Monday, March 23, 2009

Madame Bovary (1859)

The subtitle of the book I quoted from in my last posting, Mimesis(1946) by Erich Auerbach, is "The Representation of Reality in Western Literature." This great and famous book is not (I suspect) as well known as it should be. I know of no other that is even remotely like it.

What does Auerbach mean by 'representation'? 'Mimesis' is the ancient Greek word for 'imitation.' It is the word that Aristotle uses in his Poetics when he says that epic poetry, tragedy, comedy and music are forms of imitation. We needn't concern ourselves here with trying to understand what Aristotle meant by 'imitation'(I don't mean to imply that I do); 'representation' is how Auerbach understands it and that's good enough.

How, Auerbach asks, does literature 'represent' (or 'reflect'?) reality? What can we infer about a writer's world from his or her use of the available stylistic and rhetorical resources? What can we infer from a particular style about how the writer understands the world? Or thinks the reader ought to understand the world? These questions are crude, abstract; I'd do better if I showed you an actual case-study: Flaubert's' novel of 1859, Madame Bovary as a triumph of pure style. And I do mean 'pure': it's as if the narrator, the author, had disapeared and the facts were speaking for themselves. This ideally pure style became the goal of several generations of future writers, including Eliot and Hemingway.

Here are few lines from Madame Bovary , part 1, chapter 9, with analysis and commentary by Auerbach. (If you are not already familiar with this novel, Emma Bovary is a beautiful, charming and rather shallow young woman, recently married to a decent but dull young small-town doctor. Her mind, such as it is, has been formed by a steady diet of early 19th century pulp-fiction, highly 'romantic' stuff, not exactly bodice-rippers, but moving in that direction. Finding that her life is not the least bit romantic, she is not only bored but revolted by her husband, her surroundings, her life, everything.)

But it was above all at mealtimes that she could bear it no longer, in that little room on the ground floor, with the smoking stove, the creaking door, the oozing walls, the damp floor-tiles; all the bitterness of life seemed to be served to her on her plate, and, with the steam from the boiled beef, there rose from the depths of her soul other exhalations as it were of disgust. Charles was a slow eater; she would nibble a few hazel-nuts, or else, leaning on her elbow, would amuse herself making marks on the oilcloth with the point of her table-knife.

The paragraph presents a picture--man and wife together at mealtime. But the picture is not presented in and for itself; it is subordinated to the dominant subject, Emma's despair. Hence it is not put before the reader directly: here the two sit at table--there the reader stands watching them. Instead, the reader first sees Emma...and he sees the picture first through her; directly, he sees only Emma's inner state; he sees what goes on at the meal indirectly, from within her state, in the light of her perception. The first words of the paragraph, "But it was above all at mealtimes..." state the theme and all that follows is but a development of it. Not only are the phrases dependent on the prepositions "in" and "with", which define the physical scene, a commentary on "she could bear it no longer" in their piling up of the individual elements of discomfort, but the following clause too, which tell of the distaste aroused in her by the food, accords with the principal purpose both in sense and rhythm. When we read further, "Charles was a slow eater," this, though grammatically a new sentence and rhythmically a new movement, is still only a resumption, a variation, of the principal theme; not until we come to the contrast between his leisurely eating and her disgust and to the nervous gestures of her despair, which are described immediately afterward, does the sentence acquire its true significance. The husband, unconcernedly eating, becomes ludicrous and almost ghastly; when Emma looks at him and sees him sitting there eating, he becomes the actual cause of her boredom and despair; because everything else that arouses her desperation--the gloomy room, the commonplace food, the lack of a tablecloth, the hopelessness of it all--appears to her, and through her to the reader also, as something that is connected with him, that emanates from him, and that would be entirely different if he were different from what he is.

(to be continued)

1 comment:

  1. After a court case, Madame Bovary was released in 1857, when it became a best seller. 1857 was also the year of the first elevator. Flaubert expanded human self-awareness, and Otis expanded human architectural freedom, in the same year.