Category Archives: Flaubert, Madame Bovary

Literature and Pathology in Madame Bovary

“Before marriage she thought herself in love; but since the happiness that should have followed failed to come, she must, she thought, have been mistaken. And Emma tried to find out what one meant exactly in life by the words bliss, passion, ecstasy, that had seemed to her so beautiful in books.” (30)

Emma begins with words. She moves from art into life, rather than the other way around, and searches for the imagined pleasures of fiction in the everyday. As she languishes in her marriage to Charles, then, literature becomes one of the root causes of her unhappiness. Chivalrous romances and heady adventures have given Emma imagined joys that make her reality banal in comparison.

Much like Milton’s serpent who whispers dreams into the sleeping Eve’s ear, literature stimulates Emma’s desires toward the unattainable. Persuasive, intangible, and intoxicating, the effect literature produces in Madame Bovary, then, is not unlike that of Lucifer in Paradise Lost. While the effects may be the same, however, the way others frame this influence is not. In contrast to Paradise Lost, characters in Flaubert’s Madame Bovary develop a scientific language of pathology around Emma. People like Charles, Emma’s physician-husband, and Madame Bovary, Charles’ mother, understand Emma’s languor and dissatisfaction in medical terms. This impulse is characteristic of two things: first, the mid-nineteenth century’s growing respect for science as a source of meaning, and second, the anxiety around morality and art during the era.

Near the end of Part I, Emma weeps against a wall as she longs for “lives of adventure, for masked balls, for shameless pleasures” that she had “not yet experienced” (57). Immediately after this episode, Charles observes:

“She grew pale and suffered from palpitations of the heart. [ . . . ] She chattered with feverish profusion, and this overexcitement was suddenly followed by a state of torpor, in which she remained without speaking, without moving.” (57)

In a frame of free indirect speech, Charles’ observations of Emma take on a notably pathological air. He understands the excited way she speaks as “feverish” – a physically imbalanced, unhealthy bodily state, rather than a mental state of emotional desperation. Similarly, he describes her inactivity as a “state of torpor” and embellishes this with two identified symptoms: lack of speech and movement. It is telling, perhaps, that in this diagnosis Charles ignores the content of Emma’s speech entirely. By focusing instead on just the patterns and features of her behavior, he treats her as an item of medical study rather than as somebody with a deeper subjectivity. This suppression of content and depth in favor of surface observations resonates with both Charles as a character and his scientific mindset. Earlier in the novel, for instance, Flaubert describes Charles’ method at medical school as one of “understanding nothing at all” despite how much he “worked” and “listened” to the material (12). Accordingly, there is a sense that Charles, far from being attuned to meanings beyond the obvious, focuses only on the empirical surface. In a purely pragmatic way, he uses routine and rote memorization to practice his profession and does not bother to think critically or read more deeply into his craft. Such is the nature of a man who hopes for the easiest fractures in his patients and cannot read through a single medical journal.

This purely empirical mode of thought resists Emma’s symbolic mindset. Emma, by contrast, looks beyond the surface of the everyday and reaches after its sentimental importance, an imagined fantasy, or some literary meaning. In the mismatch of these two attitudes, Charles and Emma represent a larger clash of science with symbolism. Take, for instance, the words of philosopher Ernest Renan in his 1849 work The Future of Science:

“Science alone will make symbols henceforth; science alone can resolve for human beings the eternal problems whose solution their nature imperiously demands.” (The Future of Science, 31)

Science, Renan claims, will level the symbolic power of the world and assert its own authority in its place. With science, rather than symbols, as the source of human meaning, problems that have plagued humanity for centuries can suddenly find their “solution” in empirical study. Statements like these underscore the profound rise of scientific culture in Flaubert’s mid-nineteenth century era. The faith in science – rather than religion or art – to provide human understanding rejects the non-empirical symbols of Emma’s worldview. Accordingly, Charles cannot understand her. With no framework to apply but the idea of scientific cause-to-effect, Charles eclipses Emma’s subjectivity with a medical diagnosis. As such, he misses the symbolic force of literature on her mind entirely.

Still, the language of pathology Charles develops does more than represent an era’s shifting worldview. It responds to a real concern with art and its potential to exercise a moral pathology on the mind it encounters. Madame Bovary, Charles’ mother, alludes to this concern when she deplores Emma’s reading habit:

“Ah! Always busy at what? Reading novels, bad books, works against religion, and in which they mock at priests in speeches taken from Voltaire. But all that leads you far astray, my poor child. A person who has no religion is bound to go astray.” (103)

Here, Madame Bovary outlines a profoundly moral concern with the effects of reading. Of particular note is her anxiety around the idea of influence: she highlights Voltaire, for instance, as being the inspiration for speeches that mock priests. In this moment, it is not Voltaire himself she calls attention to; it is the subsequent speech-writers who have been influenced – or, for Madame Bovary, corrupted – by his literary work. The same anxiety surrounds Emma: by reading novels and “bad books”, she will be led “astray” from the correct mode of life. The decision that soon follows – to keep Emma away from books – treats moral deviance as a potential disease that can be cured, so to speak, by avoiding infection.

Later, Madame Bovary even describes the bookseller’s craft as a “poisonous trade” (103). The notion of poison carries direct implications of infection: a strong link between the effect of literature and the notion of pathology. Instead of an infection of the body, however, literature risks the infection of the mind – the very seat of morality. Yet, while it can be argued that Emma undergoes a degradation of morality at the hands of literature, it might be more accurate to characterize her as having an increase in imagination. For better and for worse, books allow her to desire and dream after things that, without literature, she might never have conceived.




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