- Against Écriture Féminine:Flaubert's Narrative Aggression in Madame Bovary
"Avec rage": Flaubert's Revenge
"J'ai rempoigné la Bovary avec rage," Flaubert wrote to Louis Bouilhet two months after the end of his relationship with Louise Colet, the woman who had been lover, correspondent, and—perhaps most importantly—rival writer in Flaubert's eyes until the couple separated definitively in 1854.1 The letters to Colet, written over nearly a decade, attune us to the height of Flaubert's artistic aspirations and the extent of his insecurities. They also reveal the degree to which questions of aesthetic power and artistic identity become embroiled in Flaubert's problematic construction of the feminine, a construction that culminates in his writing of Madame Bovary as a portrait of female artistic failure.
Throughout the letters, Flaubert expresses his desire to remake Colet in his image. "Je ne veux de toi, comme femme, que la chair. Que tout le reste donc soit à moi, ou mieux, soit moi, de même pâte et la même pâte," he writes, adding some months later, "Oh si je pouvais faire de toi ce que j'en rêve, quelle femme, quelle être tu serais!"2 Flaubert did not, however, get his wish. Although Colet's letters to Flaubert have been lost, the stylistic elements of her published works demonstrate her refusal to conform to the edicts and declarations he directed at her.3 Principal among these pronouncements was Flaubert's railing against the excessive effusiveness and fluidity that he associated with her womanhood. "Tu t'abîmes avec l'élément femelle," he warns, and he counsels elsewhere, "tu arriveras à la plénitude de ton talent en dépouillant ton sexe."4 Even more scathingly, he criticizes what he saw as her stylistic faults by accusing her of excessive femininity: "Il ne faut pas, quand on est arrivé à ton degré, que le linge sente le lait . . . comprime les seins de ton coeur, qu'on y voie des muscles et non une glande."5 Later, we [End Page 31] will see how Flaubert's focus on excess in Colet's writing—and her linen—points to his anxiety that there might be a whiff of milk from his pages as well. For now, though, Flaubert's basic message is plain: if Colet was to be any kind of writer, she ought to write like a man, preferably like Flaubert himself. Yet Colet continued, vexingly, to be a writer and not to be Flaubert.
Failing to rewrite Colet or shape her aesthetic convictions after his own, Flaubert wrote Emma Bovary with a vengeance. Indeed, Janet Beizer argues persuasively that Madame Bovary is Flaubert's "most bitter note of revenge" to Colet, "his longest letter in a correspondence already officially ended."6 Written from the start as what Jacques Rancière calls the "embodiment of the wrong way," Emma the failed writer functions as a critical element in Flaubert's elaborate attempts at self-definition against "feminine" writing.7 If Flaubert permits a reading of Madame Bovary as "the portrait of an artist . . . as a young woman," as Naomi Schor suggests, this is nevertheless a degraded portrait strategically conceived so that more credit and acclaim can accrue to the male author.8 Put another way, Flaubert presents Emma as an incompetent writer so as to highlight the unique accomplishments of his narrative technique. Madame Bovary as a showpiece of originality, then, depends for its success on the denigration of a degraded representation of écriture féminine as literary practice and performance.
"Les océans laiteux": Emma's Models
The novel's thematic treatment of sentimental narratives—specifically as a force that destroys originality and artistic potential—is one of Flaubert's strategies for ridiculing the inferior literary company pursued by women, as exemplified by Emma. Flaubert first figures her bad taste and laughable fantasies in his depiction of her growing disillusionment with her marriage: "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".9 This passage introduces the thread...