Emma's Feet on Clay: The Ironies of Romanticized Location in Madame Bovary

By Tipper, Paul Andrew | The Modern Language Review, April 1999 | Go to article overview

Emma's Feet on Clay: The Ironies of Romanticized Location in Madame Bovary


Tipper, Paul Andrew, The Modern Language Review


To speak of Flaubert's 'modernity' is now something of a critical commonplace, yet many aspects of his provocative use of language remain to be explored. The present study aims to elaborate a 'geolinguistic' approach to the detailed analysis of placenames in Madame Bovary, highlighting how toponymic and geographic denotations become irony-laden connotations when the differential relations between them are investigated. With this objective in mind, it is Flaubert's exploitation of 'textured' signifiers (language that is at once metonymically referential and metaphorically non-representational) that I wish to spotlight. The Flaubert signifier is notoriously elusive; it rattles around as though in some echo-chamber, emitting now a sardonic squeak, now an ironic roar. An appreciation of either, or both, of these 'sounds' depends upon the attentive reader's willingness to make connections. As Dennis Porter observes, Madame Bovary is 'a novel rich in [...] equivalences, at all levels from that of episode, scene, paragraph, and sentence down to word and phoneme. Consequently, the work's texture is thickened to a point where its linear sequences come close to being overwhelmed by complex cross-references'. (1) This technical feat is one I now investigate within the context of romanticized location in Madame Bovary. (2)

This article focuses initially on two specific toponyms, Argueil and Paris (the former as location hitherto unexplored), and investigates the semiology of irony where apparently innocent place-names generate an ironic charge within a strategic textual ordering that systematically undermines Emma's relative (and inaccurate) assessment of reality-scape and fantasy-scape. This is generated essentially by the figural clay/ideal conflation set against textual ideology where clay/real are conflated. These specific place-names are then evaluated differentially, with reference first to aestheticized location (either in Emma's dreams or in important narratorial material) and then to those common toponyms scattered around Normandy with a characteristic -ville suffix. Finally, before an overall interpretation of the ironic scale of Emma's dream and reality locations is offered, La Vaubyessard as dream-site is explored. The work, then, is only partly geo-specific; its central thrust is an exploration of the poetics of irony found at both the surface and subjacent levels of Madame Bovary.

It is difficult to see how a market town as seemingly mundane as Argueil could slot into a paradigm of 'romanticized location'. But this is precisely where the irony of Argueil is to be found. Emma's imaginative transformation of it into something almost paradisacal reveals a central truth about the entire nature of her mental life: it is, like the woman herself, a 'pur produit degenere du romantisme francais'. (3) Argueil, as real location, has all the potential allure of idealized space with the aerial views it affords, but as a serious contender for romanticized dream-scape is woefully lacking in many ways and it is this lack that punctures Emma's dream, thereby ironizing her falsified worldview.

So how is Argueil lacking? I disregard for a moment its unglamorous appellation and concentrate on one important feature of the Normandy terrain: the composition of its soils. Any agricultural map of France will show that earth in the Pays de Caux and the Pays de Bray is constituted largely of clay. (4) These peaty and clay soils, together with good amounts of rainfall (on average forty inches annually (p. 27)), guarantee lush growth of vegetation and an earth so boggy that negotiation of it is impossible without a good pair of sturdy boots. Such landscape is entirely consistent with that evoked in Madame Bovary, where, for example, Emma muddies her footwear on her way to La Huchette to meet Rodolphe (pp. 168, 193). This implicit mud/clay presence, evoked every time the ground under Emma's feet is mentioned, opens up myriad pathways to an irony that is based on an imagined Romantic purity systematically undermined by a dirty reality and a real dirtiness. …

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