Throughout the course of Madame Bovary Gustave Flaubert’s narration frequently straddles the line between realism and over the top romanticism, a juxtaposition achieved through his excessive attention to the details of the mundane and his highly-stylized, passionate dialogue that the title character shares with her targets of affection. These two distinct writing styles clash throughout Chapter VIII of Part Two (which depicts the town partaking in its annual agricultural show while Rodolphe and Emma share a private intimate moment), with a bulk of the chapter switching on the fly between the two approaches. Flaubert’s unique representation of the concurring scenes does not exceed the expectations that we as readers have built up at this point in the novel; at no time does Flaubert stray too far from the median he has created between the banal real world and a fanciful lust akin to something Emma would read in her romance novels. In fact if analyzed individually, neither aspect of the scene really differentiates from what would be considered something in a typical “realist” or “romantic” novel.
While Madame Bovary was Flaubert’s first attempt at “realist” literature (an attempt which history as shown can certainly be considered successful), his inclusion of overly romantic elements served as a somewhat satirical statement about the abundance of romantic literature which seemed to saturate the literary world of mid-19th century France. Flaubert placed Emma Bovary, a highly romantic character who constantly dreams of meeting her “true” love and hopefully being swept off her feet and into a life of upper class luxury and indulgence, in an industrializing France built on the bourgeois preoccupation of labor, a town full of dreary and simple minded citizens (not excluding her husband Charles, who seems to embody this disposition), and worst of all for Emma, the societal expectation of limiting women to roles of domesticity ‘” forcing her to be the obedient, faithful housewife and devoted mother, roles she fails to uphold. The novel argues through Emma that a romantic character, and really romanticism as a whole is purely fiction and that a person with such a mentality about life cannot find fulfillment in the real world (Flaubert shows this through Emma’s flaws and downfall ‘” as seen in her massive debts accrued while trying to live lavishly, her inability to be a faithful wife and a caring mother to her child, the eventual loss of passion between her and what she thought were her “lovers,” Leon and Rodolphe, all of this culminating in a suicide which shows as bluntly as possible that romanticism cannot succeed in the real social world of nineteenth-century France). This stylistic clash peaks during the agricultural show, where such drastically different types of language create a consistently jarring scene in which the reader can never truly settle on either side of the spectrum, with dialogue that is always shifting focus to the point of near disorientation.
Chapter VIII, much like the novel as a whole, is inherently realist. Aside from the ordinary conversations seen between the townspeople, the idea of a small farming town erupting for a once-a-year agricultural show is about as real as it gets; it highlights how average the town is itself when something like a farming “blue-ribbon” contest gets the town’s blood pumping. Beyond the event itself, Flaubert riddles the chapter with drab conversations and detailed descriptions of everyday occurrences. When the narrator’s focus is away from Emma and Rodolphe’s walk around town or their conversation in the second story of the town hall, the reader is forced to inquire about the trivial opinions of the townspeople on the tent set up for the agricultural show, or be treated to a lecture by Homais about how similar pharmacy is to farming and how the two professions are so linked. Madame Lefrancois (the “hotel-keeper”) says “It’s a crime ‘” a crime, that canvas shack! Do they really think the prefect will enjoy eating his dinner in a tent, like a circus performer?” (Flaubert, 156); she continues after Homais’ enthralling speech, which yet again delves into his personal achievements (“I myself recently wrote a rather considerable little treatise ‘” a monograph of over seventy two pages, entitled… the honor of being admitted to membership in that body…” [Flaubert, 158) by admitting her distaste and animosity toward the rival cafe next to her: “Just look at them,’ she said. ‘How can they patronize such a filthy place…’ she pointed with both hands to her competitor’s cafe” (Flaubert, 158). After her explanation to Homais about the cafe closing in a week, Homais runs off to meet Emma. Why would the reader want to know not only about Madame Lefrancois’ trivial opinions about the agricultural show and her business practices but also about anything Homais wants to discuss at great length? Similar questions rise later in the chapter when Flaubert makes a painstaking effort to detail nearly every boring detail about prepping livestock for the show. The reader does not inquire about these topics because they are not important to Madame Bovary’s main plot concerning Emma’s romance fantasies, but these little true-to-life vignettes are the foundation of realist literature. While these details may not make for an interesting read, they do describe things that average people do everyday ‘” gossiping, rambling about personal interests and working. It should be noted that “realist” literature does not directly equate to “boring,” it just highlights the mundane aspects of life that people would not necessarily look into, and Flaubert does this particularly well in these scenes.
Flaubert, interestingly, goes beyond conversation and actions, though, by seemingly clumping all of the characteristics of “realism” into one character only featured in this chapter: Catherine-Nicaise-Elizabeth Leroux. The prefect announces that Leroux is awarded a prize “for fifty-four years of service on the same farm” (Flaubert, 176). The little old woman climbs her way onstage through a vivid description of her hardened years of experience: “Her thin face, framed in a simple coif, was more wrinkled than a withered russet, and out of the sleeves of her red blouse hung her large gnarled hands. Years of barn dust, washing soda and wool grease had left them so crusted and rough and hard that they looked dirty…” (Flaubert, 176).This woman is the exact opposite of “romanticism,” especially when compared with Emma. Leroux might have daydreamed at some point in her life of being swept away in love, but she traded in such notions of fantasy for the good of the farm and for what was needed of her. She fully switched from emotive to automaton, as seen in her “pale stare softened by no hint of sadness or human kindness” (Flaubert, 177). Even more remarkably drab is Leroux’s reaction to the medal she receives: “I’ll give it to our priest and he’ll say some Masses for me” (Flaubert, 177). She found no need to be rewarded for doing what she needed to do to eat and live. Leroux is the perfect example of how romanticism portrays whimsical love and indulgence in desire while realism wakes up at the crack of dawn every morning to tend to the livestock, the physical embodiment of the contrast Flaubert makes throughout his entire work.
On the other end of the spectrum, the conversation held between Emma and Rodolphe in the second story of the town hall is as much “romantic” as the preceding passages are “realist.” During the prefect’s speech to the townspeople about the necessity of the work that they do, the womanizing Rodolphe continues his plan of seducing Emma into sex and infidelity by confessing to her his true feelings. While the conversations held by the townspeople about the fair or their jobs seemed genuine enough to have potentially occurred between anyone, Rodolphe’s admission of love seems incredibly pre-written, fanciful and downright poeticized. He damns the role of predetermined fate and societal standards in not allowing true love to blossom: “Is there a single sentiment that society doesn’t condemn? The noblest instincts, the purest sympathies are persecuted and dragged in the mud and if two poor souls do find one another, everything is organized to keep them apart. They’ll try, just the same; they’ll beat their wings, they’ll call to each other. Oh! Never fear!” (Flaubert, 172). Rodolphe’s use of such flowery language does not stop there; he continues to court Emma with poetic lines such as “A hundred times I was on the point of leaving, and yet I followed you and stayed with you… as I’d stay with you tonight, tomorrow, every day, all my life!” and “…so that I’ll carry the memory of you with me… Whereas you’ll forget me: I’ll vanish like a shadow” (Flaubert, 175). What natural conversation between two people, even one involving a declaration of love flows like this? The entire sequence seems like lines straight out of a romance novel (exactly what Emma needed to hear to be successfully courted). Rodolphe himself is quite the “romantic” character ‘” he is wealthy, devoid of a life of manual labor and is allowed to pursue many romantic interests due to his social status, so it is only natural that his lines are of such a “romantic” nature, but the entire conversation between Rodolphe and Emma is devoid of any semblance of the real world, staying true to the notions of literary romanticism which Flaubert set out to comment on.
Both “romanticism” and “realism” clash with each other in Madame Bovary, specifically in Chapter VII, to create a unique commentary on romantics existing in the real world. Flaubert’s balance between the two literary modes accurately portrays each particular writing style without detracting from either, striking a rare combination of the two the result of which can switch from mundane to fantasy on any particular whim. This unique blend of literary styles is what makes Madame Bovary such a revered novel to this day.