Nothing Consumed: The Dangerous Space of Food in Madame Bovary

Article excerpt

The economy of consumption in Madame Bovary does not allow for desires to be fulfilled. It is a novel about emptiness, and eating badly; Emma cannot eat or experience other pleasures in a way that sustains her. This is why the act of consumption--of food and drink, which will be the focal point of this study, but also of material goods and of lovers--is so crucial to Flaubert's novel. Significantly, she understands her discontent in terms of consumption, or rather, the impossibility of it: "Un homme, au moms, est libre; il peut parcourir les passions et les pays, traverser les obstacles, mordre aux bonheurs les plus lointains. Mais une femme est empechee continuellement" (153, emphasis mine). This inability to consume as she wishes or to "mordre aux bonheurs," will be the cause of her undoing and, eventually, her death--which, of course, is a result of dangerous consumption.

Analyses of Emma as consumer have been largely confined by critical discourse to her role as reader. The questions raised by le bovarysme, first identified in 1892 by Jules de Gaultier, revolve around reading and subjectivity, and define an audience which, like Emma, was unable or unwilling to clearly separate the dreamworld of the text from a less appetizing reality. As Gaultier explained it, le bovarysme is a question of "le pouvoir departi a l'homme de se concevoir autre qu'il n'est" (1o). In recent studies devoted to this theme, Marielle Mace proposes that Emma is a montage, a self-made assemblage of parts plucked from the texts she has consumed: "des imitations choisies plusieurs sources, des 'flux imitatifs' contradictoires" (8). Borrowing a phrase from Jules Valles, Colette Camelin in turn raises the question of Emma as a "victime du livre" (3). Similar matters surface in Jacques Ranciere's "La mise a mort d'Emma Bovary," as his explanation of Emma's death implicitly recalls a central problem of bovarysme: "Telle est l'erreur d'Emma, sa faute contre l'art. Nous pouvons lui donner un nom: esthetisation de la vie quotidienne" (68). Though her appetite for literature is, admittedly, an unhealthy one, these studies neglect the most obvious form of consumption--one that is perhaps even more dangerous for the heroine of the novel. For while food is ever-present in Madame Bovary, and would seem to represent bounty and plenitude, it is, for Emma, a violent point of absence.

The field of gastronomic studies would seem a natural point of entry to this problematic. For example, in French Food: On the Table, on the Page, and in French Culture, literature is used as a means of better understanding social and historic shifts in French food culture. With this sort of approach, however, food is often merely a means among others of charting the emergence of gastronomy which, in the nineteenth century, as Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson notes, was "a cultural field in the making" (5). However, the volume also contains studies by such critics as Naomi Schor and Lawrence Schehr, whose work attends much more closely to the problems posed by food in fiction--problems which, in Madame Bovary, are critically important, both to the heroine and to the author's creative process. As Schehr observes, "food is never there for the sake of food" (125). And indeed, this statement could not be more true than it is in Madame Bovary. This study will examine the extent to which the space that Flaubert accords to food can serve as a microcosm of the work itself--a model of the perfect form Flaubert famously aspired to in his art.

Even the most extensive criticism touching on the alimentary motif in Madame Bovary fails to expose the utter emptiness that characterizes food in the novel. In his seminal Litterature et Sensation, Jean-Pierre Richard devotes several pages to this topic in Bovary, in a chapter he begins with the following claim, with which few would argue: "On mange beaucoup dans les romans de Flaubert" (119). But this is precisely the point: on mange beaucoup. …