Madame Bovary. Moeurs de Province. (by Gustave Flaubert, 1857).
It was not without considerable hesitation that we determined to review Madame Bovary. The book has, however, we are informed, excited great attention at Paris, and has been hailed with much applause, as a specimen of “realism” in fiction, by very eminent French critics. Though it is not a work which we can recommend any man, far less any woman, to read, its success appears to us to be a fact worthy of the attention of all who take an interest in the condition of French society. The story is told in a very few words. M. Bovary, a country apothecary, marries the daughter of a farmer, who is too highly educated for her rank in life. She finds herself extremely dull, and by way of satisfying her love for excitement carries on two successive intrigues, in the course of which she involves herself and her husband in debt to a large amount. His goods are taken in execution. She appeals to her lovers to pay off the execution creditor, and, on their refusal, she poisons herself. Her husband, who loved her passionately, though very foolishly, is inconsolable for her loss, but has implicit confidence in her purity. At last, by an accident, he discovers the letters which had passed between her and her lovers, and dies of grief. Such is the story; and it is obvious enough that it cannot be otherwise than offensive according to our views. Indeed, the volume contains not a few passages which would of themselves justify very strong language if there were any danger that M. Flaubert's example would be followed in this country, or that his book would become popular amongst English readers. We do not, however, feel ourselves called upon to make use of any very indignant expressions. There is no fear that our novelists will outrage public decency. Their weaknesses forbid such dangerous eccentricity quite as much as their virtues.
Whether Madame Bovary is a true representation of French life or not, is a question which could only be answered by persons possessed of a special knowledge of the subject, to which we make no pretensions. Some facts about it are, however, sufficiently plain. The author obviously belongs to what, for want of a better name, we must call the realist school of novelists. His style conveys to us the impression that it has been formed upon that of Mr. Thackeray, of whose influence it shows the strongest traces. Thus the first half of the book is taken up with a description of the education and early career of an obscure apothecary, whose widest experience of life consists of a short course of study at Rouen, and who settles down to practice in an obscure hamlet in Normandy, with a fond but troublesome mother—a wife twenty years older than himself, and falsely supposed to be rich, who dies at the end of two or three chapters--no tastes, no amusements, and very little occupation. The dulness of such an existence, its irritating effects upon the spoilt girl who is introduced to it, and the contrast afforded by the splendours to which Madame Bovary and her husband are introduced for one night by the politic invitation of a neighbouring electioneering marquis, are described with great spirit, and bear the marks of a good deal of patient and careful observation. There are also several descriptions of local scenes—especially one of an agricultural show—which are drawn with great spirit, and much apparent fidelity.
We do not therefore feel ourselves at liberty to doubt that the main facts of the novel might well occur without producing any very strong surprise amongst M. Flaubert's countrymen. If this be so, we can only say that not merely the facts and the language, but the whole framework and tendency of the story, are symptoms of the most fatal kind. It is indeed lamentable that any considerable or prominent portion of society in any country should be willing to recognise in such a book as this anything like a portrait of themselves; and it is perhaps even more lamentable that a man of talent should consider such a book a moral one, which we are inclined to believe to be the case with the author of the work before us. The character of Madame Bovary herself is one of the most essentially disgusting that we ever happened to meet with. It is one which we should be extremely sorry to attribute to any woman, and if it could ever become to any extent common, it could not for any length of time be compatible with the existence of society. The notion of duty or responsibility never seems to cross her mind. Neither as a daughter, a wife, nor a mother, does it ever occur to her that she has any other object in life than that of gratifying her own tastes, and especially her love of excitement. Her father’s farm is dull—her husband's house is dull—he is not a man of genius--and as she only married him in order to be excited and roused by the society of a person with some aims in life, and some capacity to sustain them, she feels herself personally wronged by his dulness, and takes a vindictive pleasure in betraying him. Her child is only a transient amusement, of which she soon tires. Even in her love, when at last it is aroused, there is nothing generous or noble. She wishes to sacrifice each of her lovers to her own inclinations, trying in vain to persuade one of them to rob his employer, and the other to ruin his reputation by eloping with her. It must, however, be owned that the men are as, bad as the woman. The lovers are paltry, heartless cowards, the husband a weak fool, and the other characters wretched compounds of cognate vices. From the first page of the book to the last, not a person is introduced calculated to excite any other feelings than contempt or disgust. No skill in the mechanical part of a novelist's art can redeem a defect so capital as this. We should be sorry to call the book a disgusting performance; but disgust is certainly the most prominent feeling that it awakens.
Perhaps the worst feature of Madame Bovary is the obvious intention on the part of the author to write rather a moral book. It may be quite true that breaking the seventh commandment is the only mode of passing her time in which the heroine takes much pleasure; but the most rigorous moralist could not wish her to be more severely punished for it. If the work could be looked upon merely in the light of a precedent, no one can say that it would tell in favour of immorality. Nor is it altogether an answer to this to say that the bad effect of full-length descriptions of vice is not done away with by the good effect of executing poetical justice upon it. This is no doubt true; but in considering the intentions of an author we must remember how very conventional is the standard of what it is permissible to say and to write. No one would call Milton or Shakspeare immoral. Yet Paradise Lost and Othello contain passages which could not be read aloud to English ladies. Indeed, if it were not for the force of habit, the same difficulty would constantly occur in reading the Bible. The real immorality which is involved in such a tale as Madame Bovary, lies in the want which it presumes in its readers of any moral distinctions at all. It says emphatically—though, like all such books, rather clumsily—that adultery may very possibly end in the utter ruin and destruction of the sinning woman; but it does not seem to recognise the fact, that in itself, and apart from the occasional and exceptional cases in which it may be so punished, it is vile, hateful, and treacherous. Cut off the last chapter or two of Madame Bovary, and the impression left on the reader is that the author rather sympathizes with his heroine. Leave them in, and they show far more dislike of the consequences than of the character of the offence. In fact, strange as such a comparison may seem, Madame Bovary has a strong family likeness to a certain class of tracts—those which turn upon what we hope we may call, without offence, a sort of providential tour de force. When we hear of a boy who is drowned for boating on Sunday, the logical conclusion is that it is foolish to do that for which you may be drowned, but not that it is wrong to boat on Sunday; and in precisely the same way, we infer from Madame Bovary that poisoning by arsenic is a very painful death, and that it is well to avoid what may lead to it, however pleasant.
M. Flaubert's book suggests some reflections more interesting to Englishmen than any which concern either the book or the author. There are probably half a dozen scenes in it which no English author of reputation would venture to insert in any of his publications; and indeed there is no subject on which we are so apt to plume ourselves as the modern purification of our light literature. But is this true? And if it is, how far does it prove that we are more moral than our neighbours? It is true in one sense, no doubt, that our light literature is pure enough. That is, it is written upon the principle that it is never to contain anything which a modest man might not, with satisfaction to himself, read aloud to a young lady. But surely it is very questionable whether it is desirable that no novels should be written except those which are fit for young ladies to read. It is not so with any other branch of literature. Theology, history, philosophy, morality, law, and physical science are all studied at the reader's peril; and it would be just as prudish to affect to be shocked at finding indecent passages in Herodotus, or in Cook's Voyages, as to cry shame on Hale's Pleas of the Crown, or Taylor's Medical Jurisprudence. Are works of imagination, then, such mere toys that they ought always to be calculated for girlish ignorance? If Shakspeare had never written a line which women in the present day could not read, he would never have been the greatest of poets. If we had only expurgated copies of the classics, we should have a most inadequate conception of Greece and Rome. No doubt our most popular writers of fiction accept, and are proud of, the position which we are describing. Many of them seem to think that the highest function of a poet is the amusement of children; but we are by no means prepared to say that, in literature, emasculation produces purity. Our statistical returns, the nightly appearance of our streets, and those verbatim reports of trials which are so disgusting that the papers which publish them advocate the repeal of the laws which, as they affect to think, necessitate their publication, surely teach us that we are not so very immaculate. Whether a light literature entirely based upon love, and absolutely and systematically silent as to one most important side of it, may not have some tendency to stimulate passions to which it is far too proper ever to allude, is a question which is too wide for our limits on the present occasion; but it is one which we should do well to take into serious consideration before we preach the doctrine that the contemporaries of Mr. Dickens have made a vast step in advance of the contemporaries of Fielding.
Saturday Review, July 11, 1857.