Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and the Discourse of Hysteria

By Bronfen, Elisabeth | Nineteenth-Century Prose, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview
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Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary and the Discourse of Hysteria


Bronfen, Elisabeth, Nineteenth-Century Prose


Elisabeth Bronfen explores the murky interface between the hysteric Emma Bovary's much ado about nothing and Gustave Flaubert's idea that the perfect novel would be a book about nothing, held together only by the internal strength of its style. In his novel, a critical study of a case history of hysteria, Flaubert offers a refiguration of medical discourses on hysteria that were prevalent during his time. At the same time that the novel presages contemporary conceptualizations of this elusive and protean psychosomatic disturbance, the author argues that hysteria should not be reduced to the issue of feminine sexual dissatisfaction, but is a form of communication meant to broadcast the fallibility of the symbolic and the self, a way of articulating the vulnerability and woundedness inextricably inhabiting human existence even while the work of fantasy shields us from this nothing by inventing romantic scenarios revolving around plenitude. The article traces the way that the characters' circling around nothing emerges as one of the structuring principles of Madame Bovary, then discusses the principal heroine's performance of hysteria, and ends by discussing the way the hysteric resiliently invents ever new versions of the self, referring to no concrete organic lesions but responding to a desire to lose herself in fantasy.

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What does it mean to be hysterical? Perhaps I've also been so, perhaps I am now, but I know nothing about it, having never examined the matter thoroughly and having only heard about it secondhand without studying it. Isn't it a malaise, a great distress, caused by the desire for an impossible something. In that case, all of us who have imagination are afflicted with it, with that strange sickness. And why would such a malady have a sex?

George Sand, in a letter to Gustave Flaubert, 15 January 1867.

A Book about Nothing

In his letter Louise Colet, written on 16 January 1852, Gustave Flaubert describes what he thinks would be the ideal aesthetic text: "What seems beautiful to me, what I should like to write, is a book about nothing, a book dependent on nothing external [sans attache exterieure], which would be held together [se tiendrait] by the internal strength [force interne] of its style ... a book which would have almost no subject, or at least in which the subject would be almost invisible, if such a thing is possible. The finest works are those that contain the least matter; the closer expression comes to thought, the closer language comes to coinciding and merging with it, the finer the result.... " However, even as he is formulating this poetic desire, he recognizes that such a radical liberation from any narrative subject in favor of pure style is but a fantasy to be fulfilled in the future, for he is quick to add, "I'll write about all that in my old age, when I'll have nothing better to scribble. Meanwhile, I'm working hard on my novel." (1)

Now, as is well known, the novel Flaubert was working on so diligently at the time of this letter to Colet lives precisely off a masterful enmeshment of beautiful and ugly themes, namely the detailed descriptions of romantic raptures, of adultery, of the insurmountable debt and suicide of its heroine, as well as the petit bourgeois mediocrity and banality of life in the French provinces. After all, Madame Bovary became such a succes de scandale not because of its style, but because of its subject. For the imperial prosecutor Pinard opened his trial on 29 January 1857 against Flaubert and the Revue de Paris, which had initially published the novel between the first of October and 15 December 1856, with an accusation of irreligion and immorality. Although Flaubert, along with his editor and his printer, was ultimately acquitted, the novel Madame Bovary has since become inextricably bound up with its rendition of feminine passion transgressing the laws of bourgeois convention. Indeed, as one of the greatest love stories of world literature, it has flourished within our cultural image repertoire as a book whose subject is anything but invisible.

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