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Libraries, Kitsch and Gender in Madame Bovary Sarah Webster Goodwin A GAP YAWNS between Emma Bovary’s library and the reading Flaubert did in his study at Croisset. In that gap is engendered an esthetic system: kitsch and its binary opposite, “ serious” or elite art. What other binaries does that pair embrace? Most urgently, is Flaubert narrating—and helping shape—a feminization of kitsch,, an alignment of kitsch with feminine culture? Or is the binary pair kitsch/ art as unstable as the other binaries in Madame Bovary notoriously are, including that of gender? To address these questions is not to assume that kitsch can easily be defined. Flaubert’s novel has no doubt contributed as much as any other text to our working sense of what kitsch is: not only does kitsch circum­ scribe Emma’s esthetic, it appears within a complex network of social, economic and psychological factors. Representing kitsch, Flaubert also unmasks it, reveals its sordid features. Surely it is Flaubert who taught us, in the words of Hermann Broch, that “ Romanticism, without there­ fore being kitsch itself, is the mother of kitsch and that there are moments when the child becomes so like its mother that one cannot dif­ ferentiate between them.” 1 Mother rather than father because for the mother, at least, there can be no doubts about parentage; but mother, too, because of the very kitsch cult of beauty Broch identifies: “ the god­ dess of beauty in art is the goddess kitsch” (59). We have just begun to understand the relations between Romanticism and the modern gendermodel that has grown out of it; Emma Bovary wants to be both a man and an angel—a decidedly female angel, with exalted petticoats. Her aspirations and her destruction lead us through the labyrinthine system of kitsch.2 Emma dies because she spends too much money and because she has unattainable desires, and Flaubert shows us that these two impulses are profoundly linked in one esthetic and economic system.3 “ Elle con­ fondait, dans son désir, les sensualités du luxe avec les joies du cœur, l’élégance des habitudes et les délicatesses du sentiment.” 4 Simply put, Madame Bovary is about the relations between money, art, desire—and 56 Sp r in g 1988 G o o d w in gender. The “ sensualités du luxe” that cause such confusion for Emma come to her via her reading, and via her education as a young lady. Pre­ sided over by the woman of the house, the esthetics of fashion and of middle-class domesticity align themselves with kitsch rather than with art. Feminine culture, in Emma Bovary’s world, not only balances on a precipice, it epitomizes the fall into kitsch. But women are susceptible to femininity without being constitutive of it, and men do not escape kitsch; indeed, Léon represents an even more conventionally limited esthetic than does Emma. There is no tidy homology, and masculine culture, as depicted most bitingly in Homais, Rodolphe, Lheureux and Guillaumin, receives a more scathing indictment than do Emma’s misguided desires. Broch’s most famous statement on kitsch applies: “ Kitsch is the element of evil in the value system of art” (64). To manipulate others with kitsch is more evil than to find oneself subject to it. Much has been made of Emma Bovary as a female Quixote. Her reading of romances has turned her head. Miserable in her marriage, she has recourse to her years of reading: “ Et Emma cherchait à savoir ce que l’on entendait au juste dans la vie par les mots de félicité, de passion et d’ivresse, qui lui avaient paru si beaux dans les livres” (69). (In turn, she names her servant Félicité, as though trying to bring the sentiment itself —that has such power over her—into her employ.) We learn a great deal about Emma’s reading during her adolescence, including specific titles and authors: Paul et Virginie, Le génie du Christianisme, Walter Scott. And later: she subscribes to women’s journals (Corbeille, Sylphe des Salons), and reads Sue, Balzac, Sand. We know how she interweaves her reading with her memories and perceptions...


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pp. 56-66
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