Madame Bovary – Gustave Flaubert

[I’m reading the novel in five sections, and so far I’ve read four of these. I write about each section before reading the next, so I never know what is going to happen next.]

31 December 2016
Part 1
I first read this novel a long time ago, and all I really remember, in the most general terms, is the arc of the story. With regard to Emma Bovary, I know how it ends…. And that’s about all. The other things that I know, along with anybody else who is vaguely aware of its fame, is its status as one of the first supposedly ‘realistic’ novels, and that Flaubert is regarded as a self-conscious stylist. It’s the second of these that has struck me most forcibly while reading Part 1. So far, I’ve been thinking far more about Gustave Flaubert and what he’s up to than I have about, say, poor Charles Bovary. How could I not when he chooses to open Chapter 1, which offers a ten-page résumé of the life of the hapless doctor up to his first marriage, with a three-page description of his first day as a late entrant at secondary school? We know nothing about the shy, oafish new boy whose name, blurted out in the most mortifying of circumstances, sounds enough like ‘Charivari’ for the boys to hoot with laughter and chant it in delight.

As a schoolboy, he’s a plodder. Flaubert offers nothing to make us sympathise with his plight, presenting descriptions as though made by a sceptical observer: ‘We were in class when the headmaster came in, followed by un nouveau….’ This ‘we’, that the narrator keeps up for several paragraphs, made me start to guess what other games Flaubert might be about to play with the narrative form. (It only appears in one other novel that I’ve read recently, Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, in which the narrator describes certain public scenes in ‘our’ town as though he is a local inhabitant.) All of the rest of Chapter 1 could be told by a local person who has asked a few pertinent questions. After the young Charles’s inauspicious start at school we get the story of how his parents met, equally unpromisingly, followed by his childhood. Flaubert mentions that the infant ‘had to be sent out to a wet-nurse’ before describing how spoilt he is as he grows up – so we are not at all surprised, eventually, by his near-failure as a medical student. It’s as though he doesn’t have the imagination to realise that if he doesn’t work, he is bound to fail, and he only eventually qualifies after his mother has funded five more years of study.

There are few, if any, insights offered into his inner life, or those of any of the characters. We are always kept at a distance from Charles, his parents and the widow he eventually marries…. It’s as though whatever inner lives these people might have isn’t really of interest. If it feels like a trick – and it does, a little – I think I’m ok with it. During these early chapters I wondered whether Flaubert was going to continue to offer only these highly limited insights. By the end of Chapter 1, for instance, we only know that his new wife ‘complained endlessly about her nerves’ and was ‘demanding… a little more love,’ but that’s about as much as we get. Any local gossip would know as much after a chat with the maid. Does it seem a little perfunctory? Would the novel’s first readers have found it so, not knowing that ‘la jeune Madame Bovary’ as Flaubert calls her – rather ironically, considering her age – is not the eponymous heroine of the novel?

Whatever, by the first line of Chapter 2, we’re off and away into the next stage of Charles’s life, and of Flaubert’s project. In that way he has, Charles takes his time getting to the farm six leagues away, is lucky that the leg fracture he’s called out to set is a simple one… and is not particularly quick to notice the seemingly well-to-do farmer’s attractive daughter. But Flaubert makes sure we notice her, by mentioning the colour of her eyes, the fullness of her lips, the whiteness of her nails that surprise even the obtuse Charles. Do we know where Flaubert is going with this? It isn’t hard to guess, as Charles finds himself visiting the farm more often than he needs to… and so on, until his wife begins to suspect something and makes him promise to stop. So far, so conventional…. So what’s a stylish author to do? How about having an unexpected seizure kill off the wife? Soon after, Charles finds himself in ‘lost in a painful reverie. She had loved him, after all.’ It’s the lament of the unimaginative, self-centred man, and it’s how Chapter 2 ends.

How long does it take for the inevitable to run its course, for Charles to realise that the farmer’s attractive daughter could well become his second wife – and for the farmer, highly relieved, to confirm to his own satisfaction that Charles really won’t be expecting much in the way of a dowry? In fact it takes exactly one chapter, and just one more for the lavish but highly conventional provincial-style wedding. Emma had ‘longed to be married at midnight,’ a romantic notion her father has no time for, and this disappointment turns out to be the first of many for the new bride. In his unprepossessing house in Tostes she tries, at first, to pretend that all is well, desperate to convince herself that what she feels for Charles is the love she had always imagined. But it doesn’t take long – Flaubert only hints at the passage of time, but it’s a few weeks at most – for her to be having very dark thoughts. The final paragraph of Chapter 5 isn’t hopeful: ‘Before marriage she thought herself in love; but the happiness that should have followed this love not having come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words felicity, passion, rapture, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.’

We’ve come a long way from the somewhat grudging indications of the characters’ states of mind that we were getting earlier. Flaubert wants us to understand exactly what has led Emma into her fatal error, and a lot of it is to do with those ‘books.’ (How far back does it go, the trope of the young woman made silly by the books she reads? In Northanger Abbey half a century earlier, Jane Austen had turned her main character’s predilection for Gothic novels into comedy. Madame Bovary isn’t like that.) Flaubert explains how someone who has read only romantic fiction might get the wrong idea about what love might be. Chapter 6 opens with the names of romances we might never have heard of, but we get the idea: ‘She had read Paul and Virginia, and she had dreamed of the little bamboo-house….’ In the sort of flashback we’ve become familiar with now, Flaubert gives us the sorry tale of her reading history, encouraged by the ‘vieille fille’ at the convent who is never without some trashy romance in her apron pocket.

It doesn’t do Emma any good at all. Sent to the convent by parents who didn’t know what else to do with their clever daughter, her only models are the heroines whose impossible lovers she expects to meet. Her mother’s death gives her the opportunity to try out her new-found emotional repertoire. Her studied show of grief worries her father, and she is ‘secretly pleased that she had reached at a first attempt the rare ideal of pale lives.’ But the grief hardly seems real. Soon she ‘wearied of it, would not confess it, continued from habit, and at last was surprised to feel herself soothed….’ That’s our Emma. We’re learning how her mind works, looking outwards for guidance as to how to feel.

And despite what, by now, the reader knows to be her real feelings about Bovary – he isn’t ticking any of the romantic hero boxes – she persists in the fantasy for a little longer. ‘She thought, sometimes, that, after all, this was the happiest time of her life – the honeymoon, as people called it. To taste the full sweetness of it, it would have been necessary doubtless to fly to those lands with sonorous names where the days after marriage are full of laziness most suave. In post chaises behind blue silken curtains to ride slowly up steep roads, listening to the song of the postilion re-echoed by the mountains.’ All she lacks, she persuades herself, are the trappings.

In truth, her prospects for happiness are slim, in this backwater where Rouen is seen as the pinnacle of sophistication…. Then Flaubert adds something new to the mix. The Bovarys are invited – but only because Charles is an elector and has a useful vote to cast on the host’s behalf – to an aristocratic weekend. It turns Emma’s head completely. With Bovary yawning on the sidelines – he has no idea how boring she finds his complaint of having stood for five hours following her veto of any idea he might have of dancing – she re-lives what she thinks is the triumph of her own performance in the ballroom. There is, inevitably, a ‘Viscount’, and he features in her thoughts for days, weeks, and months afterwards. Flaubert lets us make up our own minds about what the Viscount’s thoughts might be – and it comes as no surprise that there is never any further contact. The anniversary of the great event, with no further elections on the horizon, comes and goes with no repeat invitation.

We’re approaching the end of Part 1, and a crisis for Emma. ‘Would this misery go on forever? Was there no escape? And yet she was every bit as good as all those other women who led happy lives!’ Always that habit of looking out, looking beyond the here and now, back to that one moment when she caught a glimpse of glamour. ‘She cursed God for his injustice’ and makes herself ill. Charles, as obtuse as ever, decides that the blame must lie with the town, with Tostes. He decides to move to a bigger town where the doctor has recently died. (This is his second post, and the second time he has filled a dead man’s shoes. Just saying.)

Before they leave, Emma finds her wedding bouquet when a wire in it pricks her finger and draws blood. She looks at it for a moment, and Flaubert chooses not to let us inside her thoughts. Instead we get this: ‘She threw it into the fire. It flared up more quickly than dry straw. Then it was, like a red bush in the cinders, slowly devoured. She watched it burn.’ And, as though that isn’t a striking enough image to bring Part 1 to an end, when they leave in March – two years must have passed by now – ‘Madame Bovary was pregnant.’ Has she told anybody? Does she even know? Whatever, it is no better an omen than the burning wedding bouquet.

8 January 2017
Part 2, Chapters 1-7
This point, not quite half-way through Part 2, feels like the end of the phoney war and, maybe, the beginning of something else. Not that it’s really been a war, of course, phoney or otherwise. What Emma does, pushed along by a young man in the town who is a clueless as she is about the realities of adultery, is play with the idea of being unfaithful to Charles. Among other things, she mistakes her boredom with him for love of the young notary who, like her, has nothing better to do with his time. It leads, for some months, to situations where each of them is waiting, increasingly desperately, for a sign from the other that never comes. (The editor of my Oxford edition suggests in a footnote that Flaubert originally planned for the affair to be consummated, but changed his mind. Good call.) It makes Emma ill, and precipitates the man’s decision to leave and prepare for his law exams in Paris. But… as one thing ends, something else begins when a new character comes on the scene. We know exactly what he’s like almost as soon as he sees Emma, as Flaubert reveals his thoughts down to the last cynical detail. He is a predator and, although she doesn’t know it, he has Emma in his sights.

But to rewind. The first chapter of Part 2 holds out little promise, as we get a long description of the fictional Yonville – Yawnville, more like. (I’m not the first to make this joke, and Posy Simmonds reversed the joke by setting her Gemma Bovery in the equally fictional ‘Bailleville’.) He presents the town in a long and deliberately unpromising topographical description. It is ‘on the confines of Normandy, Picardy, and the Ile-de-France, a bastard land whose language is without accent and its landscape is without character.’ Not good – and the description ends, as any promenade there must do, at the cemetery. The first speech, some pages into Part 2, is as discouraging as the rest. The curé only half-jokingly tells off the sexton, planting his potatoes in consecrated ground: ‘You’re living off the dead…!’ I suspect that Flaubert would have expected his readers to admire his careful placing of different elements just as I’m doing.

All this is as a kind of interlude while we wait for the Bovarys’ arrival at a town that only contains a tiny handful of players and has very little else to offer. There’s another omen before they arrive: Emma’s greyhound, the inadequate comfort of her last months at Tostes, has run off and can’t be found. He’ll come back, the other passengers try to reassure her, but we know he won’t. And it’s all like that. The removal men have done nothing but play billiards all day at the inn where the Bovarys are going to eat before checking out their new place, and Emma, in particular, is reluctant to leave the inn once they’ve stepped down from the Hirondelle, the boneshakingly mis-named carriage. The conversation is with the bored young notary and Homais, the self-regarding apothecary who likes to espouse scientific principles he seems to have gathered from newspapers. (We’re not at all surprised when, a little later, we discover that he isn’t actually qualified to practise.) It’s enough of a diversion for Emma to put off going to their new house… and when they do finally get there every room is piled with their possessions, left simply lying about. Flaubert makes no further comment, so I won’t either.

After a time, the baby is born and, like Charles all those years ago, is put out to nurse. We only see Emma with the little girl once – Emma had been looking forward to the birth of a strapping son, whose story she has already written in her head – in a scene even more downbeat than everything else in Yonville. The poor carpenter’s wife pesters Emma for some extras, and she is annoyed. Imperiousness with servants always has been a habit with her, as we saw when she sacked Charles’s long-serving maid on a whim shortly after her arrival at Tostes. But there’s nothing consistent about her, which seems to be the point. She’s clever, she has real accomplishments… but her almost terminal boredom makes her try out one thing after another, usually – Flaubert is explicit about it – to give them up almost immediately. She even seems to be trying out different personas. For a while she gains a reputation amongst the half-noticed local women for steadiness and thrift, although Flaubert is careful to reveal to us just how self-righteous she feels when she turns down the tempting deals of Lheureux (no comment), the travelling salesman. She feels even more smug that she doesn’t succumb to his offer of credit. She feels ‘the joy of saying to herself, “I am virtuous,” and of seeing herself in a pose of resignation in the mirror.’ It’s very satisfying for her – and we are never in danger of believing that Flaubert thinks any more highly of her than we do.

This unsatisfactory state of affairs forms the background to the fantasy of a passionate love affair. Léon, the notary, has always like the look of Emma and gets himself invited to the Bovarys’ when he can. Or, his usual trick, he makes sure he’s where she likely to be and… and so on. It’s harmless enough, despite the torrid descriptions of Emma’s features, hair and neckline that Flaubert presents from Léon’s point of view. And despite Emma’s growing disgust with Charles, as obtuse as ever as he mistakes her self-conscious performance of her wifely duties for love. It seems to be important for Flaubert’s project that Charles never, ever suspects that she is anything but the submissive, dutiful wife, and her current acting out of this role confirms his mistake. In fact, she hates everything about him, and she often goes back to thinking, again, of the glamour of that single weekend when she saw how the upper classes live. Her mind is perfectly ready for the next big thing. Even before she begins to think that Léon is taking a more than friendly interest in her, her constant sense of of ‘regret’ – a word Flaubert uses more than once about her – and the romantic novels she still reads provide her with a new idea. At a word from him, she would be ready to say yes.

But there is no word from him. As she waits and he vacillates, she has plenty of time to change her wifely persona. She stops looking after the house, gets into debt with Lheureux in order to buy the silk scarves she’d previously decided she couldn’t afford, and spends her days musing uselessly in the garden. At the relevant times of day she looks out for the man who, if only the mechanism of the romantic narrative would kick in, would be her lover. She can’t understand why it hasn’t happened as it does in the books. (I can’t remember if she noticed a secret note being passed at the ball. The upper classes know how to get what they want.) Léon, whose own penchant is for poetry, is completely tongue-tied. It’s almost comic, but not quite: now that Flaubert has decided he isn’t going to bring them together, he lets us watch them get it wrong for page after page. Léon decides, wrongly, that his difficulty lies in the fact that she is unattainable. After many months – Flaubert always reminds us of the changing seasons – he decides to leave. He takes his time, not wanting to leave behind the glimpse of future happiness he thinks he’s been granted, but he goes in the end. For Emma, the day of his departure is ‘funereal.’

The character I’m finding more interesting than either of the non-lovers is the narrator. Sometimes he reveals the inner workings of the minds of the hapless pair and sometimes doesn’t, and meanwhile he leaves us to decide for ourselves. Or he pretends to – really, there’s no doubt that Flaubert is feeding us just enough information to hang them both. Meanwhile, Charles has practically disappeared, other than to be a blundering presence. Emma’s lassitude, long before Leon’s departure, he takes as a sign of illness, and he invites his mother to stay. Beyond everyday greetings, she exchanges hardly a word with Emma. Instead, she and Charles do what they think is best, and their decision to terminate her subscription to the lending library is a sign of how clueless they are. Another, after his mother’s departure, is to plan the very gift for Emma that he knows his loving wife would dote on: a studio photograph of himself….

Emma doesn’t improve… until, some months after Léon’s departure time does its thing. (I’ve just remembered how she eventually tired of the show of grief for her elderly relative all those years ago in the convent. It’s hard to believe that her feelings for Leon were ever any more real.) This is Chapter 7, at the end of which appears M. Rodolphe Boulanger. The name, given accidental (or deliberate) extra cachet through the addition of ‘de las Huchette’, establishes him as essentially bourgeois. But Flaubert, in his role as narrator, leaves us in no doubt as to his character: from the beginning he is ‘brutal.’ We can see exactly what this means when we are presented, verbatim, with Boulanger’s plans for a new affair to replace the current one, which is wearing thin as his little actress mistress is growing fat. ‘With just three little words of love, it would worship you, I’d bet on it…. Yes, but how to get rid of it afterwards?’ (Flaubert’s original French avoids the feminine ‘elle’ form in favour of the neutral ‘çela.’) We see, over the course of a few moments’ musing, that he considers the difficulties trifling, and we see his cynical little strategy unfold in his mind: ‘All right! I’ll drop in from time to time, I’ll send them game, poultry…. We’ll make a start, a bold start, that’s the best way.’

And that’s how the chapter ends. My God.

15 January
To the end of Part 2 – Chapters 8-15
Well, maybe Rodolphe Boulanger is more taken with Emma than he expects to be… or maybe the reader, like Emma, is lulled by his apparent willingness to go along with her plans and, like her, believes him. Whatever, he ultimately ends the affair in the most cowardly way imaginable. He goes right up to the wire, almost to the very eve of their supposed departure but, as he leaves after the final arrangements have been made, he looks back at her wistfully. Then he goes home and immediately writes her a letter ending it all. He decides it sounds ‘good’ when he reads it over to himself: we are shown not only the exact wording of the letter as Roldolphe composes it, but also his thoughts as he does so. Just as when we first encountered him, it’s all presented verbatim – and yes, he is as heartless at the end as he was at the beginning.

The seduction campaign is properly launched, as he had planned, at the agricultural show. This is presented in the chapter immediately following the one in which he was making those plans. It’s the longest chapter in the novel, and Flaubert clearly wanted it to be seen as a tour de force. This most self-conscious of novelists let it be known that he worked for five months on its composition – he was no hack writing pot-boilers because, following a serious illness, he lived on the money his bourgeois father had made in order to satirise the bourgeoisie – and it shows. Rodolphe’s carefully composed little asides to Emma as they wander around the showground together lead, eventually, to a set-piece section.

They are sitting down now, ostensibly to listen to the speech of the man deputising for the regional dignitary who, inevitably, can’t make it that day. The meaningless bombast of the deputy interlocks with Rodolphe’s own fine words as both of them offer their listeners exactly what they want to hear. The deputy: ‘Our great industrial centres have recovered all their activity; religion, more consolidated, smiles in all hearts; our ports are full, confidence is born again, and France breathes once more!’ Rodolphe, immediately after: ‘Do you not know that there are souls constantly tormented? They need by turns to dream and to act, the purest passions and the most turbulent joys, and thus they fling themselves into all sorts of fantasies, of follies….’ His choice of a particularly tortured kind of Romantic hyperbole reminded me of the technique used by Boris in Tolstoy’s War and Peace. Boris wins the heart (and the estates) of the heiress Julie Karagina by way of the melancholic verse then fashionable. Rodolphe isn’t interested in estates, of course, but he’s well on his way to getting what he wants.

(Throughout, there’s something resolutely male about the agricultural show. All the speakers, attendant dignitaries and prize-winners are men – until, at the end, a tiny old peasant woman is presented with a medal and a pitiful sum in recognition of her 52 years’ service. She is overwhelmed, and can only think of donating the money to the curé so that he will say masses for her…. Women’s destinies in this universe are never in their own hands, it seems.)

After this, Rodolphe bides his time. He doesn’t see Emma for six weeks after the highly promising start of his campaign, going away instead. It’s a hunting trip – somehow, it had to be hunting – but he invents some other pretext for his absence. And it does the trick: she turns white when he next calls, and he knows it won’t take much to tip her over the edge now. What it takes is a horse. Charles decides her pallor and nervousness must be signalling a return of her old trouble, and Rodolphe mentions the beneficial effects of riding. Cleverly, though, no doubt sensing Charles’s worry, he leaves all the talking to him. Emma refuses at first, saying in private later that ‘it would look strange.’ But Charles dismisses this idea – ‘Oh, as if I care! Your health comes first!’ – but, not at all accidentally, it’s the mention of a new riding-habit that decides the matter for her. The ride goes ahead.

This is still Chapter 9, the one following the agricultural show, and Flaubert covers a lot of ground. Rodolphe has chosen his own clothes carefully, especially the boots – she’s ‘probably never seen anything of the kind’ – but Emma behaves in the correct manner on the ride. However… very early on, the way that she ‘gave herself up to the rhythmic rocking of the saddle’ is mentioned, and Rodolphe is careful with his prompts. ‘God is looking after us!’ he says, as they enter the forest where we soon find out he knows a secluded clearing. And after less than two pages of resistance on her part – ‘you’re frightening me…. This is wrong, wrong’ – elle s’abondonna. And that’s that. Had her resistance been sincere? It’s certainly a big step she’s taking, a long way from the fantasy of her beloved romances. As she actually succumbs, she is ‘half-fainting, weeping, hiding her face….’ You bet. But Rodolphe has much more experience than she does, and he’s ready to overcome anything. I even suspect that the moment when he frightens her, letting the mask slip for a moment with ‘his eyes staring and his teeth clenched,’ is a deliberate ploy. It isn’t long after this, after he has pretended to give in to her wish to go home, that he breaks down her last defences.

It’s only four chapters later that Rodolphe terminates the affair. Is the trajectory as inevitable as I’ve presented it? Certainly, Rodolphe was thinking about his exit strategy before it even began, and there was no way he would ever consent to a new life, possibly with another man’s child. But Emma isn’t Rodolphe, and she is no seasoned adulteress like those note-passing toffs. For her, schooled in those romances of hers, it’s completely real – which is why, for her, the affair must lead to a new life together. (Her fantasies of their elopement, in which they travel to impossibly exotic lands where luxuries await them, recall her bejewelled visions of a glamorous future when Charles proposes.) Rodolphe hadn’t really understood this about her – and, ultimately, he decides he doesn’t care. I don’t know whether she will ever see him again after this – he really is taken by her, to an unusual degree – but it seems difficult to imagine.

Between the beginning of the affair and the end, Flaubert has a lot going on. From autumn to spring it’s all smooth and very pleasant for both of them, as a routine is set up. But after six months it seems to be less ardent, and for a few weeks Emma decides to squshe the rumours about her that are all over the town by going for the role of the dutiful wife again. Then, for the length of one particular chapter it looks as though Charles might be be able to win Emma back properly. (Not that he realises he’s lost her, of course.) Homais, an ignorant man nobody should ever listen to, persuades him that he could operate on the club foot of the innkeeper’s stable-hand. Emma is taken by the idea of being married to a man whose reputation will be so much enhanced by the feat. Just think of the cachet – Homais is already drafting the article for the Rouen paper, and – who knows? – maybe Charles’s fame will spread further.

Inevitably – there is never, ever, any doubt about it – it’s a disaster. Flaubert lovingly presents the details of the terrible swelling and gangrene that it leads to, the disdain of the more senior doctor who has to amputate, the guilt felt by Charles, and the disgust felt by Emma. ‘She had tried hard to love him, and had wept tears of repentance….’ But Charles’s soul-searching – in fact, he is trying to work out what had gone wrong – only ‘clattered into her consciousness like a leaden bullet on a silver platter.’ She is more exasperated than ever by his mediocrity (her word), and his efforts to console her lead only to a scream and a door-slamming that shatters the barometer. Having not seen Rodolphe for six weeks, she immediately contacts him and, by the beginning of the next chapter, ‘Their love affair began again.’

It’s in this new bloom that Emma begins to consolidate her plans. At first Rodolphe tries to deflect her – ‘You’re mad…! How could we do that?’ – but then he lets her dream on, pretending his own commitment is as strong as hers. Some aspects of it make him uncomfortable, especially the gifts she buys him with money her husband doesn’t have, but he likes her company. If she goes too far, well, all he needs to do is humour her. Meanwhile, in her thoughts, Charles seems to fade almost to nothing. As the long-deferred time for their supposed departure approaches, she orders new travelling-clothes and a trunk from Lheureuse, thinking nothing of the cost. And Berthe, their daughter, seems to have faded from her future plans too. Early in the affair, the only time she’s thought about her, it seems, is when she accidentally meets someone on her early-morning return from Rodolphe’s. She pretends she’s been visiting Berthe at the nurse’s – although everybody knows Berthe has been at home for a year now. Later, when she is in dutiful wife and mother mode, she behaves lovingly with Berthe, her little ‘angel.’ A novel written from Berthe’s point of view would be an interesting thing. This is never, ever revealed to us in this one, as though she is really another of Flaubert’s many props. Later still, Emma had made an effort to get Rodolphe to agree that the little girl should go with them, but she doesn’t mention her at all as the time approaches. Rodolphe doesn’t care anyway, because it isn’t going to happen.

When Emma finds his letter, hidden in its usual place beneath the neighbourly gift of fruit he sends, the effect is devastating. It’s now, perhaps, that we realise how real the relationship had been to her as she comes close to throwing herself from the roof. Only a call to dinner from Charles brings her back to reality – but not for long. The meal is a nightmare, and it comes to an end in a seizure when she sees the gig that is taking Rodolphe away. She is in bed, with Charles unfailingly at her side, for 43 days. Eventually he manages to persuade her to get up, but she’s almost an invalid. She will go nowhere near the parts of the garden that she associates with Rodolphe…. We never know how genuine her illness is, but this cataclysmic chapter ends on a dying fall for Charles. Not only does he think that he recognises the symptoms of cancer in Emma – does he ever get anything right? – ‘on top of all that, he had money worries!’

Part 2 might have ended with this apparent confirmation of the end of another section of the story, as this limited, loving man tends to the needs of his limited, self-centred wife… but it doesn’t. There are two more chapters, and we can see the beginnings of the next thing. While Emma decides to make what she can of life with Charles, he feels assailed by those money worries. There’s an unexpected bill from Lheureuse – however hard he tries, he can’t get the salesman to accept that the trappings for a long journey were never ordered – and he decides to take out a big loan from him. Meanwhile, following an almost beatific vision as she lies in her sick-bed throughout most of a very hard winter, Emma finds solace in the simple religious devotion of her childhood. It doesn’t last, obviously, because nothing ever does with her. Then she becomes ‘wildly charitable…. She sewed clothes for the poor, sent firewood to pregnant women; and one day Charles came home to find three tramps sitting at the kitchen table eating soup….’ But her high-minded resolutions aren’t helped when the cure, having sent to the archbishop’s bookseller for improving books for ‘a very intelligent member of the fair sex,’ receives pamphlets and homilies of the most patronising kind.  She is too apathetic to reject them, reads them all, and is disillusioned. Ah well.

Eventually, as Emma has finally made a kind of recovery, I think it’s Homais who suggests a visit to Rouen to see the famous tenor who is making a series of appearances. Emma and Charles go and, when they do finally find their seats, there’s something farcical about it all. Emma is enraptured by the romance elements of a French version of Donizetti’s Lucia di Lammermoor, to the extent that she begins to imagine a future life for herself with the tenor, a notorious womaniser. Meanwhile Charles has managed to spill most of the drink he fetches for her in the interval down the dress of a woman as he squeezes past her and nearly gets into a fight with her husband…. But, he says to Emma after he has finished explaining why her glass is almost empty, ‘Guess who I ran into? Monsieur Léon!’

Part 2 ends with an arrangement having been made for Emma to return to the opera next evening, with Léon, to see the final act that they missed despite Charles’s protests. (Emma and Léon had found one another’s company much more interesting than whatever was happening onstage.) Charles will have to return to Yonville, of course, and Part 2 ends when the Bovarys part from Léon for the night, with Charles making him promise to visit them for dinner when he’s next there. Oh yes, says Léon, he will often need to be in Yonville on business. You bet.

28 January
Part 3, Chapters 1-6
Guess what? The affair, famously consummated in the closed cab hired to be driven around Rouen all day, isn’t enough for either of them in the end. For Emma, you get the feeling that nothing possibly could be enough under any circumstances. As for Léon, well, Flaubert lets us know that this fantasy of passion was always going to go the way of all such things among the bourgeoisie. He’s completely explicit about it: ‘he was about to be promoted to head clerk; the time had come to be serious.’ Sure, ‘every bourgeois, in the ferment of his youth, has seen himself… as capable of grand emotions…’ but, well, ‘he was bored now.’ Meanwhile ‘she was as sick of him as he was weary of her. Emma was discovering, in adultery, all the banality of marriage.’ Ah.

I realise now that I started at the end when I was describing the affair with Rodolphe, too. I think I know why, and it’s to do with what I’ve been saying from the start. The trajectories of both affairs are predictable from the beginning – I can remember this from my first reading of the novel all those years ago – so one of the most interesting things to a reader like me is how Flaubert is going to manage it. What is he up to? Why has he inserted that little detail there? And how has he managed to play it so that there’s no chance at all that we might sympathise with his heroine? Not only do I feel that the author is calling all the shots over how his characters are going to behave and what little accidents are going to befall them on the way. He’s packaging it all up so elegantly for us that we buy it. We accept the Emma – and Rodolphe, and Léon, and poor old Charles – that he puts on display for our horrified fascination because the presentation is all so beautifully managed.

And yet, and yet – and I promise I’ll get back to the plot in a minute – it’s been leaving me feeling pretty cold towards any of them for a long time now. Maybe it was finding out about Flaubert writing in letters how painstaking he was about the chapter at the agricultural show. It isn’t his fault that the editor of my edition likes to include information like this in the explanatory notes, but ever since, I’ve been thinking about the lengths Flaubert goes to in order to get things right. He doesn’t particularly show his working, but I’m looking for it anyway. And, now I think about it, it was long before the show chapter – which seems exactly the right thing to call it – that I was noticing Flaubert’s careful presentation of one of his main characters, the schoolboy Charles in the very first chapter. By the first chapter of Part 2 I was suspecting that Flaubert ‘would have expected his readers to admire his careful placing of different elements just as I’m doing.’ Yep.

But back to Emma’s second affair. What do you need to know? I’ve already mentioned the cab-ride, but not the moment when Emma does something that is more useful as an image in a novel than in creating a believable, living character. How does it go? ‘A bare hand emerged from behind the tiny yellow cloth curtains’ – always the cinematic details – ‘and flung out some torn scraps of paper which scattered in the breeze….’ This, of course, is the letter she had written to Léon to tell him she wouldn’t be meeting him for their planned assignation in the cathedral. But, oh, she couldn’t send it, so she had to go and give it to him instead. But, oh… etc. The tearing up of her resolutions later that same day is as physical, and as telling, as the burning of the marriage bouquet. Is Emma genetically histrionic? Or is Flaubert fixated on those props of his?

Emma had stayed in Rouen ostensibly to see the opera again, the one in which all her romantic notions had found a focus in both the character and living, breathing figure of the singer. But she doesn’t seem to need him any more, because they forget to go. They spend a long (unconsummated) evening together, beginning with Flaubert’s sly descriptions of Emma pretending how she’d never got over that time they had got to know each other, and Léon pretending he had been carrying a torch for her for three years. They aren’t admirable in any way, and the budding affair is based on the willingness of both of them to falsify their true feelings. They meet in the cathedral next morning, Emma acting out the last vestiges of her recent religious fad with dramatic prayers. It’s comic – Léon is exasperated by a verger who won’t leave them alone as his vision of a romantic tryst falls apart – but the cathedral provides some useful props for Flaubert, too. There’s the famous statue of Salome, without any mention of John the Baptist, and there’s a famous memento mori tomb, complete with a disconsolate wife praying for her husband. Flaubert likes to feed in these little reminders….

The cab-ride is presented as comic, too, with the driver wondering when he’ll ever get his dinner – it goes on for hours – and Flaubert presenting the meanderings of the cab as though noticed by the bemused residents of Rouen. It is, I assume, a deliberately alienating device. We know what’s going on inside – the impatient cries of ‘Drive on!’ whenever the driver tries to stop tell us that, as does the way that Léon plants the idea that it’s an everyday thing in Paris – but we aren’t there with them. Right to the end of the chapter, we only get the bystander’s-eye-view: ‘the cab drew up in an alley… and a woman stepped out, walking off with her veil lowered, never looking back.’ I bet she’s put her gloves back on, too.

Back to Yonville, once she’s hired someone to help her catch up with the Hirondelle, and a chapter full of stuff. First to Homais’s, where the apothecary is almost apoplectic with rage: Justin, the servant (the one who also spends a lot of time doing little services for Emma when he can), has been careless in the private room where the poisons are kept and Homais is giving him a hard time. Suddenly the idea of poison is in the air, and so is death: Homais, having earlier composed a careful speech, blurts out that Charles’s father is dead. Emma feels absolutely nothing on this news, and if the reader ever had any sympathy for her, surely it’s disappearing now. Among other things, she treats Charles’ grief with a kind of cold indifference, noticing instead the tap of Hippolyte’s wooden leg and being reminded of Charles’s incompetence. She pays lip-service to the idea of mourning, but avoids spending too much time with her husband and mother-in-law, who is visiting Charles for some mutual support….

Then Flaubert brings in Lheureux again, who begins to set up the web of debt that will eventually come crashing down on Emma. But now, when all that’s still in the future, she manages to incorporate the legal process of gaining the power of attorney – Lheureux’s idea, obviously – into a long visit to see Léon. She will need to get the details checked by a notary, and who better to do it than Léon? She spends three days on a kind of island honeymoon, and from then on, she lives on an ever more colossal heap of credit. It’s a sign of how money gets woven into her fantasy of entitlement. She deserves the expensive hotel room, the accessories, the little extras that make her very ordinary little affair seem like something else.

Léon is loving it, at first – this farmer’s daughter represents for him the height of sophistication and glamour, far beyond anything or anybody he met in his conventional, almost penny-pinching life in Paris. (Flaubert had told us about this at the end of Part 2, not long after Léon had met the Bovarys again.) Meanwhile Emma, not quite from the start, is almost too much for Léon. Her passion, very flattering to him, is all very good while he has no other commitments and he can look forward to Thursdays in their little love-nest. But nothing ever stays still with Emma, as we know. Her need for unstinting commitment from Rodolphe brought that affair to an end, whereas with Léon it’s… a lot of things, not all of them directly connected to him. It isn’t his fault that she feels herself to be trapped in the wrong life – Flaubert occasionally keeps feeding us those little moments when she has visions of a golden existence far beyond any reality – and Léon doesn’t realise that the way she’s living on the credit Lheureuse has lured her into is about to run out, spectacularly and disastrously.

Over the months – Flaubert never makes a detailed note of how long things go on in this novel, perhaps because it isn’t terribly important – Lheureuse hasn’t only been offering extensions to the promissory notes she’s signed. He speaks of a shadowy figure, Vinçart, who is willing to take things off her hands. And one of the things is a property that Charles has inherited, almost valueless according to Lheureux, that Vinçart generously offers to buy for 4,000 francs. Of course, Charles knows nothing of this and, of course, Emma doesn’t use the money to pay off her debts. Most of it goes into the materialist fantasy that goes with all the other fantasies in her life. Flaubert drops in little reminders of the tawdriness of the reality, from the deceptions that every adulterer has to practise to the mundane views from the coach ride. Week by week, it’s turning her into a kind of unwilling commuter. Her weekly visits are ostensibly for piano lessons – there’s something jaw-droppingly shameless in her histrionic complaints to Charles about how her talents are wasting away when there are only second-rate teachers on offer instead of an expensive teacher in Rouen…. Of course, there are times when, almost by accident, she can’t be found at the inn where Charles thinks she’s based at, but Flaubert isn’t interested in the kind of plotting that would have her found out. It isn’t an accident that he’s made Charles the most unsuspecting cuckold in fiction.

Something else that is no accident…. There’s a memorably unpleasant description that nudges its way into the routine. And it really is a routine. Emma’s last moments with Leon each week are like this, her visits to the hairdresser, her retrieval of her travelling shoes, her walk to the coach stop and so on are like this…. But Flaubert decides to focus right in on one troublingly ominous reminder of the precariousness of life. There is a blind tramp who haunts the road out of Rouen, and Flaubert allows the narrative to bring us up close to him. The description of his face is revolting, from the suppurating sores in his eye sockets to the flaking skin around them, oozing liquid that forms into ‘viridescent scabs’ down to the convulsively sniffing nose. There’s always a reason behind Flaubert throwing in a troubling detail like this. It’s as disturbing as the operation on Hippolyte and its aftermath.

By Chapter 6 of Part 3, it’s time for Flaubert to bring things to a head. Does Emma do a single admirable thing in this chapter? Silly question. She gives Léon a hard time when she discovers he’s offered Homais an open invitation to visit him. Of all days, it’s a Thursday when he’s out in the morning in Yonville, waiting for the Hirondelle. In Rouen later, when Léon has (briefly) extricated himself from Homais’s clutches for the second time – the first time, Emma had shown absolutely no interest in his excuses – she has left. Things get back to normal, sort of, but her reaction doesn’t bode well. Meanwhile, Lheureux starts to press more and more for the money she owes, but she isn’t going to change her ways. She asks Léon, who is very unhappy about it, to pawn her silver spoons, a wedding present. She won’t downsize to a cheaper room. She… she starts to feel hemmed in. This is when the idea of the ‘banality of marriage’ comes in, and she tries to up the ante. She (and presumably Léon, although it’s only Emma that Flaubert mentions) goes to an all-night masquerade party… but at the end, she is merely appalled by the company she realises she is in. The men are nobodies, the other women no better than prostitutes.

Her financial problems come to a head. Lheureux has no further interest in her when she comes to plead with him for more time, but she thinks he’s just trying to scare her. Wrong. When she ignores the warning, she discovers shortly after that the house and property are to be seized. Lheureux brushes aside anything she offers – ‘No, it’s useless!’ and eventually treats her with contempt: ‘Oh, lovely – so now it’s tears!’ Her final cry that he is pushing her to the edge achieves nothin­g: ‘I couldn’t care less!’ And he shuts the door on her.

Is she really on the edge? Do we care? Whatever, it’s time to read on.

30 January
Part 3, Chapters 7-11 – to the end
Yes she is. On the edge. But this time she isn’t on the edge of the roof, but at the pharmacy where arsenic is stored upstairs…. But I’m not going to get too far ahead of myself. I’d known from the beginning that Emma commits suicide at the end – or, as things turn out, not quite at the end – but the context that Flaubert decides to build up around her isn’t quite like anything else in the novel so far. Perhaps only in the chapter of the agricultural show does Flaubert go to so much effort in creating such a fully-formed picture of bourgeois Yonville society as we get in these final chapters. And this time, he does other things that seem to be a deliberate attempt on his part to make Emma’s death seem really rather small. I’m reminded of Auden’s poem ‘Musee des Beaux Arts’ in which the death of Icarus is seen as just one event in the busy lives of the people around. Flaubert keeps shifting away the focus, so that we see Emma’s death in the context of lives in which it isn’t necessarily the most important thing in the world.

This doesn’t happen in the chapter or so before her suicide. It’s her point of view we are mostly following between her realisation that Lheureux really isn’t going to take pity on her and her desperate decision to stuff her mouth with arsenic powder. She casts around for ways she might get money, knowing that selling things won’t even come close to clearing the debt. For a day or two, she desperately shields the truth from Charles – there’s a moment of dark comedy when she pretends that the noise made by the bailiff banging about in the attic is really a loose skylight being blown by the wind – but she can’t keep it up.

She turns up unannounced at Léon’s place, telling him he’s got to find 8,000 francs. He tells her maybe 3,000 would satisfy Lheureux for now and, while knowing he has no chance of success, he goes along with the charade anyway. He goes out and, having supposedly consulted three of his contacts, returns empty-handed. She has another idea – he could steal from his office. Whoa. Léon is as shocked as any good bourgeois would be – and not only members of the bourgeoisie – and he hastily suggests an alternative: he will get her the money by three o’clock next day. She resents his lack of backbone, and when he squeezes her hand before she leaves, ‘it lay lifelessly in his. Emma was unable to feel any more.’ It seems that money is already inextricably linked with her esteem for him – as it has been with Charles almost from the start.

This lack of feeling relates to any empathy for others. As for herself, she lives at a pitch of unbearably heightened emotion. When the blind beggar sticks his head in the carriage back to Rouen – and after Homais has offered him a ridiculous list of the lifestyle changes he needs to make – Emma flings him a five-franc piece. ‘It was all she had left in the world. To cast it away like that was, she thought, beautiful.’ There’s something telling about the way she associates money with romance, even beauty.

Back in Yonville…. The woman she’s been pointlessly confiding in suggests she visit the local notary at home, which she does. It’s a disaster. He assumes, possibly correctly – Emma doesn’t really know what she’s doing – that she is offering herself to him. She doesn’t balk at the ‘voracious kiss’ he plants on her proffered hand, allows the stream of sweet nothings he babbles – but pulls away as he moves towards her on his knees and grabs her by the waist. ‘I love you!’ he cries, and Emma suddenly realises that she’s made a mistake. Except she doesn’t. Once outside, she thinks of his actions with horror and, ‘drawing strength from pride in her own conduct, she was… filled with a sense of her own worth and of her contempt for others.’ That’s our Emma.

Who next? She can’t think. She imagines how she will simply have to tell Charles everything and how, fool that he is, he will forgive her. But, characteristically, she turns this around: ‘Yes, he’ll forgive me, he whom I’d never forgive for choosing me…. Never, never!’ What’s going on in her mind? Flaubert lets us know: ‘This idea of Bovary’s moral superiority over her enraged her,’ and she casts around in her mind. The tax collector, the one whose hobby is woodturning on his lathe. Flaubert decides to present this encounter from the point of view of two women who wonder what on earth she is up to, so it’s comic. They can see through the window, but they can’t hear because he hasn’t turned off his lathe. But, soon enough, they get what they are looking for: he springs away from Emma, shouting ‘Madame, whatever can you mean?’ The gossips know, or think they do. ‘Women like that should be whipped.’

The presence of these women is a sign of something that happens more and more in these chapters – and as we approach the chapter of the suicide it definitely isn’t going away – the widening of the context of Emma’s plight. As she becomes more desperate and turns ever more in on herself, Flaubert reminds the reader of the life going on around her. She thinks of a promise that Leon made – no doubt, the reader thinks, in order to get rid of her – that he will get 3000 francs to her by 3.00. She doesn’t go home herself, but sends a servant – who returns to say that nobody is there. He had been her last chance. Except…

…in a set-piece scene, she manages to get Rodolphe believing that he might like to re-start the affair. Of course, she achieves this only by not mentioning her real motive for coming to see him. She’s sure he must be able to give her 3,000 francs there and then if she can get into his good books – but as soon as she mentions money his rekindling interest begins to cool. When he tells her he really can’t lay his hands on money just like that, she tells him about the bailiffs and that, ‘relying on your friendship, I’ve come to you.’ He turns ‘extremely pale…. “So that’s why she’s here!” he thought.’ This is not the first time in these two chapters that we are shown the point of view of another character like this, and it moves back and forth between them for a few more paragraphs. But then, realising that his refusal is final – we know, because Flaubert tells us, that he would have given it to her if he had it, despite the risk of such a gesture – Emma becomes sarcastic. Feeling the pinch, is he? Then she changes tack, babbling on uselessly, reminding him of all the times he had told her of his love. It’s pointless.

She leaves, and this is when we really follow her through the moments of desperation and confusion that seem to take on a physical form for her. The walls shake, the ceiling is coming down on her, she breaks her nails on the latch of the gate. The sound of her arteries seems to be coming from outside herself, the landscape takes on impossible forms so that ploughed furrows become breakers on a vast, dark sea. And so on, as night begins to fall. Flaubert adds a detail from his own experience of hallucinations – perhaps all her symptoms are from the same place – as ‘fiery red spheres explode in the air,’ and Rodolphe’s face appears where other spheres land on the snow, melting it.

‘Immediately, like an abyss, the situation appeared clearly before her.’ Can we guess why she runs to the pharmacy? Of course we can, even though there are still over 30 pages to go before the end. And there is Justin, poor Justin – we haven’t heard the last of him – and he, besotted by her sweet, melting voice, lets her persuade him that she needs poison for those pesky rats. What comes next is as unromantic as it gets. Having thrust her hand into the blue arsenic jar, she begins to ‘cram it straight into her mouth.’ Job done – although neither she, nor the reader, knows that it will take ten more pages for the process to reach its conclusion. We don’t even know yet that it ever will…

…but at the end of the chapter, with three still left to run, we get the simple line that Emma is no more – ‘Elle n’existait plus.’ There we have it – and there Emma has it: she has achieved the death she wanted.

But everything about this death is wrong. If we rewind one line, we are told of ‘a convulsion that throws her back on the mattress.’ Not the bed, but the mattress, and there’s something harshly matter-of-fact about the word. If we rewind a paragraph or two, we have severely compromised image of the figure of death, in the form of the blind beggar who has been the bane of her return journeys from Rouen throughout Part 3. He’s singing one of his obscene love-songs outside the window, and just before that final spasm ‘Emma began to laugh, a ghastly, frenzied, despairing laugh, believing she could see the wretch’s hideous face, like a symbol of ultimate terror, looming through the dark shadows of eternity.’

Flaubert has had a lot of work to do to make the beggar’s sudden appearance in Yonville appear feasible, inventing a sub-plot concerning Homais. And this grotesque moment of existential terror is the pay-off. We know exactly what Emma imagines she is seeing, because the beggar has been described so vividly so many times in earlier chapters. And something else is wrong. Emma has poisoned herself at the pharmacy and Flaubert allows her, shortly after this action, a moment of what sounds like closure: ‘she went home, suddenly at peace, almost serene, as though filled with the consciousness of a duty done.’

‘A duty done?’ Emma? What is Flaubert really doing here? I think he’s being satirical. He doesn’t have Emma form the words, but she has done the right thing, fulfilling the role of the tragic heroine. Except, of course, it isn’t. Never mind that it isn’t a genuine moment of closure anyway – there are ten pages of stop-start suffering yet to come before she will ‘cease to exist.’ Even if she had died on the spot, she would have ticked none of the boxes. In all of literature, in all the legends, there have to be two lovers, mutually besotted, and there has to be some insurmountable obstacle separating them. The model Flaubert has been offering us is Lucia di Lammermoor, and we saw how taken Emma was with the idea of lovers separated by circumstance. We remember in the opera-house how yes, she really could imagine life with the tenor, falling into her usual trap of confusing art with life.

In all the classic stories of doomed love – Romeo and Juliet, Anthony and Cleopatra, Tristan and Isolde – somehow or other, one of the lovers dies or is killed, and the one left behind has to die too. Life alone would be unbearable. Ok. But in Emma’s case there is no lover. If she has done her tragic-heroine duty, it is to an idea only. The drawn-out reality of death seems to be a commentary by Flaubert, a little lesson for his heroine – You thought you knew what you were doing? No, this is what you were doing – as, very soon after that moment of apparent closure the symptoms kick in. A page after she has somewhat unromantically crammed the white powder into her mouth, she thinks that ‘Death is nothing much, really.’ Then she’s overcome by thirst. Then nausea – and Charles sees her rolling her head ‘in a movement that suggested extreme pain.’ She stretches her jaws as though there’s something very heavy on her tongue. She vomits again. And there are still nine pages to go.

But that shift in the point of view – it’s Charles having to look at her agonised expression – is a key part of what goes on throughout Emma’s protracted deathbed scene. It isn’t a ‘deathbed scene’ at all, in fact, because Flaubert shifts the location as well. We’re out with Homais, crying to the whole town that Emma is poisoned. We’re back with Emma, forgiving Charles and musing that they are all behind her, ‘the betrayals, the infamies, and the myriad cravings that had tormented her.’ (Notice that they had tormented her….) And so on. For me, it feels just right that as Emma lies dying, Homais and the doctors are playing status games. Just as the local surgeon had been dismissive of Charles as he sawed through the bones of Hippolyte’s leg, now the top man from Rouen is sarcastic of this same doctor’s vain attempts to help Emma. There’s then a whole page of Homais bathing in reflected glory as he invites the doctor to a lavish breakfast while she languishes offstage. For a page or two, this is no longer Emma’s story.

There’s still some way to go, but there’s definitely no hope left – only now are we certain of this – so it’s the priest’s turn. Flaubert goes in at least two different directions with him. The first thing he brings, ironically, is Yonville opinion. Even before he arrives, Homais is comparing priests to crows attracted by the smell of death. Like so much else in this chapter, this is preparing the reader for what is to follow, and soon. Emma is going to die in two or three pages’ time, and there are three chapters remaining. Life in Yonvile, as we’re already seeing, goes on.

But the priest brings other things too. One is the opportunity to show an aspect of Emma that has always been there, the desire for religious certainty. We saw in the Cathedral how it doesn’t actually help her, but never mind that. Now, ‘she slowly turned her head, and seemed overjoyed on suddenly catching sight of the purple stole, perhaps experiencing afresh, in that extraordinary moment of tranquillity, the forgotten rapture of her first mystical yearnings, together with a vision of the eternal bliss to come.’ Well, maybe. Two key words there are ‘seemed’ and ‘perhaps’ – she ‘seemed overjoyed … perhaps experiencing afresh…’ Whose point of view is this? Most likely, that of the people in the room, but it’s definitely ambiguous.

And what about the narrator’s commentary on the administering of extreme unction? ‘First upon the eyes, that had so fiercely craved every earthly luxury, then upon the nostrils, so greedy for caressing breezes and erotic scents, then upon the mouth, which had opened to lie, to bemoan her wounded pride, to cry out in lustful pleasure….’ And so on. Even in this most devout of sacred activities, Flaubert is offering us a résumé of Emma’s sensuous, sensual existence. And while I’ve mentioned what is to follow this long chapter, this revisiting of sensualist Emma on her deathbed is a reminder of her as a lover. It’s a look back, not only to the 24 or 48 hours before she took the poison, as the need for money to feed the fantasy comes back to haunt her. Then, she used her sexual allure to get her what she needed, even trying it on with Lheureux at one point. And it has all come to nothing – so she hasn’t died for love. She’s died for money.

And we’re in those final three chapters. They form exactly the kind of coda you wouldn’t get if this novel were written according to any kind of romantic or tragic template. Flaubert focuses on four or five people, some of whom cared for Emma and some of whom didn’t. Bizarrely, and very deliberately, Flaubert makes Homais the subject of the last sentence, and I’ll come back to him. And whilst the main event of these chapters is Emma’s funeral, life has otherwise moved on.

But that funeral. Once he has accepted the fact of Emma’s death, which takes a long time for him to do, Charles decides Emma must have the most elaborate send-off money can buy. Maybe it’s become part of a satirical, bourgeoisie-related theme, but only the best will do despite Charles’s financial worries. Emma must have an elaborate three-layer coffin, the inner one lined with velvet, and she must wear her wedding dress…. It’s costing a fortune, but Homais and the priest, who have become a kind of creaking double-act by this time, are ‘much surprised at Bovary’s romantic ideas.’ This is only the third time that Flaubert has used the word ‘romantic’ in this novel, and he always makes it sound this banal. (The idea of anything romantic is undermined at least twice by the fact of Emma’s corpse status. Her mouth is a ‘black hole’ at one point, and later some careless lifting of the body leads to ‘a rush of black liquid… as if she were vomiting, from her mouth.’ Flaubert has always enjoyed pushing the boundaries of taste in this way, as we know.) At the interment, Charles throws in ‘handfuls’ of earth on to the coffin. ‘He sent her kisses; he dragged himself towards the grave, to engulf himself with her. They led him away, and he soon grew calmer, feeling perhaps, like the others, a vague satisfaction that it was all over.’ There’s that ‘perhaps’ again. How would Flaubert know? He’s only the writer.

Flaubert hasn’t finished with Charles. He drags him through every possible humiliation – but, somehow, Charles doesn’t have the resources to rail against the injustices of the world, or against Emma. He finds out more about the debts. He finds the screwed-up note from Rodolphe that Emma let fall in the attic all those chapters ago – and decides it proves the affair was never more than ‘platonic’. But then he discovers Leon’s letters in all their explicitness, then Rodolphe’s…. And what does he do? He hears of Leon’s marriage and congratulates him by letter, telling him how happy Emma would have been. (Does he know about the affair by this time? Does it matter?) And when he sees Rodolphe, all he manages to do is make the other man uncomfortable. ‘“No, I don’t blame you now.” He even added a fine phrase, the only one he ever made—“It is the fault of fatality!”’ Rodolphe is not at all impressed, considering this merely ‘mean.’

What’s an author to do with such a failure? After reducing him to near-penury and letting him sink in status to the extent that Homais will have nothing to do with him – the detail seems apt – he kills him off. Which leaves Berthe, of course…

…who has always been a shadowy little figure, only ever having briefly appeared during those rare interludes when Emma decides to have another attempt at the role of dutiful mother. Flaubert never, ever lets us in on how this feels for Berthe – until the deathbed chapter. For the first time, we are given an insight, when she is brought in to say her final goodbye to her mother. She has been woken up in the night, and Flaubert makes her so disorientated that the moment is totally compromised: the candles dazzle her, and ‘reminded her, no doubt, of the morning of New Year’s Day and Mid-Lent, when thus awakened early by candle-light she came to her mother’s bed to fetch her presents, for she began saying— “But where is it, Maman?” And as everybody was silent, “But I can’t see my little stocking.”’ Maman, for Berthe, is made to be no more than a bringer of occasional presents. After Charles’s death, she goes to live with his mother – who dies, leaving the girl to be looked after by an aunt. But, Flaubert intones, bringing us right up to the present, ‘She is poor, and sends her to a cotton-factory to earn a living.’

A couple of other people had some affection for Emma. There’s her father, who enters the narrative for the duration of the funeral. He’s as grief-stricken as his limitations will allow – he doesn’t forget to reassure Charles that the annual gift of a turkey will continue to arrive – and who suffers a stroke shortly afterwards. And there’s Justin, who played such an important role. Justin is almost, but not quite, an archetype from mediaeval romance. He is the adoring young squire whose love is doomed to remain unrequited, and he is left desolated by Emma’s death. Except, except…

…Justin isn’t a squire, he’s a servant – and his love will never be requited for the simple reason that Emma only ever notices his existence when he can do something for her. And not only does he allow Emma to get to the arsenic, he never reveals the truth of what happened – which lets the incompetent, careless Homais off the hook. He plays no practical or symbolic role in Emma’s descent into death, and after it he lurks in the background, looking guilty but saying nothing. Later, Flaubert appears to be allowing him his romantically tragic moment: ‘Beside the grave, among the trees, a young lad knelt, weeping in the darkness; sobs rent his breast….’ This could be Dickens, but it isn’t, it’s Flaubert. He has Lestiboudois the verger noticing him climb over the wall, and this penultimate chapter ends with him: ‘He could finally put a name to the scoundrel stealing his potatoes.’ Later still, we hear in an aside that Justin has moved on, and works as a grocer’s assistant in Rouen. It’s as though Flaubert has only ever raised the image of the pining lover in order to puncture it. Flaubert makes sure that this moment of farewell, like Berthe’s, is thoroughly compromised:

Who’s left? The priest and Homais, arguing to no purpose over points of religion while Emma lies cold before as the coffin-makers work. The priest, referred to exactly as often by his name as by his clerical status – you can check these things with online texts – is no more than another character in the parade of bourgeois life. Like Homais the chemist, he falls asleep during the long watches of the night, and is as subject to similar vanities and irritations. But, as I’ve already mentioned, it is Homais who has the last word. Alongside Charles’s grieving and failure to come to terms with the reality of his marriage, Homais has his own project. We hear near the beginning of the final chapter that he ‘hankered after the cross of the Legion of Honour,’ and Flaubert gleefully describes the lengths he will go to in order to achieve it. When his concoctions fail to help the blind man, he decides to rid himself of the embarrassment. He publishes a succession of articles about how the man’s derangement is a danger to the public, and gets him locked up.

And, immediately following the information about Berthe’s fate in the care of her poverty-stricken aunt, the novel ends with these two short paragraphs: ‘Since Bovary’s death three doctors have followed one another at Yonville without any success, so severely did Homais attack them. He has an enormous practice; the authorities treat him with consideration, and public opinion protects him. / He has just received the cross of the Legion of Honour.’

Very appropriately at the end of this particular novel, it’s a sardonic paean to bourgeois mediocrity.


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