My last post on Game of Thrones and all my recent, unwritten musings on the masterful concluding chapters of Breaking Bad have got me thinking again about Madame Bovary, which is a pretty weird thing to say, I know.
But I’ve been teaching Bovary again and I’m struck by how the novel continues to compel my vested interested despite its surface near-plotlessness. Is it just that a novel like Bovary and a novel like Game of Thrones fire entirely different synapses in the brain, and no reconciliation between their pleasures can be found?
I don’t know.
One thing is certain. Flaubert is not a good storyteller.
In Flaubert’s letters from during the writing of Bovary, he admits his disinterest in plot—in fact, he deliberately sets out to write a book “about nothing,” focusing on something other than dynamic plot events. Certainly, Bovary is not plotless. It’s a familiar adultery-and-repercussions narrative. But Flaubert seems to suggest that explosive plot events would have a detrimental effect on his aim to explore the recesses of his characters’ psyches.
If we push the metaphor a bit further, an explosive plot event is kind of like a gun going off. It’s exciting, it makes your heart leap, but the fraught anticipation of it is distracting, and it leaves you deaf to any subtler sounds for several minutes thereafter.
I don’t believe that’s always the case, but for Flaubert and Bovary, it may be true.
So, quite intentionally, Flaubert was not a good storyteller. Not if we mean those classic Aristotelian virtues of compelling events, action-orientated characters, surprise reversals and revelations, suspense, momentum. These are the elements we typically note as "good storytelling," and what we find in abundance with an author like George R.R. Martin. These are the age-old elements of epic and romance, the very “cheap thrills” that Flaubert was satirizing in Bovary through Emma’s delusions.
If we look at the history of the development of “the novel,” it’s clear that all the developments and innovations since its inception have been movements away from those elements we tend to cite as “good storytelling.” In a way, good storytelling was already established before 1700, so every innovation since has been in service of something else.
Mostly, the something else was efforts to make the fictional world seem more life-like, and in many cases, those efforts were antithetical to "good storytelling." Just for example, surprise reversals (he’s really a ghost! it’s his wife’s head in the box!) are fun storytelling, but they are contrivances, or at least a rarity, because they don't happen often in reality. It is "less realistic" to depict them in fiction.
But good storytelling is obviously only one factor in what can make a narrative interesting. Flaubert was deliberately uninterested in storytelling, choosing rather to explore microscopically the foibles of humanity, Emma’s psychological states, the distance between two or more people's psychological experience of the same event, details so precise and so evocative that we are shocked by their appearance, etc.
For example, Emma Bovary has an affair with a young man named Leon, and falls into what she thinks is “love” with him. Flaubert writes, "She was in love with Leon, and she wanted to be alone as to delight more comfortably in his image. The sight of him in person disturbed the sensual pleasure of this meditation" (the italics are mine, and the translation is Lydia Davis’).
This is clearly an example of interiority, an insight into Emma’s mind. It’s not a surprise plot point, right?
Well…. there are macro-level plot surprises. We expect Luke Skywalker to vanquish Darth Vader and avenge his father but (twist), Vader reveals he is Luke's father and cuts off his hand! We expect Jaime to weasel his way out of a situation like every time before but (twist), a very Luke-like change of fortune happens to him, too! These are the explosive gunshots of narrative.
But I’d suggest there are also these exquisite micro-level surprises, sudden insights. We understand that Emma loves Leon in her own way and, as a consequence, would want to spend time with him, but (twist) she’d rather spend time alone with her thoughts about him.
I think the macro and micro twists have fundamentally the same effect. Both are surprising because they give us insight into characters’ values. Jaime’s fate wouldn’t shock us if we didn’t see the multifaceted irony in his loss and the circumstances surrounding it. Luke’s fate wouldn’t shock us if we didn’t realize how drastically and ironically it renegotiates his personal journey. And this insight into Emma wouldn’t hit us if it didn’t drive an ironic wedge between the appearance and reality of her character, if it didn’t poke a hole in what we understand “love” to mean for Emma.
In both cases you’re experiencing what Aristotle called astonishment, which I would define as the reader’s reaction to the surprise appearance of irony.
Another brief example arrives in Emma’s first dalliance with her other lover, Rodolphe. They have just made love or are still making love—it’s deliberately unclear—and we’re immersed in Emma’s orgasmic flush of words and images (Davis translation again):
“…her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk. Then, from far away beyond the woods, on the other hills, she heard a vague, prolonged cry, a voice that lingered, and she listened to it in silence as it lost itself like a kind of music in the last vibrations in her tingling nerves. Rodolphe, a cigar between his teeth, was mending with his penknife one of the bridles, which had broken.”
The first “plot twist” here is again about ironic insight. This is the most alive and present Emma has been in the book so far, and yet she’s divorcing herself from her own orgasmic scream, attributing it to some animal “far away beyond the woods.” The second plot twist is the sudden juxtaposition between Emma’s lyrical, ecstatic impression of this event and Rodolphe’s complete dismissal of it.
The jump cut is amazing: she’s still lost in reveries while he’s back to taking care of a mundane task. The ironic gulf opens up, and we see the sharp contrast between their characters. We’re astonished by this surprise appearance of irony (dramatic irony in this case—we’ve been shown truths about Emma and her relationship with Rodolphe that she does not yet realize).
Admittedly, big plot points hit harder than these precise character insights, but in many cases big ironic plot points hit like blunt instruments, dull and numbing. This is not always the case, as with most big plot points in Breaking Bad, which have the virtue of being sharp and explosive. Or the Game of Thrones plot point I wrote about in my last post, which is big, but has a dozen exquisite micro-astonishing ironies swirling around it.
“Micro-astonishments” have the virtue of affecting the reader in smaller ways—often sharper, more precise. They also strike more deeply, I think, because we recognize our own personal foibles of character. They open up hidden truths in ourselves that we generally do not wish to confront (let’s face it, most ironic recognitions in fiction are not happy ones). They sting and they resonate.
The other virtue of micro-astonishing twists of the type we find in Madame Bovary is that there are hundreds of them, several per page, not just the ones at major plot junctures. You get way more astonishments for your time with a book like Bovary, and none of them are cheap.
But, yes, for micro-astonishment to work, you have to read more slowly, more carefully. If we read too bluntly for "stuff happening" on a surface or situational level, we'll skip over all Flaubert's sharp psychological insights, his dozens and dozens of sinister juxtapositions, his evocative details that feel both frozen in time and fully alive at once, or, as James Wood puts it in How Fiction Works, “each detail is almost frozen in its gel of chosenness.”
It's easier to skip over the small, precise insights precisely because they're subtle, because we've been conditioned to read in search of the big plot points, propelling ourselves from one to the next, never paying attention to the fact that we're being offered one gem after another, if we allow ourselves the focused vision to see them.
But if we slow down with a novel like Madame Bovary, we get the same kind of pleasure of astonishment in kind as we do from the big “page-turners.” The pleasure is only different in degree and number. More subtle, more exacting, and far more numerous.