Provincial Failures: A Quick Look at Chapter One of Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert

A few weeks ago I posted some comments here on the first few pages of Frankenstein by Mary Shelley. After writing a similar set of comments for Madame Bovary for my students in MODL 5310, I have decided to post them here as well. I will be categorizing this and other posts like it under the label “Literary Beginnings.”

The title of the novel is the first indication of interesting avenues to pursue. The novel is called Madame Bovary yet the first chapter, the start of the story, is about Charles Bovary, not his future wife Emma Bovary. But there’s a different way of thinking about this: Chapter 1 is indeed about “Madame Bovary,” it’s about the mother of Charles Bovary. More on that in a moment. The subtitle of the novel is also interesting and should arrest our attention: Provincial Life. It would seem that this novel is going to yoke the story of one “Madame Bovary” to what it means to live in the country. Going further let us pause to consider what the name Bovary sounds like…it sounds like bovine. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, which does indeed track closely with the French equivalent of bovine in English, means: “Belonging to, or characteristic of, the ox tribe. Also ellipt. = bovine animal […] Inert, sluggish; dull, stupid; cf bucolic.” So we are back to “Provincial Life” with this association between Bovary and bovine, aren’t we? Cows in the country and Madame Bovary, but with a value judgement that suggests that country life is somehow related to dullness and stupidity. And if you stop and think about it, the way Charles Bovary is described in chapter 1 does indeed reflect a bovine, dull nature (see description of Charles’s hat, for example [7]).

Let’s stay with Provincial Life for a moment. Monsieur Bovary Sr. does exemplify a kind of dull, useless masculinity, incapable of making “the land pay off” [9]  (it is important here, to remember how ‘making the land’ fertile is a gendered construction in which the land becomes a feminine matrix to the active, male seed). Let’s not forget this when we see what kind of man, and husband, Charles Bovary becomes later on. But if Charles may be destined to be as ineffectual and dull as his father, both as an entrepeneur and as a figure of virility, he is also misshapen by his mother’s influence, who transfers upon him “all her scattered, broken little vanities…She dreamed of high station; she already saw him, tall, handsome, clever, settled as an engineer or in the law” (10). It would pay to remember this passage when considering the inner world of Emma Bovary, her future daughter-in-law. For Madame Bovary the elder (Charles’s mother), it would seem that her son is her ticket to the true and more urbane respectability her husband cannot give her. But Charles is as ordinary and mediocre as his father, after all.

I said above that the Madame Bovary of the title of the novel may be read as an unstable signifier. It conventionally denotes Emma Bovary for the novel as a whole, but in the case of Chapter 1, Madame Bovary denotes Charles’s mother. What supports this reading? We could argue that Charles is very much the creation of his mother; she (micro) manages his life to a great degree, and it is her that he fears when he fails his examinations, not his father (who does not learn of his failure until years later, actually). His mother also manages his future career and future life: she finds him a medical post and a wife to marry. So, Charles is a momma’s boy in a manner of speaking. But what’s interesting is that he marries a woman with whom he shares a relationship not unlike the one he has with his mother. Madame Dubuc is an older women and a nag who bosses him around and treats him like a child; she is his “master” (13). Charles has positioned himself, in his marriage, in a subordinated relationship to his older wife, modelling a mother-son dynamic we’ve already seen previously in the chapter between Charles and his mother.

As you will soon learn though, Madame Bovary the second (the first being Charles’s mother) will soon by replaced by Emma, Madame Bovary the third, and the “heroine” of this novel. To what degree will she be like the previous Madame Bovary’s? That is a question to ponder as we read on.

So what do we know as we move on into this novel after reading Chapter 1? We know that the novel is making an argument about country life (Provincial Life), one that is critical of it. We also know that failure marks several of the characters: Charles is painfully ordinary and mediocre; his mother has a skewed view of the world and is alienated within her own marriage; and his father is, ultimately, a useless man who is disconnected from his son. Even Madame Dubuc is a failure because clearly she is not married to Charles out of love, and their relationship is hardly fulfilling to either one of them. These dynamics of failure are multi-generational, and repeat and reconfigure as characters resonate with each other, modelling or mirroring each other’s failures.

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