We are struck by Gustave Flaubert's novel Madam Bovary in two distinct ways: one, it presents before us the historical unfolding of a new era that passionately swore by the narrow materialism of economic progress; two, it brings to focus the plight of a young woman trapped in marriage--an institution that had served entirely different social interests in the pre-Revolution France. Flaubert significantly fused the two aspects to achieve a heightened realism in this novel that has few parallels in the nineteenth century French fiction. In this discussion, our attempt would be to identify the working of a form that evolved along the movement of the life-processes of a middle class woman from the point where she entered matrimony to the point where she was left with no alternative but to end her life, surrounded as she found herself by social apathy and loneliness.
The loss of the urge to live is built into the very fabric of the narrative. In one important respect, the account of happenings in the novel is a negation of the narrative--it scarcely "tells" the reader, scarcely narrates to the audience, the sequential tale of the intertwined fates of characters. The paradox of economic progress and social passion combined with the helpless longing of an individual to relate to her environment is the stuff of which Madame Bovary is made. The form in question takes care of the various components of social experience that range from trade spreading to small towns and villages, secular education imparted to students, impacting of impressionable minds by the reading of romances, clash between entrenched traditional interests and the winds of social change blowing across the wider society as well as misery and deprivation of the very poor in the nineteenth century French society.
As stated by Herbert Lottman in Flaubert: A Biography, Flaubert was making an important point when he wrote about his novel Madame Bovary to a close friend of his, Louise Colet, explaining to her the logic of his fictional attempt. Flaubert stated: "All the value of my book, if it has one, will be to have been able to walk steadily on a hair suspended between the double abyss of lyricism and vulgarity (which I want to mix in a narrative analysis)" (p. 108). The said value of the novel lay, according to Flaubert, in his ability to "walk steadily" on the impossible surface of "a hair" that further became "the double abyss" of two incongruous things as "lyricism and vulgarity".
There is indeed a fairly long list of difficult things in this definition of the artistic act, an act that negates, for the author, the very contours of the chosen field of perception. Also consider that Flaubert begins his statement with doubting in one go the existence of any value the book possessed ("if it has one"). Nevertheless, he is able to face the challenge of putting across through words a dilemma that requires extremely subtlety.
Still, let us not take this statement at face value. We should say instead that the drama of the work resided, for the author, in the multidimensional rendering of the story of Emma Bovary and that Flaubert sought to address through the novel the dilemma that the French society faced in the middle years of the nineteenth century. The starting point of the story of Emma being in her adolescence, we confront her formative period in terms of the process of a momentous upheaval visiting France--the process is marked by a wholesale rejection of the existing moral structure and acceptance in its place of "historical" progress through relentless pursuit of economic and political power. The progress in question is loaded with multiple suggestions of thorny developments such as the emergence of a new middle class blindly opting for success and self-promotion in life, hitherto unknown modes of expression of motives through newspapers, a different notion of politics that increases its scope through rallies, festivals and fairs and finally, the village turning into a small town to look for further enhancement of itself by aligning to the city. …