It would be no exaggeration to suggest that Madame Bovary is the most famous of all the great French novels. Like Nabokov's Lolita, notoriety has secured lasting fame. But a better parallel might be with Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du mal, also published in 1857 and also prosecuted for offending public morality. The two works are very different; Baudelaire was a poet, Flaubert a novelist. Flaubert was acquitted while Baudelaire was not. Few contemporary readers are shocked by Flaubert's depiction of everyday adultery in a mundane marriage whereas parts of Les Fleurs du mal are still quite disturbing. However, taken together the two writers provide a comprehensive illustration of mid-century malaise. In his review of Madame Bovary, Baudelaire wrote that "there is no such thing as a good or bad subject and the most vulgar can often make the best" (compare Oscar Wilde's preface to The Portrait of Dorian Gray). Madame Bovary makes a virtue out of vulgarity, the defining characteristic of both the heroine's literary tastes and the bourgeois millieu in which she is situated (as epitomized by the boorish Monsieur Homais). It is this very vulgarity that makes it so ripe for satire. Flaubert's descriptions of the nature of ennui also owe a lot to Baudelaire: the image of Emma Bovary aimlessly poking the fire as the cracked bell tolls (Part I, chapter 9) is entirely reminiscent of the anguished tension of the Spleen poems. The year 1857 therefore marks a turning point in French literature; as Baudelaire shattered high Romanticism with his own twisted, macabre visions of sexualised vampires and demons, so Flaubert perverted it with satire. Moreover, both writers paved the way for new forms and developments in ways that few have done since. The first of Baudelaire's prose poems were published in 1857, inspiring Rimbaud and later the surrealists. And Madame Bovary, with its revolutionary narrative and literary self-consciousness, is perhaps the first truly modern novel.

Madame Bovary herself is also a very modern heroine, for her final tragedy is brought about less by her Romantic ideals than by her extravagant consumption of consumer goods, a fact often seized upon by Marxist literary critics. Madame Bovary is set in the Second Empire (1852-1870) under Napoleon III (Napoleon I's nephew). Because of the turbulence of the Revolution and the political tension of the early 19th century, France came late to industrialisation. However, under the relative (authoritarian) stability of the Empire the industrial bourgeoisie finally asserted itself and an extensive programme of railway building and commercialisation begun, reflected in the novel in the characters of Lheureux and Homais and the latter's unwavering belief in progress. Those artists who, unlike Flaubert, could not revel in satire often found the intolerant mediocrity of the regime stifling, in particular Victor Hugo, its most vigorous critic even in exile. Nor can the new commercial age be seen to have opened up new opportunities for Emma, only temptations, for industrialisation did little to enhance the role of women. Flaubert was no feminist but he does draw the reader's attention to the extent to which Emma's entrapment is symptomatic of her gender. Her convent education has equipped her with accomplishments and desires for which she has no outlet and this generates escapist fantasies. When she becomes pregnant she expresses the frustrations of her sex:

"She longed for a son. He would be strong and dark and she would call him George. This idea that she might have a male child was a sort of anticipatory compensation for all the frustrations of her past life. A man, at least is free. He can make his way at will through all the countries of the world and all the passions of the heart; he can surmount all obstacles and sink his teeth deep into the pleasures of life, no matter how fantastic or far-fetched. But a woman is forever hedged about. By nature both flexible and sluggish, she has to struggle against the weakness of her flesh and the fact that, by law, she is dependent upon others. Her will, like the veil fastened to her hat by a string, eddies in every wind. Always she feels the pull of some desire, the restraining pressure of some social restriction." (II, 2)

Flaubert made his narrative technique unique through the use of style indirect libre (free indirect style). This occurs within a narrative from which the narrator is entirely absent but also omniscient or where, as Flaubert put it, the author is "like God in the universe, present everywhere and visible nowhere" (letter of December 1852). It is this technique that generates the novel's moral uncertainty, for the narrative perspective skips from character to character and their opinions are inseparable from the general observations of the third person narrator. Interpretation is the sole responsibility of the reader. The passage quoted above, in which Flaubert discusses the imminent birth of Emma's child, is illustrates this well: the first and third sentences are definitely narrated in the omniscient third person but then the perspective shifts and the voice is Emma's, through the third person lens an example of style indirect libre. The tone then reverts to that of a social commentator and the voices merge ambiguously. Flaubert's narrative is also enlivened by the use of dialogue and direct thought, sometimes related in the first person: "I should say he's as stupid as they make 'em" (II, 7) reflects Rodolphe
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