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  • Flaubert lectrice:Flaubert Lady Reader
  • Margaret Cohen (bio)

"Madame Bovary c'est moi"; Flaubert's statement is one of the platitudes of literary history, worth an entry in his own Bouvard et Pécuchet. But from the perspective of the historian of the French novel during the first half of the nineteenth century, Flaubert's identification resonates as belonging to a contemporary discourse putting into relation questions of gender with questions of literary form. In identifying with a heroine, even one of his own creation, Flaubert dresses himself in one of the commonplaces of his time concerning the dangerous effect of literature, in particular on women readers. In the middle of the nineteenth century, the novel was seen to pose dangers of Quixotism for those who suffered from an excess of "sensibility," who followed the "heart," rather than the "mind" or "reason," to use terms in circulation in polemics of the period. This excess was attributed to women, bourgeois women in particular.

The topos concerning the dangers for women of reading novels reached back to the middle of the eighteenth century. In his identification with Emma, Flaubert was assuming the persona of the female Quixote, to use the term for this type of reader from the time when the figure came into widespread cultural circulation. The Female Quixote is the title of a novel published in 1752 by Charlotte Lennox. This novel tells the story of a young woman who grows up in seclusion in the country. Reading only romance novels of the seventeenth century, she believes she should model her behavior on the heroines of Scudéry and d'Urfé. Rousseau's preface to La Nouvelle Héloïse is another famous iteration of the female Quixote, expressing the sentiment [End Page 746] that women's active imaginations are susceptible to corruption by the power of fiction.

This commonplace was still alive at the time of Flaubert. The dangers posed to women by novels figured in the accusations against the novel in 1857, at the time of its publication, for "offenses à la morale publique et . . . à la religion."1 Here is a formulation of the susceptibility of women to overidentify with fiction in the words of the government prosecutor, "l'avocat impérial," Ernest Pinard:

Les pages légères de Madame Bovary tombent en des mains plus légères, dans des mains de jeunes filles, quelquefois de femmes mariées. Eh bien! lorsque l'imagination aura été séduite, lorsque cette séduction sera descendue jusqu'au cœur, lorsque le cœur aura parlé aux sens, est-ce que vous croyez qu'un raisonnement bien froid sera bien fort contre cette séduction des sens et du sentiment ?2

Our first response today might be to smile at the excessive power attributed to novels on the part of Pinard. Did his contemporaries really take seriously the invocation of the female Quixote, or is such rhetoric a way to mask the novel's dangers as "counter discourse," to borrow Richard Terdiman's phrase for its trenchant stance towards the dominant paradigms of bourgeois society and art? However, is the line between reality and representation so easy to stabilize, even in our present? Compare the corrupting power attributed to the novel in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to the unhealthy effects associated with the violence in "screen" media of our own time: television, movies, and above all, video and computer games. In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the audience affected was perceived as young women. Today, boys and young men are the target in debates over the dangers of representations. There is widespread concern in the United States that boys and young men will not be able to distinguish between the easy pleasures offered in imaginary acts of killing and destruction, and real violence. If at the time of Flaubert, as feminist critics have shown, attacks on the dangers of novel reading participated in a discourse that put into place a specifically middle-class ideal of domestic femininity, one may inquire whether there is any comparable cultural work going on today that involves transformations in ideals of masculinity, and what the class interests are that drive it. [End Page...


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