What does “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” mean?

March 4, 2012 § 1 Comment

Apparently, Gustave Flaubert said at some point (I haven’t been able to find the source in a web search), “Madame Bovary, c’est moi” — “Madame Bovary, that’s me.” Thus a million essays were born.

There’s no way that Flaubert was literally identifying with Emma Bovary’s swooning, fanciful, impressionable mind. A mind like Emma’s couldn’t have executed so ruthlessly and dispassionately a plot like that of her novel.

So what would Gustave see of himself in Emma? A creditable subset of her traits: imagination, passion, sensuality, intelligence, even a kind of ambition. In Emma these traits lead (in such a beautifully unfolding fall) to cruelty, frivolity, and futility.

Flaubert was also a romantic, a dreamer, a lover of old and grandiose fables. His favorite of his works, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, was inspired by a painting of that old moral tale (and how like Emma that Flaubert found his inspiration in a painting).

The difference between Gustave and Emma is what Flaubert did with his imagination, eventually. He recognized that imagination is imagination, fiction is fiction, and he set his to the task of composing a completely ordered universe after his vision. (People with fancies as rich and pure as Flaubert’s can never be happy realizing their visions with the crude material of their lives.) To look at it another way, he did dispassionate work with passion.

This leads me to think that for those with the purest imaginations, the difference between productive and unproductive fantasy is a mental act of separation: one’s life from one’s art.

(You notice how easy it is for people to separate their “lives” from their “work”? They can point to their jobs and say, “That’s not me. That’s just what I do.” I’d bet this is especially true for the great ones.)

Emma directed the energy of her imagination toward her life — that’s a delusional undertaking. Flaubert directed his toward what he recognized as an utter fantasy — a book, ink on a page, the most useless and impractical of things.

One last thing (for you essay writers): So, is Madame Bovary really about Flaubert? Is it an alternate universe where he contemplates a less disciplined version of himself?

I like to think about a larger set of questions instead: is great writing ‘personal’? Is it in some sense about its author? Is it a more or less metaphorical depiction of the author’s life and time and state of mind?

Yes, kinda, and no.

Madame Bovary is Flaubert’s book — it’s a distillation of his genius, and in that sense, it’s utterly personal. There’s no use pretending the book is a free-standing stone now that its author is dead. Someone produced that work, and as a matter of respect for the human mind, we shouldn’t forget that.

It can’t be stressed enough: A person writes a book. A person has a great idea. A person invented the wheel. (See how ridiculous you sound when you substitute one of these for ‘person’: era, ethos, movement, culture, nation, organization, paradigm, school of thought…)

But the question of how much we know Flaubert’s mind once we’ve read his book, or what in the story corresponds to what episode of his biography, or person in his life, or corner of his psyche, is completely incidental.

Look at it this way: when you listen to a director’s commentary on a DVD, at least one of you has their tongue in cheek.

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