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Flaubert described Madame Bovary as "a work of anatomy." Recall that Flaubert's father was a doctor and that Flaubert spent much of his childhood in a hospital environment. The precision with which Flaubert brings his characters and their surroundings to life in many ways resembles the work of a scientist. And like a careful scientist, he tries to stick to the objective, concrete facts about his characters in their setting that will reveal their essence.
In a letter written while he was working on Madame Bovary, he referred to the book as "an exercise in style." He thought the actual subjects he was writing about-the people, the story, the places-were unimportant and that the only way to redeem the book was by making it into a great work of art. He did this by trying to bridge the gap between form and content, by attempting to make the words he used merge with the things he was describing. To do this, he searched almost fanatically for the "mot juste," the uniquely perfect word. That is, every word had to be exactly right to reveal the essence of the thing being described. To create a book in this way is a laborious, painstaking job, and it's no wonder it took Flaubert five years to finish Madame Bovary.
Flaubert uses description of physical things-clothes, food, buildings, nature, carriage rides-as another dimension of his story. In many novels, descriptive passages serve as intermissions in the plot, but in Madame Bovary they're an integral part of the story. For example, Flaubert's description of Charles' cap in the opening scene tells you as much about its owner as you might get in several pages of character analysis. In a similar vein, Flaubert conveys the aimlessness of Emma's affair with Leon by taking you on an endless cab ride through the streets of Rouen. The long, winding sentences parallel the drawn-out nature of the trip. The description of Rouen Cathedral at the beginning of Part Three is another example of a passage rich with meaning. And, the many descriptions of food throughout Madame Bovary often are reminders of lust. For example, notice the elaborately detailed description of the feast at Emma and Charles' wedding, where "big dishes of yellow custard, on whose smooth surface the newlyweds' initials had been inscribed in arabesques of sugar-coated almonds, quivered whenever the table was given the slightest knock."
Symbolism is an important stylistic device in Madame Bovary, Note the frequent use of windows to help create a mood. A closed window might symbolize the reality and monotony of small-town life and of the limitations of marriage, while open windows might symbolize dreams and freedom. Other important symbols are the dried wedding bouquets of both Emma and Charles' first wife, as well as the blind beggar.
Word imagery, also, is important. Flaubert uses many liquid images to convey sensuality, boredom, and even death. The liquids take on various forms from oozing, dripping, and melting to oceans, rivers, tides, torrents, and waves. Emma's passion for Rodolphe is referred to as a "river of milk." His fading love is "the water of a river sinking into its bed." There are many related images of dampness, drowning, and boats.
Flaubert's attention to detail and his reliance on description to tell his story have led to the labeling of his style as realistic, or giving an objective impression of real life. He creates this effect both by using a great number of accurate details as building blocks and by carefully selecting and arranging them into a new reality, the world of Madame Bovary. Later in the nineteenth century, writers like Emile Zola and Alphonse Daudet pushed this focus on realistic detail even further by including even the most disgusting aspects of life in their works, usually for the purpose of social criticism.
By selecting and arranging the details, Flaubert hoped to capture the essence of the life he described instead of merely reproducing it. Readers disagree on whether he succeeded. Some see the descriptive passages as plodding and slow, and the accumulation of details as monotonous. As you read such scenes as Emma's wedding in Tostes, the ball at La Vaubyessard, and the agricultural fair in Yonville, you will form your own reactions to Flaubert's realistic style.
Madame Bovary was, of course, written in French. Since Flaubert spent so much time trying to find the precise word for every situation, the book presents a tremendous challenge to the translator. Four widely read English translations are available. Notice how the translators handle the book's opening sentence:
We were at preparation, when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy dressed in "civvies" and a school servant carrying a big desk. (tr. by Alan Russell)
We were studying when the headmaster came in, followed by a new boy, not yet wearing a school uniform, and a monitor carrying a large desk. (tr. by Mildred Marmur)
We were in the study hall when the headmaster walked in, followed by a new boy not wearing a school uniform, and by a janitor carrying a large desk. (tr. by Lowell Bair)
We were in study-hall when the headmaster entered, followed by a new boy not yet in school uniform and by the handyman carrying a large desk. (tr. by Francis Steegmuller)
See how the French words "garcon de classe" are rendered as "school servant," "monitor," "janitor," and "handyman" by the translators. (Russell's use of "school servant" and "civvies" indicates that this is a British translation.) Similarly, every page of Madame Bovary differs noticeably from one English version to another. While this might occur in translations of other foreign works, it is especially significant for the work of Flaubert with its emphasis on precision of expression. All translators try, in their various ways, to capture the tone and meaning of the original. Your choice of translation will affect your overall impression of the novel. (To fully experience the results of Flaubert's intense devotion to style, the original is the best source.)
This guide is based on the translation by Lowell Bair (Bantam Books, 1959).