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POINT OF VIEW
The opening pages of Madame Bovary are told from the point of view of one of Charles Bovary's schoolmates in the first person plural ("we"). This "character" disappears midway through the first chapter and the rest of the story is written from the point of view of an omniscient third-person narrator.
Flaubert's aim was to make himself (the writer) disappear from his work, to become, as he said, like "God," who creates but whose creation stands apart without direct evidence of the creator. He also wanted to resemble a scientist who presents his evidence (his characters and their surroundings) in a precise, objective manner-to create an appearance of reality. One of the techniques that Flaubert uses to create the impression of objective reality is the style indirect libre (free, indirect style), indirect narrative that makes the narrator seem "absent." For example, instead of saying, "Emma wanted some fruit" or "Emma thought some fruit would be nice," the writer merely says, "Some fruit will be nice." By dropping the real subject of the sentence, Emma, it is implied in an indirect way that the idea of eating fruit originated with Emma, and that her direct thoughts are being expressed.
This intermittent use of "absent" narration creates an illusion of objectivity and detachment by pushing the character into the foreground as the narrator recedes into the background. At the same time, it allows an intense close-up focus on the characters and especially on Emma, who is the chief object of the narrative. You will learn about her actions through the traditional third-person approach, but you will also be able better to read her thoughts, feel her feelings, and catch her reactions as a result of the indirect style. Although the focus occasionally shifts to Charles, Leon, Rodolphe or others, Emma's presence remains central.
Despite Flaubert's attempt to distance himself from his characters objectively, his involvement with Emma seems so deep that many readers see her as a "self-portrait" of the author. They say that is why, when asked who Emma was based on, Flaubert usually replied "Madame Bovary, c'est moi!" (I am Madame Bovary!).
FORM AND STRUCTURE
Madame Bovary is divided into three sections, each exploring a crucial part of Emma Bovary's life and her three attempts to find romantic fulfillment in three different but neighboring locales.
Part One introduces you to Charles and Emma and describes their early married life in Tostes. Charles is the focus of the first few chapters, and it is through his eyes that Emma is first described. Her past is then revealed (by contrasting her convent experiences with Charles' life in medical school). Emma's hopes that Charles will be the romantic fulfillment of her convent dreams are disappointed. The two contrasting focal events of Part One are the low-class wedding and the aristocratic ball at the chateau of La Vaubyessard. The ball gives Emma a real taste of the life-style about which she has only dreamed and tempts her to look outside her marriage for happiness.
Part Two details the life of the couple in the dull town of Yonville as Emma embarks on her second attempt to find the romance of her dreams and escape the dreariness of marriage. Flaubert introduces the backdrop of middle-class small-town society against which Emma's story will be played. The agricultural show-with its counterpoint between Emma and Rodolphe's romantic conversation and the mundane details of rural life-is the focal event of this section. Emma's romantic hopes are again frustrated, this time by Rodolphe's eventual rejection. Part Two closes with the introduction of a third and new hope for the future; Emma and Leon (with whom she had been infatuated on first arriving in Yonville) meet again in Rouen.
Part Three centers on Emma's increasing desperation and her love affair with Leon, which is carried on primarily in Rouen. Emma's total rejection of her married life and any notion of respectability leads to her own and her family's ruin. The final rejection of her romantic hopes, in an ugly scene of death by poisoning, contrasts pointedly with the description, early in Part Three, of Emma and Leon's meeting in the Rouen Cathedral. The two focal points of this section are Emma's flights into Rouen for romance and her steady decline into debt through her irresponsible financial dealings with the unscrupulous merchant Lheureux. Madame Bovary closes, as it had opened, with Charles, first with his hopes and last with his despair and death.
In this three-part structure, centered on Emma's repeated attempts to find in reality the fulfillment of her chronic, romantic dreaming, the action is less concerned with the chronological advancement of events than with presenting each part as an "act" complete with its own setting and set of relationships. Within these acts are a succession of scenes, many of which reverberate against one another like the themes in a piece of music. And, across the scenes are repeated images and symbols, as well as the technique of "double action" that creates a counterpoint of parallel, contrasting actions within the same scene.
Almost every page of Madame Bovary contains something-a word, description, action, memory, piece of clothing, or object-that relates it to another part of the book. The scenes at Emma's wedding are meant to be compared to the ball at La Vaubyessard. The seduction of Emma by Rodolphe parallels her seduction by Leon. The agricultural fair and the Bovarys' arrival at the Lion d'Or inn both contain strands of contrasting conversations and situations that act as counterpoint in the general orchestration of the scene. The charred black paper "butterflies" that float from Emma's burning wedding bouquet are recalled later on by the white paper "butterflies" that Emma lets fly from the carriage during the ride when she gives herself to Leon.
Some readers compare Madame Bovary to the carefully constructed edifice of an architect or engineer; some compare it to a painting; others see it as a symphony, and still others think it resembles a play. Whichever analogy you think most appropriate, you will find it hard to ignore the way almost all the elements of the novel fit together. You may find that Flaubert's attention to structure and detail detracts from the story and makes it move too slowly. You may think everything a bit too controlled to fully convey the passion and reality of the characters. You may feel that the devotion to accurate description creates monotony. But you cannot fail to admire the way Flaubert has put together the pieces of an entire society over a span of almost twenty years and at the same time painted a complex inner portrait of an unforgettable woman.
Compared with other nineteenth-century novels, Madame Bovary contains relatively little action. A good deal of the activity takes place in the minds of the characters. As you read, note the way Flaubert shifts back and forth between external reality (what the characters do and say) and internal reality (their memories and dreams). The dreams are, in fact, an important part of the "action" in the book.