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  • The Realism of Madame Bovary
  • Jonathan Culler (bio)

Flaubert's realism is a topic that has been somewhat neglected of late—for a variety of reasons that at least deserve some reflection. First, though Madame Bovary remains the most widely read and studied of his novels, it would be fair to say, I think, that for critics of the last thirty years Bouvard et Pecuchet has become paradigmatic for Flaubert—as of course it is—and that stripped-down model of writerly activity, which centers the novel on the circulation of anonymous discourses, can lead one to neglect the extensive descriptions, analyses, and reflections that make up so much of Madame Bovary. Consider this passage.

D'ailleurs, il [Léon] allait devenir premier clerc: c'était le moment d'être sérieux. Aussi renonçait-il à la flûte, aux sentiments exaltés, à l'imagination; —car tout bourgeois, dans l'échauffement de sa jeunesse, ne fût-ce qu'un jour, une minute, s'est cru capable d'immenses passions, de hautes entreprises. Le plus médiocre libertin a rêvé des sultanes; chaque notaire porte en soi les débris d'un poète.

Il s'ennuyait maintenant lorsque Emma, tout à coup, sanglotait sur sa poitrine; et son coeur, comme les gens qui ne peuvent endurer qu'une certaine dose de musique, s'assoupissait d'indifférence au vacarme d'un amour dont il ne distinguait plus les délicatesses.

(III.6, 296)1

I quote these sentences to emphasize that moral pronouncements and analytic reflections which purport to tell us about the world coexist with the more famous style indirect libre which presents the thoughts or discourse of a character or a social perspective.

A second reason for the neglect of realism in Flaubert might be the [End Page 683] ambiguity of the notion of realism itself: does it designate conformity with codes of verisimilitude or, on the contrary, what breaks with the déjà lu, vu, vécu? Finally, there is the fact, whose significance is difficult to estimate, that if realism entails a mimetic relationship to the social, the analysis of realism is likely to be much less interesting and rewarding to sophisticated critics than, say, the exploration of intertextual relationships or the discovery of complex internal patterns and homologies. At a conference on Flaubert's realism in September 2006, which Barbara Vinken organized and which Jacques Neefs, Marc de Biasi and I attended, the participants got most exited, I believe, about a paper which developed an intricate argument about the relations between Madame Bovary and Notre Dame de Paris, highlighting that echoing relationship already present in the two titles (maDAME bovARY, notre DAME de pARIS) and figurations of spiders, weaving, webs, etc.2 It was as though we had been freed from the question of realism and released into the realm of textuality, where we could freely disport ourselves.

But the problem of realism in Madame Bovary is hard to ignore. It was a problem from the outset. As we know, Flaubert was allegedly directed to this project when urged by his friends, who were appalled by the reading of La Tentation de saint Antoine—to tackle a realistic, down-to-earth subject, one of those incidents of which bourgeois life is full. Madame Bovary thus originates in opposition to the fantasmagorie of Saint Antoine: Flaubert should undertake "un livre raisonnable," rather than abandoning himself "à tous les lyrismes, gueulades et excentricités philosophico-fantastiques qui me viendraient" (Corr 2.11, Oct. 1, 1851). And Flaubert threw himself into empirical research, whether on club feet, agricultural fairs, children's literature, or young girls dreams. Flaubert's correspondence testifies to a realist novelist's immersion in the real-world materials of the novel—to the point of nausea: "je suis dans les rêves des jeunes filles jusqu'au cou." (Corr 2.56, March 20, 1852). Or again, "Voilà deux jours que je tâche d'entrer dans des rêves de jeunes filles et que je navigue pour cela dans les océans laiteux de la littérature à castels, troubadours à toques de velours à plumes blanches. Faites-moi penser à te parler de cela. Tu peux me donner...


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