Friday, July 13, 2012

Artistic License in 'Madame Bovary'

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Undoubtedly Gustave Flaubert’s most famous novel is 'Madame Bovary', one of the first works of fiction to focus on the topic of realism. But Madame Bovary’s fame first came from its censorship trial in 1856, where it was condemned as pornographic. Both the publisher and the printer were charged with disregard for public morality and religion. These men pleaded with Flaubert to cut out some of the more sexual descriptions and the gruesome clubfoot surgery episode. Flaubert would not hear of it, as these controversial descriptions were not the aims and themes of his four-year labor. As people have done throughout time, they read the novel to see why it was so terrible and from there many, more sophisticated criticisms appeared.

Today the novel is read in many high school and college classrooms, and the students, as have readers since the novel’s first publication, dislike it for another reason, Emma Bovary. Being the protagonist of the novel, Emma is the center of the multiple themes intended by Flaubert. But instead of the reader connecting with Emma, they grow to be annoyed by her ignorance and are separated from the book as it becomes unrealistic. Therein lies the novels largest flaw. Gustave Flaubert annoys and disgusts the reader with his excessive use of artistic license in the novel 'Madame Bovary'.

The inspiration and encouragement for Flaubert to write his best novel came from several real life experiences and acquaintances, which are not wholly or directly tied to the novel. One of the female influences was the wife of a village doctor that had an affair, left debts, and died in Flaubert’s hometown. Her life was strikingly similar to that of Emma Bovary’s existence. Another influential lady had a similar story involving debts and affairs. But the most important woman to Flaubert was Louise Colet, his mistress. Though Flaubert loved her deeply, he left her abruptly with much hatred. It is Colet that was Flaubert’s primary subject in the novel, as he tried to write all about her from only his point of view.

As Flaubert could only write Louise Colet from one side, he was forced to take artistic license in the literary sense when writing the novel. Artistic license can been defined as taking personal experiences and turning them into a story. The author must take liberties in writing about the people around them and their feelings, as they could only live these experiences through their mind. Just as a movie director or screenwriter must alter the storyline of a work of fiction to make it understandable when acted or performed, the author must alter his experiences to fit a plot or amount to a climax.


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But as Flaubert wrote 'Madame Bovary' he takes too much liberty when writing about the events in Emma’s life. “All novelists do this, but Flaubert went beyond the usual call of duty” (McCarthy). Emma cannot seem to ever do anything right or have a bit of luck. Some of the following examples of Emma’s tragic fate are just the tip of the iceberg.

“The intimacy of marriage disgusts her [Emma]. Instead of a handsome lover in velvet and lace, she found herself tied to a dull witted husband who reeked of medicines and drugs” (Magill, Masterpieces of World Literature)

Emma has Charles leave all of his trusty patients for Yonville in hope of more business, but Charles becomes a struggling doctor. While Emma hopes for a boy that will make her feel successful with his accomplishments, she gives birth to a girl. Léon plays around with Emma, which makes her vulnerable to Rodolphe’s charm. Rodolphe leaves Emma, destroying her will. Léon, whom she had spent huge amounts of money on, abandons Emma. Emma’s debts are much above her means, yet Charles never finds out or discusses the matter with her. Homias talks Emma into convincing Charles to do the Clubfoot operation in search of fame and fortune, all ultimately ending in a destroyed reputation. Finally, Lheureux entices Emma to spend more and more and offers her immense credit. Even when Emma consults the reverend, he is unable to understand her pain.

Not once in the novel does Emma experience joy in being alive or have anything morally acceptable that makes her want to live on. Fellow writer and friend of Flaubert, Charles Augusta Sainte-Beuve gave the book great criticism but found the same problem. “[The scenes were] pictures which, if they were painted with a brush as they are written, would be worthy of hanging in a gallery beside the best genre painting… .” But its principle defect “was its [the novel] lack of ‘goodness,’ its unrelieved portrayal of pettiness, shallowness, and corruption”. This is where the line can be drawn that separates the normal use of artistic license from work that is too unreal. The novel becomes unbelievable to the reader as they cannot relate to a person that has nothing to live for. With so much negative writing on Emma, the reader begins to analyze her character instead of accepting her as a real person.

“For most of the novel we see from Emma’s perspective, but there is a deft playing off of Emma’s perceptions against the narrator’s control that we are able to analyze her perceptions in a broader context rather than simply accept them as fact”.

Soon the reader hates Emma for her continual habit of making poor decisions.

The reader begins to question why Emma could not see how she was destroying herself. Some people believe that Flaubert wanted the reader to hate Emma as that was the point of his story about nothing. On the contrary, the true or main theme of the novel was that of reality verses illusion. It is a theme that is universal. But Flaubert tries to create this idea through constant coincidences like Emma giving birth to a powerless girl instead of a chivalrous boy. “…she [Emma] is a very ordinary middle-class woman, with banal expectations of life and an urge to dominate her surroundings”. Once this is proven through several dreadful decisions on Emma’s part, Flaubert should have focused more his central theme. One of the reasons Flaubert kept on writing disgrace into Emma goes back to his attempt to blaspheme Louise Colet.

As the reader experiences Emma’s journey through words, they become more and more separated from the novel. For example, after Emma spends a great deal of time with Léon when she first meets him. When he decides to move to Paris to study law, she does not realize how foolish she was to be charmed by someone who left her on a whim. She does not appreciate how fortunate she is to have a loving husband waiting to adore her at home. Or the fact that she has given birth to a beautiful young girl that she can raise any way she pleases. No, Emma only depresses herself over the fact that she did not make love and commit adultery to Léon while she still had the chance. Frank N. Magill best summarizes this experience “Broken-hearted, Emma deplored her weakness in not giving herself to Léon, fretted in her boredom, and once more made herself ill”. How disgraceful Emma is, how annoying it is to the reader to examine such a thankless woman!

A similar event occurs towards the latter half of the book when Emma gains power of attorney over Charles’ finances. She then spends relentlessly as if there is nothing stopping her. Although this scene also fits Flaubert’s attempt at illusion verses reality, as Emma sees the money supply as unlimited but in reality the Bovarys are on the edge of bankruptcy, it is by this time in the book more disgusting that Emma can continue to make decisions that will again damage her life. After so many problems have come as a result of Emma’s thinking, the reader feels that by this time she must comprehend the fact that if she spends past her means, she will inevitably meet bankruptcy. The reader wants to know why this character never comes to a realization of her poor choices once in the entire novel.

According to an average person that posted an online review of the work Madame Bovary,

“Emma Bovary, has nothing going for her but beauty…[she] manages to make the lives of those around her thoroughly miserable…she has no redeeming qualities…the rest of the characters, and the plot, are cynical in the extreme”.

Although this person cannot be trusted for a professional opinion, they demonstrate that most readers will miss Flaubert’s overriding themes by getting swept up in Emma’s frequent misfortune. This reader spends the greater part of their critique discussing what is wrong with Emma, which reveals that the typical reader will find it hard to like Emma or realize what her lack of “redeeming qualities” truly symbolize. The common reader will often miss the plot and view the novel as description of a protagonist that never appreciated life.

By creating several events that may have shown hope for Emma, but still resulted in her suicide, Flaubert may have managed to keep the reader interested and understanding of his many themes, primarily illusion and reality. The reader will also feel sympathy for Charles as a result of Emma being portrayed as the one that destroyed his life. But instead of accomplishing his arguments, Flaubert’s prevailing encouragement for writing the novel shines through in his surplus of artistic license. Because he disliked his mistress, Louise Colet, the reader dislikes Emma, Flaubert’s portrayal of Colet.


Works Cited

“Gustave Flaubert (Madame Bovary).” Gretchen.and.Brett.com.   http//www.gretchen.and.brett.com/bookshelf/classics.html

Kunitz, Stanley J., and Vineta Colby. European Authors 1000-100. New York H. W. Wilson Company.

Magill, Frank, and Edward E. Foster. Masterplots. Vol. 6 New York Salem Press.

Magill, Frank, et al. Masterpieces of World Literature in Digest Form. New York Harper & Row.

McCarthy, Mary. Preface. Madame Bovary. By Gustave Flaubert. Trans. Mildred Marmur. New York New American Library.


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