She gave up playing the piano. Why practice? Who would ever hear her? Since she would never play for an audience, in a short-sleeved velvet dress, on an Erard piano, skimming over the ivory keys with the lightest of fingers, never feel a murmur of ecstasy rising about her, what was the point of practicing any more? She left her sketch books and tapestry in the cupboard. What was the use? What was the use? Sewing made her nervous.
“I’ve read everything,” she said to herself.
So she sat there idly, holding the tongs in the fire until they turned red, or watching the rain fall.
How sad she felt on Sundays, when the church bell sounded for vespers! She stood in a kind of expectant daze, listening as each broken note rang out again, and again. A cat was stalking about the rooftops, arching its back in the last pale rays of sunshine. The wind blew trails of dust along the highroad. In the distance, a dog howled now and then, and the bell kept up its tolling, each monotonous note dying out over the countryside.
Meanwhile, people had begun to walk home from church. Women in polished wooden shoes, farmers in new smocks, little children gamboling bareheaded before them, everyone was going home. Five or six of the men, always the same, would linger in front of the inn, playing their game of tip-penny until dark.
The winter was a cold one. Every morning the window panes were thick with frost, and the one light which shone through them, as through ground glass, sometimes grew no brighter all day. The lamps had to be lit by four in the afternoon.
On sunny days Emma went out in the garden. Dew had left silvery lace on the cabbages, gleaming filaments stretching from one to the other. No birds sang; everything seemed asleep, the espaliered trees under their covering of straw, the grapevines like a great sick snake beneath the coping of the wall where, if one looked closely, one could see large wood lice dragging along on their many legs. Among the spruce trees near the hedge, the curate, in a tricorn, reading his breviary, had lost his right foot and the plaster, peeling because of the frost, had left white blotches on his face.
She then went back upstairs, closed her door, stirred the coals and, settling languidly by the warm fire, felt boredom sinking down upon her more oppressively than ever. She would have liked to chat with the maid, but a sense of propriety held her back.
Every day, at the same time, the schoolmaster in his black silk cap would throw open his shutters, and the village policeman would pass, his sword buckled over his smock. Morning and evening, the post horses would be led across the street, three by three, to drink at the pond. Now and then a bell would tinkle on a cafe door, and if it were windy, one could hear the little copper basins which the hairdresser used as his shop sign, clanking on their two iron rods. The hairdresser’s window display consisted of an old print of dated fashions pasted on one window pane, and the wax bust of a woman with yellow hair. He, too, was discontented; he mourned his wasted talents, his hopeless future, and dreamed of owning a shop in some large city, Rouen perhaps, on the harbour, or near the theatre district. Meanwhile, he paced gloomily up and down the main street of Tostes, from the town hall to the church, waiting for customers. Every time Madame Bovary looked out, she saw him there, like a sentry on duty, wearing a rough woolen jacket, his cap perched to one side.
Sometimes, in the afternoon a man’s head would appear outside the parlour window, a tan face with black side-whiskers, white teeth showing through a gentle broad smile. Right away a waltz would be heard, and on top of the barrel organ, miniature dancers would start to whirl about within a doll-size parlour: ladies in pink turbans, Tyrolleans in short jackets, monkeys in black tail coats, gentlemen in knee breeches. Round and round they went, between chairs, sofas, tiny console tables, reflected many times in fragments of mirror held together at the edges by gold paper. The man turned the crank, looking to the right, to the left, and up at the windows. Once in a while as he shot a long stream of brown saliva against the curbstone, he would lift the organ onto his knee to relieve his shoulders from the weight of the strap. Now lingering and sad, now joyous and swift, the music rumbled forth from the box, through a pink taffeta curtain behind a curving brass grill. Worldly echoes reached Emma’s ears, melodies heard in theatres, some in drawing rooms, or played for dancing beneath crystal chandeliers. Never-ending sarabands kept ringing in her head while her thoughts, like dancing girls on a flowered carpet, leapt high at each note, from dream to dream, from sorrow to sorrow. After the man had caught a few coins in his cap, he pulled an old cover of blue wool over the organ, slung it on his back, and walked away with heavy footsteps. She watched him go.
Extracted from the 1969 translation of Madame Bovary by Merloyd Lawrence, Riverstone Editions, Houghton Mifflin Company.
Sufficient ink has been spilled on the subject of Emma that the addition of a few more drops from me could hardly be necessary. I posted this excerpt because I found these two pages of Flaubert’s novel to be so very very vivid and unforgettable, that ever since I first read it I have never been able to cease entirely from thinking about it.
I think Emma Bovary’s tragic life is in its own way very mysterious. She feels a chronic dissatisfaction with her circumstances – and she resorts to men for a remedy – which I daresay was her greatest mistake – but then she didn’t have a choice – did she? If she had been blessed with sufficient wealth or more intelligence, or a social circle more to her liking – or perhaps all three – she might have been happier: or she might have settled for something less than what she had hoped for – though not for the muted satisfactions of an ordinary wife, – but i doubt it: and at any rate Flaubert saw to it she was not lucky enough to find out. If he had, his novel would not have been as scandalous and as disturbing as the eternally hypocritical French bourgeoisie of his time found it to be, and, for identical reasons, it would not have enjoyed the success it did. Though Flaubert (and his publisher), like Radclyffe Hall, was prosecuted for outraging public morality with a story about a woman who broke the sexual rules set for women by society, the prosecution was unsuccessful.
Emma Bovary’s dissatisfaction, framed with great clarity and the minimum of plot distractions, is what retains a lingering fascination for me. Flaubert interests me far less than Emma. It is her inner emptiness that gets my attention, and you can see it expressing itself here. If Flaubert made her foolish and trite in her mental formulations, he also endowed her with an almost heroic force that drove her as far away from her soft beginnings as a country girl as she could possibly go. It is this force – this restless dissatisfaction, this seeking for something beyond the rooted circumstances of her unfulfilling life – that I find fascinating. So many women, of limited (and perhaps also not so limited) intelligence, whose lives are dull and humdrum and ordinary and whose circumstances resemble Emma’s, remain pinned in place by the events that befall them. Emma however did not. I find the force that drove her to her inevitable ruin to be mysterious and worthy of contemplation, because I think it has its origins not in mere discontent. but in a genuine need for not merely an existence, but the valid aspiration for a life which had meaning and the promise of fulfillment which went beyond the roles of wife and mother. It was not that she merely reached beyond the fog of her discontent of her ordinary life, but that she didn’t reach far enough. Emma’s tragedy is that what she was groping for and reaching for did not exist in her world. She lived in a time when the idea of human aspirations beyond marriage and motherhood simply did not apply to women. French bourgeois mores, stretched beyond endurance by half a century of upheaval and calamity, had snapped back firmly into place following the excesses of the revolution and the disasters of the Napoleonic campaigns.
Emma is a fictionalised character based on a woman named Delphine Delmare, who had lived in the village of Ry, close to Rouen, Flaubert’s home, and who like Emma had married a country doctor, and committed suicide after running up debts she could not repay. Like Emma, Delphine had taken lovers, and ruined her reputation. Though Flaubert vehemently denied he had based Emma on any real woman, the facts too neatly contradict his assertion. I suspect that the need to fill in the blanks about Delphine’s life, to ask the questions and try to provide, if not an answer, then at least a coherent account which might lend itself to the suggestion of an answer, may have been what motivated Flaubert to write his novel.
Just as Balzac based “La Grand Bretèche” in the crumbling shadow of a Napoleonic past, Flaubert based Madame Bovary within the entrenched dullness of the reign of king Louis Philippe, who was unflatteringly described as “bourgeois” and who left his imprint of middle class conventionalism on his times. It is the dominant background of his novel. The pains Flaubert took over this work are legendary – 3600 hand-written pages in which he strove indefatigably for a detailed realism. One feels that the sheer weight of detail alone would serve as a sort of explanation of Emma’s (considered at the time to be outrageously shocking) choices and actions – and some satisfying resolution of the question in our minds – some ‘truth’.
But Flaubert is steadfast in denying us satisfaction in this regard. Like Balzac he covertly disparages – and punishes his female characters for their sexual transgressions, but he also punishes ‘the innocent’ – Emma’s little daughter, perhaps in order to reveal how the sins of the mothers are indeed visited upon the children. This is where I think Flaubert truly showed himself to be a dedicated votary of the Muse of topical realism, in a clear departure from the romantic notions which had infused French novel-writing up to that time.