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the formless tragedy of emma bovary

She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris.

The elegant and subtle style of Gustave Flaubert's 'Madame Bovary' has been praised and studied ever since the novel appeared in 1856. The short sentence quoted offers a great example, symbolizing the "formless tragedy" of Emma Bovary and illustrating Flaubert's complex attitude towards his character.

Most obvious in the statement is the striking irony of the contradiction in her wishes. The sentence occurs as the culmination of a paragraph of daydreaming, and of mutually exclusive longings to escape her dull life as a housewife in a small country town. As Flaubert often does, he will build such a theme and then conclude with an epigrammic summary, a kind of coda on a microlevel.

She had bought herself a blotter, a writing case, a penholder, and some envelopes, although she had no one to write to; she would dust her shelves, look at herself in the mirror, pick up a book, and then, as daydreams replaced the lines of print, let it fall on to her lap. She longed to travel; she longed to go back to her convent to live. She wanted to die, and she wanted to live in Paris.

Note the rhythm of the prose, and how it slowly shifts from resolute fact to something more subjective and close to erlebte Rede. There is a particularly subtle shift from "she had bought" to "she would dust", that is, from a single instance of fact to a more general sketch of her situation, and from there it drifts off into daydreaming.

At the same time, the sentence reveals much about Emma Bovary's character, whose romantic notion of "living in Paris" is as absolute as dying, and whose provincial boredom is nothing like the sophisticated Parisian ennui of, say, Baudelaire (whose 'Les Fleur du mal' was published a year later).

However, while it might seem that Flaubert is making fun of his heroine, 'Madame Bovary' was considered groundbreaking for making such mundane, small drama the subject of a serious novel. For all his irony, the fact that he is describing Emma's vague longings at all, realistically and in all their inarticulateness, shows the compassion he has for his character.

In his seminal study of literary criticism, 'Mimesis', Erich Auerbach analyses the novel and its particular style at length. He has this to say about Flaubert's literary innovation:

Certainly [Emma] has many wishes, but they are entirely vague - elegance, love, a varied life; there must always have been such unconcrete despair, but no one ever thought of taking it seriously in literary works before; such formless tragedy, if it may be called tragedy, which is set in motion by the general situation itself, was first made conceivable as literature by romanticism; probably Flaubert was the first to have represented it in people of slight intellectual culture and fairly low station; certainly he is the first who directly captures the chronic character of this psychological situation. Nothing happens, but that nothing has become a heavy, oppressive, threatening something.

As Auerbach recognizes, Flaubert also pointed the way for modernist writers like Proust and Virginia Woolf, who would create literature out of the detailed treatment of the smallest daily events, and the same kind of "formless tragedy".

Meanwhile, what makes 'Madame Bovary' still a fascinating read is exactly the tension between Flaubert's distancing irony and close, affectionate observation. At times he achieves both at the same time, resulting in a uniquely layered form of realism.

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