From Ruth Gruenthal: Emma Bovary, Bourgeois Heroine

Flaubert has been widely quoted as having quipped “Emma Bovary c’est moi” in response to the repeated query, “Emma Bovary c’est qui ?

It’s a quip that has contributed to a significant tendency in the extensive Madame Bovary literature, leading commentators to explore the novel along autobiographical lines or give it a psychobiographical reading.

Italian novelist, journalist and feminist Darcia Maraini’s Searching for Emma (1988) lauds Flaubert for his open acknowledgment of autobiographical themes inherent in Madame Bovary. Highlighting what she sees as his relentlessly contemptuous portrayal of Emma, she argues that Flaubert is giving direct expression to, if not venting, his feelings about Louise Colet – an aspiring poet and novelist who was Flaubert’s partner in a frequently turbulent eight-year affair that was adulterous on her side – as well as his more general problems with women and his self-hatred. Flaubert’s creation of Emma as an iconic female literary figure is, according to Maraini, more accident than intention.

What is known about Flaubert’s life circumstances -- and what he reveals about his “inner” life in his voluminous correspondence -- provides fertile ground for readings of Madame Bovary along auto- and psychobiographical lines. It has also served to inform a variety of interpretations of just what Flaubert had in mind with “Emma Bovary c’est moi.”

What has remained largely unquestioned, though, is that Flaubert actually made this remark. Biographer Frederick Brown (2006) does sound a note of skepticism when he speaks of Flaubert’s “alleged” quip. In Gustave Flaubert: Une manière spéciale de vivre (2009), contemporary Flaubert scholar Pierre-Marc de Biasi finds no evidence that Flaubert ever said, “La Bovary c’est moi.” It began as hearsay, de Biasi writes, and became unquestioned “fact” only when it served the interests of those who argued a view of Madame Bovary as a “sophisticated form of autobiography.”

An autobiographical reading stands in sharp contradiction to Flaubert’s stated objective, in Madame Bovary, to create a work in which expressions of what is personal to the author remain eclipsed. About a year into his work on Bovary, he writes to Colet, his Muse:

I don’t believe that you have any idea what kind of a book this one is. I am trying to be as buttoned-up in it as I was unbuttoned in the others, and to follow a geometrically straight line. No lyricism, no reflections, the personality of the author, absent.

He adds, ”nothing is feebler than to put one’s personal feelings into art. Follow this axiom step by step, and line by line.” Later, he writes to Colet, “I don’t want to consider art as a catch basin of passion, like a chamber pot… No! No! Poetry should not just be the frothing of the heart. That would be neither serious nor good.”

“The work [should be] everything and the man [should be] nothing.” De Biasi suggests; “the best present posterity could give him would be to know nothing about his life circumstances and to read his writings as though he never existed.”

In calling for the author’s personality to be absent, what Flaubert had in mind was that the work should be impersonal, that is, it should not serve to express the writer’s own sentiments or his moral judgments, nor should he use his work to teach moral lessons or to substantiate social or political conditions or any material reality.

Yet Flaubert would acknowledge that he “borrows elements from his own life circumstances and experience to write,” as indeed all writers do.

The real question is to know what the writing makes of these borrowings. "Emma Bovary c’est moi" stands in the way of posing that question” (De Biasi)

Flaubert considered what he borrowed from his personal life for Bovary no different from his use of what he learned from his first-hand study of Normandy country fairs, impressions he gathered at his sister’s and his very closest friend’s funerals, from readings of medical, pharmaceutical and surgical texts, and from data he collected about the experience and fate of adulterous women. In a letter to Alfred LePoittevin (1845), he gives a gleeful account of the skills he deployed in interviewing Louise Pradier, a woman notorious for her adulterous relations, just after her husband, sculptor James Pradier, caught her in flagrante delicto:

Ah, what a great study I made there! All of this should be painted, chiseled, narrated in detail.

It was just this painting, chiseling and narrating in detail that went into the slow and often laborious process Flaubert considered key in transforming what he borrowed, be it from the personal or from research, so that it would serve to enhance his story-line and fit in organically with the overall organization of the work. In yet another letter to Colet he complains about the challenges involved:

How quickly the work goes if I write something from my guts,but here is the danger. When one writes something about oneself, the phrases come easily and can be good in spurts, but there is a lack of overall organization, an abundance of repetition, there are commonplace settings, banal expressions…. When, on the contrary, one writes something imagined, then everything must flow from the overall conception, and then the placement of every little comma rests on that overall plan....

Our joys, like our sorrows, must become absorbed into our work. One cannot spot the drops of water within the clouds, in the rosy tint the sun has cast on them! Evaporate earthly rain, tears of days gone by and take form in the sky as gigantic curls, all suffused by the sun.

De Biasi offers a helpful summation of Flaubert’s vision of the processes by which personal joys and sorrows become absorbed into the work:

As what is autobiographical progressively finds its "literary" place within the story, it may lose nothing of the emotional charge it continues to carry for the author. It’s still he, but not quite. Memory is not exorcised, but under the pressure of the demands of the story line, it sheds all visible signs of its autobiographical origin; metamorphosed by writing, what was lived experience gains increasing distance from the particular context that once lent that experience or event its original intensity and identity. It thus progressively loses its original coloration, causes and effects, until it makes sense only in the context of the fictional world to which it has come to belong.

Working in this way involved Flaubert in self-analysis, De Biasi argues, of a kind that cannot be achieved in a day. It took him years of effort to eradicate direct manifestations of himself and his subjectivity from his work. This process required an extraordinary measure of constant attention and stylistic vigilance.

What Flaubert sought was the creation of an internally coherent, imagined or fictional world that carries a compelling psychological and material reality of its own. It is in this sense that we need to understand Flaubert’s declaration:

There is nothing true in Madame Bovary. It’s a tale that is totally invented. I have included nothing either of my sentiments or of my existence. On the contrary, the illusion (if there is one) comes from the very impersonality of the work. It is one of my principles that one must not write about oneself (literally translated, write oneself, “qu’il ne faut pas s’écrire”). The artist should be like God in creation, invisible and all-powerful; so that one can feel him everywhere, but see him not at all.

What resonates in the guiding principles Flaubert developed for Madame Bovary is the devastating critique he had received forthe major project that preceded Bovary: Temptation of Saint Anthony.

His friends and literary sounding-boards Maxime Du Camp and Louis Bouilhet had told him to “burn this book.” The unusual speed with which he had completed this very long work had made for poor writing; his romanticist subject matter had fostered his worst tendencies as a writer, to be diffuse and to indulge in lyrical excesses; leaving his characters without a personality of their own, he filled them with his; and finally, “to anyone who knows [him], parts of the book were embarrassingly autobiographical, not art but confession “ (quoted in Steegmuller 1933, 1966).

Soon after this blow, Flaubert and Du Camp left on a long-planned trip through what was then called the Orient. In letters written during this journey, Flaubert expressed doubts about himself as a writer and uncertainty as to whether he would ever come up with another idea for a novel. But he also spoke of a gradual recovery. As he wrote to Bouilhet,

I have recovered (not without difficulty) from the terrible blow of Saint Antoine. I do not say that I am not still occasionally giddy when I think of it, but at least I am no longer sick about it, as I was during the first four months of this journey…. Now and then I have great waves of literary ambition.

A few months later, he tells his mother:

Something new is preparing itself within me—a second manner perhaps? Before long I shall have to give birth. I must know what I am capable of producing. Will I be able to find again, for another work, all the energy that I put---so mistakenly---into Saint Antoine?

His biographers offer somewhat different versions of what went into Flaubert’s “giving birth” to Madame Bovary. As Steegmuller tells it, Flaubert continued on his return home to Croisset to suffer doubts not only about whether he could find the energy to invest in another book, but also about what to choose as subject matter of his new book and what story to tell. In conversations with Bouilhet, he “lamented his uncertainty, and described the terror which had come over him at the sight of his writing desk.” For Steegmuller, it was Bouilhet, whom Flaubert had come to consider his personal and literary alter-ego, who helped break this impasse by persuading Flaubert to choose the Normandy provincial life he knew so well as his subject matter – and, further, to use the real life story of the marriage of Madame Delamare, a simple village girl and her utterly devoted husband, a health officer in a small Normandy town, as a model for his narrative.

A highly resistant Flaubert was finally swayed by Bouilhet’s argument, that by turning to realism, in his own unique way, he would not just be shadowing Balzac but would make a distinctive contribution, that “might be the thunderclap with which Flaubert had always sworn he would appear.” Among Flaubert’s vigorous objections was the idea that he, a self-identified “bourgeoisophobe” would have to spend several years “living with such ordinary people as the Delamares, who represented all he detested as bourgeois. I should add that, bourgeois referred not to a social class for Flaubert but to a social type marked by psychological flaws that find expression in behaviour, values, ambitions and dreams he considered banal, clichéd, hypocritical and philistine.

Brown and de Biasi, however, see the Delamare story as only one of the stories Flaubert drew on for his narrative. They argue that he also borrowed from his personal experience with Colet and other adulterous women. Most importantly, they suggest that Flaubert was highly receptive to the idea of writing about the theme of a conventional woman carried away by her passions and dreams into adultery, only to come to a tragic end. They underscore that this very theme had served to inspire his writings as far back as early adolescence, and they note that the story he tells in Passion and Virtue, A Philosophical Tale (1837), published when he was just short of 16, already prefigures, in quite specific detail, the narrative line he develops in Madame Bovary.

Thus, in this work Flaubert revisits and reworks his romanticist literary past in the light of the “second manner,” which, as he wrote to his mother, he had felt to be preparing itself in him as he was struggling with his failed Saint Antoine. An important feature that marked this “second manner” was his impersonal, even ruthless, use of his own most intimate experiences and memories, his observations of family, friends, mistresses and acquaintances, and his knowledge their private lives as raw material for his writings. This raw material served to construct and enrich his characters and to give life and compelling reality to the fictional world he constructs in Bovary. As de Biasi underscores, for this Flaubert, “the cause of art has come to rank above any moral prohibitions, sense of discretion or shame.” Flaubert was also serving this cause by inhabiting all he detested as bourgeois, even as he elevated it to an impersonal level.

Despite Flaubert’s stated principle that the author must be invisible, like God in creation, his presence can be felt everywhere in Madame Bovary through the ironic or tragic-comic notes that punctuate the prose-poetry style that defines this work. Flaubert not only directs these ironic notes at his characters but also at his readers and himself, specifically at what they each hold as bourgeois romanticist dreams. While at work on the scene of Emma and Léon’s first amorous encounter, he writes to Colet:

I am in the process of depicting a conversation between a young man and a young woman about literature, the sea, the mountains and music, in short, about all the poetic subjects. One could take it [the depiction] as seriously meant, or as largely intended to be ludicrous. I think this will be the first time, that one sees a book that makes fun of its young leading man and its young leading lady. The irony detracts nothing from the pathos; on the contrary, it heightens it. In part III, which will be full of things farcical, I want everyone to cry.

There is good reason to see Flaubert’s irony as an expression of a personal existential stance. However, in Madame Bovary, his highly disciplined use of these ironies renders them an intrinsic aspect of the “magic of style” (Steegmuller) he uses to transform all he takes from the personal, from observation and study in creating a work of art that has its own centre of gravity.


© Ruth Guenthal 2011

A psychotherapist and psychoanalyst in private practice New York City, Ruth Gruenthal has also been a long-time participant in a course on creative writing in French. Her essay on Madame Bovary was originally written for a seminar on creativity,

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