Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert was available as a free e-book on Project Gutenberg, so it is the first book in this series that I read on Kindle on my laptop.
After years of reading on kindle, I finally looked at all of its great note-taking features and went through them on Monday’s focus post. While reading this novel as a novelist I used the bookmarks to mark plot points, and the four highlighting colors I assigned:
pink – POV
orange – contradictory abstractions
yellow – dialogue
blue – character introduction and description
Though stylistic expectations have changed in the time since Madame Bovary’s publication—people aren’t patient with pages of setting description for example—there is still a lot to be learned.
Things I Learned
One thing I learned is that I’ve reached a time in my life when re-reading a book I read in college is the same as reading it for the first time. Whatever memory I had of Madame Bovary was thrown in the trash long ago to make room for the new. It may be time to re-read other things that I read a long time ago.
First, a little overview: Madame Bovary was originally serialized in Revue de Paris in 1856. The French government charged both Flaubert and the publisher with immorality but they were acquitted. Though the novel was considered immoral and scandalous, it was also considered the first example of realism in literature.
The novel begins with Charles Bovary as the main character, a non-remarkable, even simple young man whose mother has designs for him to have a better life. But the real main character is Emma, his second wife after his first undesirable wife suddenly dies. Emma is a romantic who is never satisfied with her life. She wants everything to be exciting and passionate, and Charles’s love and adoration is never enough. She thus takes a lover and when that goes badly, she takes another. Needless to say, that goes poorly as well, and she brings ruin to her family.
Plotting: Though Madame Bovary was written in the mid-1800s, it follows the same patterns of rising action of a contemporary novel. I found it fascinating that just marking the midpoint and quarter and three-quarter points of the novel from the location numbers got me to the main plot points. So I divided them again to see what came up. At each of these locations I found another important plot point: Charles’s marriage to Emma, the birth of their daughter coinciding with mentions of her impropriety around other men, her illness after Rodolphe drops her leading to the beginning of their financial ruin, the moment the bills are called in and Emma has officially brought ruin on her family. All of these scenes come every 520 locations on my kindle. Though the text seems to ramble on, it has a concisely mapped plot.
Omniscient POV: Omniscient, god-like point of view, in which the author can get in and out of each character’s thoughts at will, was much more popular in Flaubert’s time. Unlike the annoying, and out of place head-hopping in Louise Penny’s The Madness of Crowds, the change of POV didn’t take me out of the story. And being able to know the different character’s thoughts let the reader in on important secrets that the main character is not in on. This was used in one of the best parts of the book in my opinion. At the very beginning of Emma’s first affair the reader is told her lover’s intentions to drop her:
Poor little woman! She is gaping after love like a carp after water on a kitchen-table. With three words of gallantry she’d adore one, I’m sure of it. She’d be tender, charming. Yes; but how to get rid of her afterwards?”
You would think that this would make the whole love affair pointless to the reader, the only conflict being Emma’s broken heart and whether or not Charles finds out and how he reacts, but somehow Flaubert convinces the reader that Rodolphe may have had a change of heart right up to the moment Emma is prepared to run away with him. The reader knows he’s a cad, that he doesn’t care for anyone but himself, and yet he draws out the affair for so long, that the reader has time to imagine that change of heart.
Fantasy vs. Reality: Another way that Flaubert uses this omniscient point of view is to jump into character’s fantasies and compare them with reality. He uses future tense to show the reader the character’s desires:
“Léon with solemn steps walked along by the walls. Life had never seemed so good to him. She would come directly, charming, agitated, looking back at the glances that followed her, and with her flounced dress, her gold eyeglass, her thin shoes, with all sorts of elegant trifles that he had never enjoyed, and with the ineffable seduction of yielding virtue. The church like a huge boudoir spread around her; the arches bent down to gather in the shade the confession of her love; the windows shone resplendent to illumine her face, and the censers would burn that she might appear like an angel amid the fumes of the sweet-smelling odours.
But she did not come.”
Flaubert uses “would” to slip into Leon’s imagination; to show the reader his hoped for future event. Then slips back into past tense to show reality again with the opening line of the next paragraph, “But she did not come.”
Description: Though Flaubert goes on about what people are wearing, and the description of the town where Charles Bovary sets up his medical practice goes on for about eight pages, there is plenty to be learned from his descriptions. One of my favorites is from inside Rodolphe’s head when thinking about his mistress:
Then the difficulties of love-making seen in the distance made him by contrast think of his mistress. She was an actress at Rouen, whom he kept; and when he had pondered over this image, with which, even in remembrance, he was satiated— “Ah! Madame Bovary,” he thought, “is much prettier, especially fresher. Virginie is decidedly beginning to grow fat. She is so finiky about her pleasures; and, besides, she has a mania for prawns.”
I’m not sure why I love that so much, but contrasting beauty with a mania for prawns makes me smile.
Another thing I noticed about Flaubert’s descriptions is he is very detailed about his physical descriptions, but also includes actions within those descriptions. Like when we first meet Charles as a boy:
“. . . standing in the corner behind the door so that he could hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen, and taller than any of us. His hair was cut square on his forehead like a village chorister’s; he looked reliable, but very ill at ease. Although he was not broad-shouldered, his short school jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have been tight about the arm-holes, and showed at the opening of the cuffs red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings, looked out from beneath yellow trousers, drawn tight by braces, He wore stout, ill-cleaned, hob-nailed boots.”
In this example where and how he stands as well as his clothing is used to show that he doesn’t belong.
And when we are first introduced to Emma:
“Mademoiselle Emma tried to sew some pads. As she was a long time before she found her work-case, her father grew impatient; she did not answer, but as she sewed she pricked her fingers, which she then put to her mouth to suck them. Charles was surprised at the whiteness of her nails. They were shiny, delicate at the tips, more polished than the ivory of Dieppe, and almond-shaped. Yet her hand was not beautiful, perhaps not white enough, and a little hard at the knuckles; besides, it was too long, with no soft inflections in the outlines. Her real beauty was in her eyes. Although brown, they seemed black because of the lashes, and her look came at you frankly, with a candid boldness.”
She is introduced in a domestic activity that she’s not good at. The first physical descriptions are of her hands, and it is said they are not beautiful, but then are used in contrast with her eyes. These contrasts and comparisons are what make Flaubert’s descriptions so interesting. They are saying much more than what is physically on the page.
Romance and Sex:
I can’t talk about Madame Bovary without talking about romance and sex. Unlike last week’s very cliched romance that as part of the meta-novel was only reiterating the stated fact that all novels are a romance, Madame Bovary is an anti-romance. The premise of the novel is that romantic notions lead to disillusionment and ruin.
Emma is a despicable character from start to finish because nothing is never good enough, and she feels so put upon by everyone and everything because she can never be satisfied. The novel expresses again and again how love wanes and romance is foolish. So lets take a look at the questions about romance and sex in Madame Bovary:
How did the author approach emotional love? Flaubert mocked emotional love throughout the book. Charles loved and trusted Emma. He adored her, thought they had the perfect marriage. He never imagined the truth. None of the relationships show actual love. There is doting, there are families, and marriages, but everyone is selfish and conniving.
How did the author approach physical love? Desperate, stolen moments. One of the best scenes, the carriage ride, doesn’t mention it at all:
“And the lumbering machine set out. It went down the Rue Grand-Pont, crossed the Place des Arts, the Quai Napoleon, the Pont Neuf, and stopped short before the statue of Pierre Corneille. “Go on,” cried a voice that came from within. The cab went on again, and as soon as it reached the Carrefour Lafayette, set off down-hill, and entered the station at a gallop. “No, straight on!” cried the same voice. . . .From time to time the coachman, on his box cast despairing eyes at the public-houses. He could not understand what furious desire for locomotion urged these individuals never to wish to stop. He tried to now and then, and at once exclamations of anger burst forth behind him. . . .And on the harbour, in the midst of the drays and casks, and in the streets, at the corners, the good folk opened large wonder-stricken eyes at this sight, so extraordinary in the provinces, a cab with blinds drawn, and which appeared thus constantly shut more closely than a tomb, and tossing about like a vessel. . . .a bared hand passed beneath the small blinds of yellow canvas, and threw out some scraps of paper that scattered in the wind, and farther off lighted like white butterflies on a field of red clover all in bloom. At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter, and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down, and without turning her head.”
And there you have it, the scandalous sex act as described by Flaubert. Talk about letting the reader imagine what isn’t said, what is purposefully left out and only hinted at. He was definitely a master of leading the reader to conclusions.
Did it develop the characters’ personalities? Yes. Emma couldn’t be satisfied with anyone, but her romantic notions continued, always believing there was something more out there. This made even the men who cared for her lose interest over time.
Did it further the plot? Absolutely. Emma’s appetites made her spend way beyond her means which eventually led to her complete ruin and that of her husband and child. Her inability to think of anything but her own excitement made everyone unhappy, especially herself.
Applying What I Learned
Using Kindle for Developmental Edits: I must admit I’m excited about the nuts and bolts aspects of what I learned this week more than anything else. I mean Flaubert did some amazing writing and is still influential for a reason, but I just put my novel draft into Kindle, and wow what a great tool for draft review.
When you open Kindle and click on File you’ll find the option “Import a local PDF.” So you don’t have to upload your manuscript to amazon or anything, you can just save it as a PDF. Once it’s imported into Kindle, you can use all of the different tools I talked about for reading novels like a novelist for your own draft.
The first thing I did was bookmark my midpoint and quarter and three-quarter points, then the half-way points between each of those. I can already see that my major plot points aren’t where they need to be, and I need to work on intensifying my conflict and action. I mean, just like that, using the go to page functions and bookmarks, I’ve already clued into issues with my draft.
I can use the highlight function for highlighting errors still in the draft that I can quickly change. And best of all I can use the search function to look at each of my characters in turn by typing their names into search one at a time. This really is exciting for this early stage of developmental editing.
POV: Though I won’t be using omniscient POV, my novel is in close third-person, I can still try to find a place in the story where the reader is aware of something the main character isn’t. How can I do that? Perhaps she observes something but interprets it incorrectly giving the reader the possibility to see the truth before she does. How else can I get information to the reader that my main character isn’t aware of? Sometimes chapters start with a more omniscient narration and then zoom back into close-third, my narrator could tell the reader something that my main-character doesn’t know during one of these more zoomed out moments. Or I could use blatant foreshadowing, though I liked the subtle foreshadowing used in The Manual of Detection. Maybe I can use that technique to direct the reader toward information my main character is unaware of.
Fantasy vs. Reality: I can use this technique to show what my main character hopes for and then make her face reality. This could work well to show how she keeps going when everything is going wrong. It could also show how obsessed she is with the unsolved case, that she harbors some fantasy of vindication that will happen when she solves it. Or maybe there’s a different more warped fantasy of her dead friend finally being at peace or something. I’ll use the technique as a writing exercise and see what comes up.
Description: One of my favorite bits of description in the whole novel was the “mania for prawns.” It’s just so good as the contradiction to “pretty.” How can I describe people in comparison to others in such a fun and graphic way? It says so much about the character making the comparison as well. Of course, since I’m not writing in omniscient POV or even multiple POVs, it would be my main character making the comparisons, so what does she find ugly? What to her is the equivalent of “a mania for prawns?” I’m excited to play with that idea for all of my characters. A couple of my characters would say those kinds of things out loud. Knowing what disgusts them about other people can make for good dialogue as well as character development.
Romance: The thing I learned from Flaubert that I can apply to my novel is to let the reader read between the lines. The carriage ride is a great example of describing one part of the action while letting the reader imagine what else is going on that they aren’t seeing. What is going on behind closed doors? A character could overhear something and jump to the wrong conclusions; or overhear something and jump to the right conclusions; a character could see something like the hand coming out from behind the curtains and think the person is someone other than it is. There are so many things that can be happening behind a curtain.
I’m excited to say this is working. I never expected that reading an e-book as a novelist, Madame Bovary of all things, would open up such a world of discovery for both my physical process and writing techniques. I’m excited to see what my new Kindle note-taking skills will uncover in a contemporary thriller. The next novel I’ll be discussing is Unspeakable Things by Jess Lourey. I’m excited to study it because its description says it was inspired by true events from the author’s hometown. And though my novel is very loosely inspired by actual events, I’m hoping that Lourey’s novel might be a good comparison (comp) for my own.