“WE” IN MADAME BOVARY (COMMENT). I am tremendously honored that Jonathan Raban, a writer I admire, has commented twice on my posts, including a disagreement with this post. Raban disagreed with my saying that “Flaubert, the author, had an unfair advantage over his characters. First you throw the fish in the barrel, and then you shoot them.” Raban commented: “…a smart(ish) remark until you see how clearly Flaubert understood that he was one of the fish.” Although I had noted in my post that Raban said in his essay that “…[Flaubert] does not see his characters as despicable”, I want to add an outline of one powerful argument in Raban’s essay supporting his view that Flaubert included himself in the society he was writing about. (He was relying on the text of the book, putting to one side the famous report that Flaubert said, “…Madame Bovary, c’est moi….”) Raban showed how Flaubert chooses to use the word “we” at critical points in a book which for the most part adheres to an “objective” and “impersonal” view of the characters. The first word of the book is “we”, and Raban says that by using the word, “Flaubert claims the whole terrain of MADAME BOVARY as his own native ground.” Raban also analyzes the apparently much-quoted passage which comments on the cliches with which Emma expresses her feelings for her lover. Flaubert says (in the Lydia Davis translation): “…human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to….” Raban points out that this is another of the rare uses of “we.” Raban says that “this is the moment in the novel when the author steps forward, removes his mask, and announces that he and she are one in their struggle to make music on the cracked kettle, and so are we.” I accept this argument, which leads me to ponder why I have reacted to the book as an attack on the characters.

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  1. Jonathan Raban says:

    I don’t want to outstay my welcome (for which thanks) on your site, but here’s Flaubert, writing to Colet, on Dec 23, 1853, just after finishing the scene he called “The Big Fuck”:

    For better or worse, it is a delicious thing to write, to be no longer yourself but to move in an entire universe of your own creating. Today, for instance, as man and woman, both lover and mistress, I rode in a forest on an autumn afternoon under the yellow leaves, and I was also the horses, the leaves, the wind, the words my people uttered, even the red sun that made them almost close their love-drowned eyes.

    I probably should have quoted this in my piece, but was strapped for space, and couldn’t find room for it. It’s the best reply I can think of to Lydia Davis’s accusation that F despised his characters and “hated” writing the book. It’s also one of the best descriptions of writerly bliss that I’ve ever read.

  2. Philip says:

    Thanks for your comments, which have added to the review I liked so much. The result of the discussion is that I will be rereading MADAME BOVARY soon, probably in the Lydia Davis translation.

  3. Pingback: THE PERPETUAL ORGY (COMMENT). | Pater Familias

  4. Nick says:

    I believe the general policy of this blog is, “The more comments the merrier” – although perhaps I shouldn’t put words in the proprietor’s mouth.

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