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  • Adieu à Emma Bovary
  • Timothy Ellison (bio)

L’artiste doit être dans son œuvre commeDieu dans la création, invisible et tout-puissant; qu’on le sente partout, mais qu’onne le voie pas.

—Flaubert à Mademoiselle Leroyer de Chantepie (“Correspondence,” 325)

I. The Adieu

There must be a compulsion to say good-bye in Madame Bovary, a compulsion to take one’s leave of the other—that is, to bid adieu.1 Perhaps this goes without saying; in the world of the realist novel, characters will inevitably meet, greet, and say their good-byes. The very banality of the gesture would render it inconspicuous in most contexts; still, it is hard not to notice a certain insistence in the novel on the potentially ominous, or even threatening nature of such a quotidian event. It is always difficult to say good-bye to Emma Bovary, to Madame Bovary, even if she does, in the end, leave this world behind.

Translation will inevitably attenuate the verbal resonances of the peculiar French word “adieu”; in English, we do not hear the “God” that etymologically underlies even our own “good-bye.” The utility of a word like “adieu” would tend to leave the “Dieu” unnoticed in everyday discourse, but the etymon begins to leap off the page in a text that is constantly playing with Emma’s relationship with divinity. The thinkers [End Page 898] that have most called our attention to the multiple meanings of the adieu are Emmanuel Levinas and the responses to Levinas’s work by Jacques Derrida. In The Gift of Death, Derrida synthesizes the possible meanings of adieu in a helpful schema:

It seems to me that adieu can mean at least three things:

  1. 1. The salutation or benediction given (before all constative language “adieu” can just as well signify “hello,” “I can see you,” “I see that you are there,” I speak to you before telling you anything else—and in certain circumstances in French it happens that one says adieu at the moment of meeting rather than separation);

  2. 2. That salutation or benediction given at the moment of separation, of departure, sometimes forever (this can never in fact be excluded), without any return on this earth, at the moment of death;

  3. 3. The a-dieu, for God or before God and before anything else or any relation to the other, in every other adieu. Every relation to the other would be, before and after anything else, an adieu (47).2

As Derrida points out, a number of relations are at play in the adieu. There is the ethical relationship with the other: when one says adieu to the other, whether at the moment of greeting or of separation, one is opening oneself up to the other, exposing oneself to the other, allowing the other’s language and face to encounter my own and to engender a response. One does not say adieu to something that one does not recognize on some level as similar to oneself and yet other as well, and the adieu entails as well a sense of response along with responsibility: when I say adieu to the other there is the possibility that one will say adieu to me in kind. But there is also the possibility that I will receive no response: this is the relationship between the adieu and death. It may be that my adieu to the other will be my final farewell to the other as the dead, as the non-responsive in the Levinasian sense. There is also the relationship between the adieu and Dieu, that is to say, God or the infinite within the self. As Levinas writes in God, Death, and Time, time is the “to-God” (à-Dieu); time is a “patient awaiting, the patience and endurance of the beyond-measure, to-God” (115). Existence in time is a passive submission unto God.

But what does this challenging philosophical material have to do with the provincial world of Madame Bovary? The only philosophy in these mœurs de province is to be found in humorous references to Emma’s [End Page 899] “serious” reading (“She attempted some serious reading, in history and philosophy”) or Homais’s...


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