Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Bored: Echoes of Flaubert's Egyptian Travel Writing in Madame Bovary

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Bored: Echoes of Flaubert's Egyptian Travel Writing in Madame Bovary

Article excerpt

In the afternoon we ride in the desert... We have the impression that we are on a beach and are about to see the sea; our moustaches taste of salt, the wind is sharp and bracing, footprints of jackals and camels half obliterated by the wind. One keeps expecting to see something new from the top of each hill, and each time it's only the desert.  --Flaubert in Egypt, 56  All the while, however, she was waiting in her heart for something to happen. Like shipwrecked sailors, she turned despairing eyes upon the solitude of her life, seeking afar some white sail in the mists of the horizon... But each morning, as she awoke, she hoped it would come that day; she listened to every sound, sprang up with a start, wondered that it did not come; then at sunset, always more saddened, she longed for the next day.  --Madame Bovary, 53 

In this pair of passages, one from Gustave Flaubert's Egyptian travel notes (1849) and the other from his novel Madame Bovary (1856), the traveler in the Orient bears a resemblance to the disillusioned housewife, Emma Bovary. In both excerpts, fantasies of the sea express desire for an interruption to spatial and temporal continuity. Flaubert's travel notes use the desert as a symbol of routine and repetition. Madame Bovary likewise turns monotony into a problem of geography, evoking an ever-misty "horizon" as the remote zone of experience. Juxtaposed, these passages present Flaubert and Emma as uncomfortable bedfellows, both plodding through life more attuned to mirage than reality. In his 2008 essay "Why Emma Bovary Had to Be Killed," Jacques Ranciere underscores another parallel between Emma and Flaubert: just as Emma conflates art with furniture, Flaubert mixes the poetic and the prosaic. Both Emma and Flaubert participated in a widespread undoing of aesthetic and social hierarchy, as each "embodies the 'democratic' equality of any subject with any other subject" (237). Yet, Ranciere shifts to oppose the novel's protagonist and her author. Emma, the anti-artist, contaminates art by subsuming it into an economy of materialist consumption. Flaubert, however, rescues art from consumer culture by shifting the grounds of aesthetics from subject matter to manner or style. While Emma tries to arrest aesthetic experience in objects she can possess, Flaubert strives to liberate aesthetic sensations and impressions from economies of desire and ownership. This feat, Ranciere tells us, would not be complete without the sacrificial death of Emma. Ranciere is not alone in reading Emma as a scapegoat. Margaret Cohen demonstrates that by pathologizing Emma's reading habits Flaubert "devalorizes" the gendered sentimental tradition and creates a space for himself in the literary marketplace (749). For Ashley Hope Perez, Flaubert's negative portrayal of Emma as "an incompetent writer" manifests his view of female authorship as a "degraded" art (32). In each of these interpretations, Flaubert establishes his own artistic originality by exemplifying in Emma "the wrong way" of reading, writing, and relating to aesthetic objects (Ranciere 238). The mirroring of author and character is thus set aside as critics pursue Flaubert's negative portrayal of his protagonist.

This essay revisits Flaubert's characterization of Emma by attending to resonances between his Egyptian travel writing and Madame Bovary. In doing so, I claim that Flaubert was concerned with the perceptual and even epistemological conundrum posed by boredom. Flaubert's Egyptian travel writing catalogues his belief that exhausted modes of representation, such as cliche, inhibit one's ability to come to know the world through sensory perception. Rather than encountering the world through our senses, one "rediscovers" the world as the mirror of tropes and idioms inherited from popular literature, mass culture, religious rhetoric, and other discourse {Flaubert in Egypt 81). (1) The result is a withering of sensory perception and an atrophy of wonder. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.