Madame Bovary

From Modernism Lab Essays

Jump to: navigation, search

by Pericles Lewis

Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary (1856) is the story of a bored housewife who has two extra-marital affairs but finds adultery almost as disappointing as marriage. The novel exemplifies the tendency of realism, over the course of the nineteenth century, to become increasingly psychological, concerned with the accurate representation of thoughts and emotions rather than of external things. In January, 1857, the French prosecutor Ernest Pinard accused Flaubert of an “offense to public and religious morality and to good morals” for publishing the novel. Pinard failed to win a conviction, but the court reprimanded Flaubert for forgetting that art “must be chaste and pure not only in its form but in its expression.”[1]


Flaubert attempted to cure the banality of modern “received ideas” through the dispassionate and precise use of language. He wrote that “the artist in his work should be like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere.”[2] This idea of the godlike artist did not involve meting out punishments or pronouncing moral judgments. Rather, his narrators were generally unobtrusive. His use of what literary critics call “free indirect discourse” (in French, “style indirect libre,” “free indirect style”) tended if anything to undermine the idea of the objective narrator, by making it difficult to distinguish between the perspective of the narrator and that of the character. The method transformed realism and even became an issue in the trial. In direct discourse, the narrator quotes a character: “Madame Bovary said, ‘I have a lover! a lover!’” In indirect discourse, the narrator paraphrases a character’s statement or thought: “Madame Bovary said that she had a lover.” In free indirect discourse, however, the narrator paraphrases the thoughts of a character, sometimes at great length, without marking them off with a phrase like “Madame Bovary thought that…” In a well-known example, Emma Bovary looks forward to life as an adulteress while regarding herself in a mirror:

She repeated, 'I have a lover! a lover!' delighting at the idea as if a second puberty had come to her. So at last she was to know those joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon a marvelous world where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium.

The last two quoted sentences appear in free indirect discourse. Flaubert seems to be summarizing Madame Bovary’s thoughts, in her own language, but he does not explicitly state that these are her thoughts, rather than his own opinions as author or narrator. Indeed, the prosecutor Pinard quoted these two sentences at Flaubert’s trial as if to suggest that they represented the view of adultery promoted by the novel.[3]


Although free indirect discourse belongs to the traditional methods of the novel, and was used extensively by Jane Austen, Flaubert’s use of the technique took full advantage of its potential to create irony and ambiguity and thus prefigured such modern experiments as the stream of consciousness. What was remarkable about Flaubert’s use of the style was that virtually every value judgment in the novel, indeed every descriptive statement, seemed to be made from the point of view of one of his characters. The impersonality of the author, for Flaubert, meant showing Emma Bovary’s reality as it appeared to her and the other characters in the novel, rather than telling the reader what view of her situation was correct. The prosecutor Pinard even seems to have touched on the nature of free indirect discourse when he asked, “Who can condemn this woman in the book? Nobody. Such is the conclusion. There is not in the book a character who can condemn her…. Would you condemn her in the name of the author’s conscience? I do not know what the author’s conscience thinks.” Flaubert’s refusal to render an explicit moral judgment on Emma Bovary challenged the prevailing conception of an author’s duty. Pinard complained that “Art without rules is no longer art; it is like a woman who takes off all her clothes.”[4] Flaubert’s manipulation of the rules of art to create moral ambiguity and irony seems to have offended Pinard and the court more than the simple fact that he wrote a novel about an adulteress. This aspect of Flaubert’s achievement appealed strongly to the modernists, who were to make ambiguity and irony central to their literary work.[5]


  1. Dominick LaCapra, "Two Trials," in Denis Hollier et al., eds. A New History of French Literature (Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1989), p. 726.
  2. Flaubert, letter to Louise Colet, December 9, 1852.
  3. On Flaubert's use of free indirect discourse and its contribution to his realism, see LaCapra, "'Madame Bovary' on Trial" (Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 1982); Hans Robert Jauss, "Literary History as a Challenge to Literary Theory," in Jauss, Towards an Aesthetics of Reception, trans. Timothy Bahti (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1982), pp. 3-46; and Eric Auerbach, Mimesis: The Representation of Reality in Western Literature, trans. Willard R. Trask (Princeton, NJ: Princeton U P, 1953), pp. 482-492.
  4. LaCapra, "'Madame Bovary' on Trial," 39-40.
  5. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), pp. 37, 42-43.

Personal tools