Madame Bovary, part II

I decided to stick with the subject of location for my post on part II of Madame Bovary. I like concentrating on something like that when I haven’t actually finished a book yet, and my previous notice of place in the novel was reinforced right on the first page of the second section, where Flaubert describes the countryside around Yonville, the new home of Monsieur and Madame Bovary:

Here you are on the borders of Normandy, Picardy, and Île-de-France, a mongrel region where the language is without expressive emphasis, just as the landscape is without character. It is here that they make the worst Neufchâtel cheeses in the whole district, while farming is costly, because a good deal of manure is needed to enrich this crumbly soil full of sand and stones.

I’m still not sure I’d say Flaubert is endowing the Norman countryside with “something more akin to ‘a non-delusory state of mind/existence capable of providing the basis of personal fulfillment,’” as Emily rather nicely put it, but things certainly aren’t more positive as the Bovarys journey closer to Paris (located in Île-de-France). A “mongrel region” with bad cheese—and you know Flaubert wouldn’t think much of people without expressive language.

On the other hand, Yonville is still very much the countryside. The cosmopolitan, extremely bourgeois pharmacist Homais deplores its “good many prejudices…[and] a good deal of pigheaded adherence to tradition, which all your scientific efforts will run up against every day; for people still resort to novenas, relics, the curé, instead of doing the natural thing and going to the doctor or the pharmacist.” (Also, notice how tight the novel is; Emma herself will go to the curé for her illness when she doesn’t feel a doctor can help, though she won’t get relief there either.)

And then Homais himself turns out to be rather provincial, worrying about the dangers of the city when Léon leaves Yonville for Paris. He and Charles discuss the diseases that can result from the “perturbation of the whole system. And then, you know, there’s the Paris water! And the restaurant meals, all those spicy foods that end by overheating your blood and aren’t worth as much, whatever they may say, as a good stew.” Oh for some cider and a good stew right about now; if that’s not authenticity I don’t want to know what is. Meanwhile, it’s “inventions originating in Paris” that bring devastating disease to Yonville, and a down-to-earth “practitioner,” “not scientists, dandies, ladies’ men” who can cure it.

The plot of the section also contains a mass praising of the rural, traditional lifestyle, at least on the part of the characters, in the form of the agricultural fair. This is a very good scene, first off, in the “writer’s writer” sense. But the cosmopolitan dignitaries running the fête are so zealous that the reader immediately sees the danger of romanticizing the peasantry:

“Only one who is so blind, so deeply immersed (I’m not afraid to say it)—so deeply immersed in the prejudices of another age that he still fails to appreciate the spirit of our farming population. Where, indeed, can one find more patriotism than in rural areas, more devotion to the common good, more—in a word—intelligence? And by intelligence, gentlemen, I do not mean that superficial intelligence, that vain ornament of idle minds, but rather that profound and reasonable intelligence that applies itself above all else to the pursuit of useful goals, contributing thus to the good of every man, to the betterment of all, and to the preservation of the State, fruit of respect for the law and performance of duty…”

Yes, I realize I’m conflating place and people and not being specific about this slippery idea of regionalism. These are squishy ideas in mid-formation, and of course it would help if I knew anything at all about 19th-century France, ha.

8 comments to Madame Bovary, part II

  • That last quotation sent me straight to your post on poshlost. That there is a particularly pure example.

  • I’m glad you’re sticking with location, Nicole, because I haven’t been able to figure out exactly what Flaubert wants to say about “provincial ways” anyway. Homais’s a crack-up, though, esp. when he’s baiting the priest! P.S. I’m now off to finish off my bottle of pumpkin ale, New England’s answer to Norman cider (you guys are making me thirsty with all the cider-boosting of late)!

  • AR—Totally; there are a number of examples. And you’ve reminded me that after this I get to read another of the Lectures on Literature!

    Richard—I haven’t been able to figure it out either, obviously, but we’ve got to muddle through. And I do sort of love Homais.

  • Maybe it’s worth mentioning – maybe not – that Flaubert abandons “provincial ways” for 20 years, not returning to them until the 1876 “A Simple Heart,” in some ways a deliberate anti-Bovary. The next two novels are mostly set in Paris and, um, ancient Carthage.

    After reading the VN essay, be sure to skip all the way to the end of the book for the sample exam questions.

  • “Squishy ideas in mid-formation” pretty much sums up what I’ve got on Madame Bovary. Like Richard, I’m a bit confused about the relationship between provincialism and the rest of the narrative…glad you’re having a go at it!

  • Don’t you just love a book with a lot of big and somewhat contradictory themes as well as a terrific story? Have fun pulling the various strings!

  • Also not certain about the way provincial life is utilized in the novel? Foil? A literal, concrete representation to contrast against Emma’s castles in the sky, the bourgeois lack of substance? The middle class as distanced from its roots from a generation before but merely aping the higher class structures to which they aspire? Look forward to your conclusions. And thanks for reading along.

  • I felt like this section was all about contrasts, and Flaubert goes right into it when describing the setting,and continues with the different social classes. I do wish I knew more about 19th century France as I read this. I can sense the irony in some passages, but don’t totally grasp it.