manifold. Through small apertures we glimpse abysses whose Letter to Louise Colet, 22 April 1854 (my translation).

18 I. Bamforth sombre depths turn us faint. And yet over the whole there hovers an extraordinary tenderness. It is like the brilliance of light, the smile of the sun; and it is calm, calm and strong”19 [12, p. 198]. While literary historians now doubt whether Flaubert ever uttered the famous phrase “Madame Bovary, c’est moi,” we could certainly all say “Madame Bovary, c’est nous”: Emma Bovary is the first literary character of our contemporary consumer culture, spending her way out of disillusion until she falls into the hands of the shady debt-collector M. Lheureux, who, as Allan Bloom points out, is “the nineteenth-century prefiguration of the Visa card” [2, p. 224]. Emma has discovered that “all the platitudes of marriage” exist in adultery, for it has been an assuagement too, one of the paraphernalia she has acquired on credit. But her ability to defer dissolution until the bitter end by assigning a quasi-novelistic significance to her actions, and to persons she favours, by dint of consumer goods, makes her the first literary character of our contemporary consumer society. After all, she commits suicide only when the money finally runs out.

When a final judgement has been suspended, when it is no longer possible to be prescriptive in a work of art, then the reader is compelled to face a text that offers no

code for its deciphering other than a respect for internal structure and inner necessity:

what Flaubert in a letter of 1869 to George Sand called “la poétique insciente”—a manner of seeing internal to the text itself (which might well escape the conscious intentions of its author, even as Flaubert’s other unsuccessful novel Salammbô, set in historical Carthage, never conformed to his plan for it). Against the illusion of an objective realism, Flaubert sets what might be called ‘subjective realism’ [8, p. 53].

The Peruvian novelist Maria Vargas Llosa has memorably described Flaubert’s style as always “employed to give an account of intimate facts (memories, feelings, sensations, ideas) from the inside, that is to say, to bring the reader and the character as close to each other as possible… By relativising the point of view, the style indirect libre finds a way into the character’s innermost depths, little by little approaching his consciousness, drawing closer and closer as the intermediary—the omniscient narrator—appears to vanish in thin air”20 [18, p. 18]. This movement into the recesses of his characters implies not merely perceiving consciousness before it expresses itself in the doings of a novel; it also applies to the narrative itself. Flaubert was also arguing for a radical autonomy centred on the work itself. He might not yet have got wind of any concept as absurd as the death of the author, but he had certainly intuited the birth of the reader.21 The ethics of reading requires the reader to assume the full privilege of his freedom and face up to the demands it imposes upon him. The text “constrains [him] to think, requires him to put in work,” he told his disciple Guy de Maupassant in one of Letter to Louise Colet, 26 August 1853.

The quote is from Mario Vargas Llosa’s The Perpetual Orgy (La orgia perpetua: Flaubert y Madame Bovary), first published in 1975 and published in English (translator Helen Lane) in 1986.

A notion which the Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges (1899–1986) somewhat impishly took to a logical extreme: if the public process of becoming a writer is increasingly absorbed by rites of expressiveness, celebrity cults and the imperious demands of the market (defined above as ‘idolatry’), then reading is actually the more radical activity. Good readers are more rare than good authors.

2 Literature and Ethics: Learning to Read with Emma Bovary 19 his last letters [11, p. 840]. It would be entirely a mistake to assume that the morality inherent in the work itself is a lesson to be learned, a list of catechisms, an account settled, or indeed any kind of certitude extricable from the substance of the novel itself. Flaubert detested the urge to wrap things up, to move towards ‘closure’ in today’s psychological language: “stupidity lies in wanting to draw conclusions” [12, p. 128]. He is much more likely to leave the reader in an uncomfortable state of perplexity and indeterminacy, marked by the difficulty of inferring any kind of final state. The moral of his art is not to hand out prizes and punishments, but to teach readers not to be moralising. That was the original thrust of Christ’s teaching too. What it seeks to do is to transform the reader by the adventure of reading, and show the reader how it relates to his or her own experience of life. And this is a liberating strategy: as the sociologist Pierre Bourdieu pointed out in a discussion of Flaubert’s work, it would be a further mistake to assume that this autonomy of the novel demands that its texts be read solely from a literary standpoint. After Madame Bovary, the future was open.


1. Barnes, Julian. 2010. Writer’s writer and writer’s writer’s writer. London Review of Books 32(22): 7–11. http://www.lrb.co.uk. Accessed March 2014.

2. Bloom, Allan David. 1993. Love and friendship. New York: Simon & Schuster.

3. Bouveresse, Jacques. 2008. La connaissance de l’écrivain: Sur la littérature, la vérité et la vie.

Marseille: Agone.

4. Brunetière, Ferdinand. 1896. Le roman naturaliste. Paris: Calmann-Lévy.

5. Darmon, Jean-Charles, and Philippe Desan. 2009. Pensée morale et genres littéraires. Paris:


6. Dickens, Charles. 1854. Hard times. London: Bradbury and Evans.

7. Diderot, Denis. 1951. Oeuvres, ed. André Billy. Paris: Gallimard.

8. Dufour, Philippe. 2009. Flaubert lecteur: une histoire des écritures. Flaubert, revue critique et génétique 2: 53. http://flaubert.revues.org/873. Accessed March 2014.

9. Eliot, George. 1871. Middlemarch: A study of provincial life. Edinburgh: Blackwood.

10. Flaubert, Gustave. 1999. Madame Bovary: Mœurs de province. Paris: Le livre de poche (Orig.

Pub. 1857.).

11. Flaubert, Gustave. 1980. Correspondance, vol. II. Paris: Gallimard.

12. Flaubert, Gustave, and Francis Steegmuller. 1981. The letters of Gustave Flaubert. London:

Faber and Faber.

13. Nettement, Alfred. 1864. Gustave Flaubert, Le roman contemporain, ses vicissitudes, des divers aspects, son influence. Paris: Jacques Lecoffre.

14. Nussbaum, Martha C. 1990. Love’s knowledge: Essays on philosophy and literature. New York:

Oxford University Press.

15. Proust, Marcel. 1954. A la recherche du temps perdu, tome III: Le temps retrouvé. Paris:

Gallimard (Orig. pub. 1927.).

16. Sarfati, Georges-Elia. 1985. Ethique et écriture. N° 13. Paris: Cahier de l’Archipel.

17. Starobinksi, Jean. 1970. La relation critique. Paris: Gallimard.

18. Tóibín, Colm. 2012. A man of no mind. London Review of Books 34(17): 15–16. http://www.

lrb.co.uk. Accessed March 2014.

19. Vapereau, Gustave. 1859. L’année littéraire et dramatique. Paris: Hachette.

20. Weiss, Jean-Jacques. 1858. La littérature brutale. Paris: Revue contemporaine.

21. Wood, James. 2008. How fiction works. New York: Straus and Giroux.


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