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  • Loving, Reading, Eating:The Passion of Madame Bovary
  • Barbara Vinken (bio)

Madame Bovary is the story of an adultery in the provinces. Emma, the wife of the doctor Charles Bovary, betrays him first with the landowner Rodolphe, then with the law clerk, Léon. The "lifestyle" that Emma holds to be necessary for love leads to her complete financial ruin, and she eventually kills herself with the arsenic of the pharmacist Homais, in despair at being abandoned in her utter ruin by her lover.1 Her only daughter becomes, while still a child, a cotton-spinner—one of the lowest forms of employment at the time, because of the often deadly damage to the workers' health caused by the fine dust created in the process. Flaubert's novel is generally read as an example of the extreme development of the aestheticization of lifestyle in modernity. Art—literature and music—becomes the model for life, with devastating consequences; and spiritual and sensory values get confused with one another in the most corrupting way. The trigger for the first adultery is the sight of a riding-costume, the erotically charged "amazone"; the trigger for the second is the "Parisian" habit of riding a coach.2 For Léon, the lace of his beloved's camisole is at least as essential as [End Page 759] the elevation of her soul and Emma's spirituality is expressed through the purchase of a tea-rose colored velvet prie-Dieu.

I would like to read Flaubert's novel as a text on the aesthetic. In this perspective its thesis can be summed up as follows: aesthetics offers no compensation for the loss of the promise of salvation, and is therefore not to be understood as a phenomenon of secularization. Aesthetics is rather the outcome of an insatiable desire for God, misdirected towards the world, finding expression in the fetish and in drugs. In the end, this longing for transcendent salvation is not compensated by aesthetics, but rather destructively betrayed. Only a no longer fine literature can disabuse us of the beauty of the arts.

Research on Madame Bovary circles around three motif complexes—food, love, and reading—whose common nexus I would like to indicate with the help of a number of examples. The poetological topos of spiritual nourishment is the hidden structuring matrix of the narrative. The representational dimension of the novel rests on this topos, even though it does not appear as the primary focus of the story and is therefore not visible on the level of the narrated events. The story of Madame Bovary is dominated by the symptoms brought about by the perversion of this very topos of spiritual nourishment. Flaubert's Madame Bovary, usually interpreted as the realistic novel par excellence, will here be read, by contrast, as the allegorical narration of the end of allegory. In this sense, it is a novel about reading—about aesthetic experience—or, to put it more exactly, about the now perverted readability of the world. As the epitome of all allegories of reading, which have tended in the modern period to become allegories of the no longer correctly readable world, only able to be narrated in the no longer so beautiful belles lettres, Flaubert's Madame Bovary is the canticle of canticles of fiction. Right up to the present day, it is quite rightly celebrated as the novel of novels. The thesis of this essay is therefore that the aesthetic effect in Flaubert's avant-garde poetics is to be seen as an after-effect of an older spiritual constellation, inscribed into Flaubert's modern aesthetics. The novel is therefore only apparently an exoteric text, easy to understand for everybody; being densely encrypted, it is indeed esoteric beneath its smooth surface, waiting for a community of forty or fifty readers per century to be understood.

Michael Riffaterre announced triumphantly his discovery of the "key sentence" of the novel, that which it "writes out": it is the sentence of Proudhon, who in 1866, nine years after the publication of the novel, wrote under the entry "adultère" in an article in Larousse: "l'adultère est [End Page 760] un crime qui contient en soi...


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