Gustave Flaubert: Boredom, Irony, and Madame Bovary

Classics (the): one is meant to be familiar with them. This fine gentleman’s biography begins on 12th December 1824, in Rouen, where his father worked…

Slika ne laže: ovde će biti reči o dosadi. Preuzeto sa

The picture says it all: this article will be about boredom.

Classics (the): one is meant to be familiar with them.

This fine gentleman’s biography begins on 12th December 1824, in Rouen, where his father worked as a renowned surgeon  in the local hospital. Coming from such a family, Flaubert is rooted firmly among the bourgeoisie – which is amusing, having in mind that it was that exact class of the society that the author gently despised. Early in his life, he decided to assemble a collection of common, shallow and mediocre convictions and habits pertinent to the bourgeouise; the brilliantly ironic Dictionary of Received Ideas was published posthumously, in 1911, and is quoted in the subtitles of this article. Legend has it that its definitions cause unease and upset the stomach, as most readers soon recognize one of their own prejudices in the company of banalities, cliches, and plain nonsense.

However, Flaubert’s life did not stray from conformity for quite a while: he was schooled in Rouen, before moving to Paris in 1840 to read Law. He was underwhelmed by the city (which may surprise some naïve Paris-lovers) as well as by his area of studies (which can’t surprise anyone at all).  Six years and an epileptic seizure later, he finally left both his studies and the capital.

He started travelling around Brittany, and enjoyed the nomadic lifestyle so much that, in 1849, he journeyed across the Near East; in 1858, he set off to faraway Carthage to do research for his novel Salammbo. In the 1870s, the war with Prussia started, causing the levels of fun in Flaubert’s life to plummet. And, chronologically speaking, that’s about it.

Blondes: looser than brunettes (see: Brunettes); Brunettes: looser than blondes (see: Blondes)

Louse Colet, mistress, author, and otherwise a person of great quality

Louse Colet, mistress, author, and otherwise a person of great quality

In theory as well as in practice, Flaubert did not agree much with marriage; moreover, The Dictionary of Received Ideas states:

Children: affect a lyric tenderness toward them when people are about.

His only serious relationship was with Louise Colet, a Romantic novelist. Their turbulent affair went on for eight years, and yielded a pile of intellectual correspondence for grateful literary theorists to analyse for decades to come. In the letters, the great author and his lover debate the finesses of the creative and writing processes; Flaubert describes his meticulous and often painstaking approach to language, and muses about the nature and/or quality of literary fiction, especially the sort that slyly purports to be “Realist”.

Before one assumes these missives were boring, it must be added that they also contained statements like:

To be stupid, selfish, and have good health are three requirements for happiness, though if stupidity is lacking, all is lost.

Apart from Louise Colet, Flaubert liked prostitutes, especially in his travels – a fact we also know from his letters to friends. Notably, he attributed the first chancre on his penis to an acquaintance made in Istanbul. The souvenir, although not exactly exotic at the time, was at least memorable.

Note: a chancre, Old French for “little ulcer”, is a handsome wound that heralds the first stage of syphilis. Hope you didn’t have to know this before. 

Another thing worth mentioning while we’re on the topic: Madame Bovary was a brunette. That should explain everything.

Book: always too long, regardless of subject

Isabelle Huppert as Madame Bovary in Claude Chabrol's eponymous film; you shouldn't watch it, it's no good.

Isabelle Huppert as Madame Bovary in Claude Chabrol’s eponymous film; you shouldn’t watch it, it’s no good.

As for books, Gustave Flaubert wrote plenty, but none of his works reached the acclaim of Madame Bovary, Western literature’s favorite adulteress.

The letters to Louise Colet recount Flaubert’s suffering throughout writing this novel; he complained of the excruciating boredom of writing a book in which nothing of note happens, but considered it a worthy creative challenge precisely for that reason.

His protagonist, Emma Bovary, also spends the better part of her life bored: unhappily married to a mediocre village doctor, she repeatedly tries and fails to find in her own environment the passion and adventure she reads about in novels. The unfortunate Emma falls victim to the irony that celebrated her creator: carried away by the illusions she fails to fully understand, she is unable to see her own superficial misconceptions, and rushes from one mistake to another with obstinacy that is sufficient to accuse Flaubert of cruelty toward his own characters. The tragedy of Emma’s life lies precisely in the absence of real tragedy – her mediocrity is both eerily predictable and inevitable.

It may happen that the reader, too, complains of boredom; however, Flaubert’s craft lies precisely in turning Madame Bovary into a novel boring in an interesting way. 

And, if that doesn’t intrigue you, think of the controversy it spiked when it was first published!

Novels: corrupt the masses.

As was common at the time, Madame Bovary was first published in installments, in the literary journal “La Revue de Paris”. Like many other serialized novels, it was heavily censored: the editors changed as many as 69 passages without Flaubert’s permission, judging morally inappropriate everything from the intertwining of Emma’s legs with a dance partner, to a scene where a mother sends home-cooked food to her student son. The final, seventieth change made to the book was, in fact, approved by the author: omitted from the story was a day-long ride in a carriage during which Emma Bovary and her lover have kinky sex  submit to their passions.

Title page of the novel that corrupts.

Title page of the novel that corrupts.

Worry not, lechers and perverts – the Sexy Leg-twining And More returned once the novel was published as a volume. And in the meantime, Flaubert was tried for offending public decency.

The details of his trial provide an amusing insight into the 19th century expectations of literature: Flaubert was guilty, the prosecutors opined, for presenting too bleak and hopeless a vision of the world, for a lack of an unambiguously positive and heroic character the reader could look up to, and finally – for the narrator’s ambivalence. Namely, it is hard to tell who’s telling the story of Madame Bovary, let alone what he thinks of the characters and the events. And, if the author is not always there to guide and edify, how is the confused reader supposed to know what to think?!

Flaubert argued, above all, that Emma’s fate can serve as a warning against vice, rather than an encouragement to commit adultery. However, the defense also mentioned his father’s spotless reputation, and emphasized the great time and effort Gustave put into making the book as good as he could. Ironically, it was precisely the ability to exhibit the values prized by the bourgeoisie that helped get Flaubert acquitted, while the publicity of the trial brought Madame Bovary its immense popularity.

Burial: Too often premature. Tell stories of corpses that had eaten an arm off from hunger.

As is usually the case, Gustave Flaubert died. He did so in 1880, losing a long argument with syphilis, one of the leading obstacles to a romanticized perception of the nineteenth century.

The bourgeoisie buried him, as was appropriate; the readership, however, has refused to let him in peace for the past 150 years.


Find the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas here, for free. The article also draws on lecture notes taken at this worthy institution, some misremembered academic papers, and the murky Internets.
This article is a translated from Serbian. If you share our passion for tiny South-East European languages, you can come and stare at the original by clicking here.

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