Critical Essays Realism in Madame Bovary


Madame Bovary is considered one of the finest "realistic" novels, and this is because of its unadorned, unromantic portrayals of everyday life and people. However, it must be understood that in literary realism one gets a view of the real world as seen through the eyes of the author. Throughout the novel there is a very carefully planned selection of episodes and incidents, so that "realism," if interpreted to mean a kind of journalistic reportage, is misleading. Every detail in Madame Bovary is chosen for a purpose and is closely related to everything else that precedes and follows it, to an extent that may not be evident (or possible) in real life. There is profound artistry involved in what is selected and omitted and in what weight is given to specific incidents.

The final greatness of Flaubert's realism lies in the manner in which he is able to capture the dullness of these middle-class people without making his novel dull. Flaubert's minute attention to detail, his depiction of the average life, and his handling of the commonplace all require the touch of the great artist, or else, this type of writing will degenerate into rather common, dull prose. Flaubert was intent that every aspect of his novel would ring true to life. He visited the places which he wrote about to make certain that his descriptions were accurate. After he had written the Prefect's speech at the agriculture show, a speech very similar to Flaubert's was actually given by a district Prefect: both speeches were filled with the same platitudes and same cliches. And finally, Flaubert's handling of Homais is a masterful stroke of realistic description. He is able to select enough details to suggest to the reader how boring Homais' conversation is without having to repeat enough of what Homais actually said to bore the reader. And it is this selection of detail that marks Flaubert's genius.

An example of Flaubert's intentional selection of events takes place in Part I, Chapter 30. Even that early in the novel, the reader is given a searching insight into the operation of Emma's mind and a portent of things to come, when the author comments:

Emma, for her part, would have liked a marriage at midnight by the light of torches, but her father thought such an idea nonsensical. (Trans. Gerard Hopkins)

This brief remark crystalizes the opposition between the sentimental romanticizing that will later cause Emma's downfall and the unsympathetic real world, represented by her hard-headed peasant father.

A reporter must narrate his story as it occurs. He has no more insight or perspective than the participants, and he can only present random "slices of life," drawn out of context. Flaubert intended to illustrate a definite thesis by his story. Although his method was realistic, he determined where to place his emphasis and what to concentrate on by reference to this purpose.