Madame Bovary, A Bad Cast
by Wes J. Pimentel
Of all the characters in Madame Bovary, not a single good person emerges, according to historical literary critic, Charles Agustin Sainte-Beuve (qtd. in Bloom 5). I have to say that I agree because I feel like I understand what he means. Anyone who has read the book and then hears this will immediately go from character to character trying to identify one who is free of blame. I will explore the more obvious of these and posit my perspectives on each. I will then take a general look at the moral climate of the book and summarize my views on it.
Charles: the quintessential “good” guy. Why did Charles not escape this criticism? What did he do that was so bad? I don’t believe that Sainte-Beuve meant “bad” necessarily morally when he made this remark. I think he was also referring to the social value of each person. While Charles has many admirable qualities, he lacks the type of passion that interests Emma. I’m Colombian and he lacks what we would call ”picante” or spiciness. He is about as boring and grey as they come. He is the poster boy for men whose wives have strayed. He lacks lofty ambitions and is an absolute momma’s boy. Not exactly the types of qualities that women typically swoon over. So, if you measure someone’s social worth by how interesting they are, good being interesting and bad meaning not, I can see why you would find no good in Charles.
Berthe: the kid. I will not waste anyone’s time on this “character”. Berthe has such an insignificant presence in this book I found myself continually forgetting that Emma had even had a child. I guess women of means were not that into child-rearing during this period, but I would venture to say that even among them, Emma was a prime specimen. While Berthe is an “innocent,” she brings almost nothing to this story, and as such fails to bring goodness, as well.
As you go from character to character in this way, it becomes obvious that there are truly no archetypal “good guys” in the whole book. I think this is one of the most important factors in how this book was received by the public. The fact that all the characters are seriously flawed makes them so believable, it’s hard to imagine them all being contrivances of a single individual’s mind. The palpable credulity that this lends to these people makes it very easy to connect with them and even become emotionally invested in their happiness or their downfall. This, I believe, is the reason for the raging success of this novel. The balance that Falubert strikes in each person in this book is a stroke of genius and elevates the author from a mere writer to a creator.
While thinking about whether there are any good people in the book I also found myself wondering if there are any purely bad characters in it. My thoughts went immediately to Rodolphe. He makes the perfect emotional bad guy. He is a splendid example of a self-centered cad. He is the type of man who women find conceptually repulsive, but irresistibly attractive when encountered in the flesh. He has an easy manner and charm with women, no doubt cultivated through years of debauchery and indulgence. I think the fact that there are bad people like Rodolphe in the novel and that we perceive them as morally reprehensible specifically because they are offensive to Emma reveals the affection that Flaubert has for her. She was obviously a very important character for him and I wouldn’t be the least bit surprised if he truly felt love for her.
I always say that there are almost no good or bad people because I have found that in life most of us are balanced. We have our positive traits and our weaknesses. Flaubert recreates this realism in his characters and makes them leap to life from the book. I think this is the main reason for the controversy over this book as well. There had been all kinds of morally corrupt women in literature at the time this novel came out. Most of these women are presented as bad people, though, and they are easily dismissed as anti-heroines who serve the purpose of showing women how not to be. Flaubert achieved something altogether different. He brought someone to life. As you read the book you feel as if you are truly witnessing the downfall of an actual woman. Madame Bovary breaks through all the typical polarization that occurs in literature and Emma emerges a believable person; flawed, disgusting and beautiful.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Emma Bovary. Major Literary Characters. New York: Chelsea House, 1994. Print.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary, 1857. London: Penguin, 2003.
*Special thanks to Dr. Laurie Leach of Hawaii Pacific University for her guidance and suggestions on this piece.