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Bourgeois and proud of it

During a very pleasant week in the island of Malta, I took a fair old mix of books to read while catching some rays on the beach. Among the books I had been meaning, out of curiousity. to read was Madame Bovary, by Gustave Flaubert. (A sort of upmarket version of Confessions of a Bored French Housewife). I read the novel in about three days and I can say that the book is one of the most overated pieces of crud it has been my misfortune to read for a long time. I have read a fair amount of famous French literature in my time (I love Dumas and Hugo) but this was poor.

I can see why the book appeals to a certain kind of reader. While it tilts at the vital issue of women’s liberation and the dangers of destructive relationships, it is in fact also deeply cynical and negative. It maintains a sustained sneer at a whole way of being for about 290 pages. While obsessed about the “hypocrisy” of 19th Century social mores, it utterly fails to suggest how a more “honest” value system would work. (Never mind the old adage that hypocrisy is the tribute vice pays to virtue).

At times there is almost Woody Allenish message jumping from the page: “Life sucks and then you die”. It is also hugely conceited and snobbish about ordinary, middle class people. (Flaubert prided himself on not performing any productive work in his life). It set the precedent for a whole range of books and plays mocking the middle class and supposed stuffy convention. However, unlike the wonderful short stories of Saki or the plays of Osar Wilde, Flaubert is rarely funny.

Why worry now about a book by a diseased Frenchman penned 150 years ago? Well, as this fine short article by Anthony Daniels makes clear, we have been paying the price for sneering at the bourgois value system almost as soon as the word “bourgois” became part of our verbal lexicon. The greatest victims, invariably, are the poor and ill educated.

14 comments to Bourgeois and proud of it

  • Funny that you should mention Woody Allen in context to Madame Bovary. In his very funny short story “The Kugelmass Episode” a professor of literature enters various literary works via some kind of device, and among other things he has an affair with Madame Bovary.

  • The irony about the book’s being snobbish towards the middle classes is that the word “snob” was originally coined to describe the middle classes. It means “shoe-maker”.

    True story.

  • Interesting take. It’s been a couple of years since I read MB, and even longer since I read it in French, but what it told me was not that “immorality doesn’t pay”, but that irresponsibility causes ruin.

    ‘Twas Bovary’s spendthrift ways which really caused her downfall — her affair was just another manifestation of her weakness.

    Incidentally, ther description of the Hat in the first chapter is still one of my favorite passages in all literature.

  • Johnathan

    Kim, you make a very good point about the debt and financial irresponsibility issue. Must say I had not thought of it quite like that. I stand slightly corrected!

    Flaubert’s best trait was his ability to describe the Normandy landscape and attire of folk at that time. In many ways his style presaged the stripped-down prose of Hemingway and other “moderns”.

  • lemuel

    Ehm, Squander Two,
    Sorry, but, no, “Snob” does not mean “shoe-maker”. It was originally an abbrevation of the phrase sine nobilite:


    I think it was used in early english census takings to describe persons status.
    So there. Hope you dont need a translation.

    Lemuel, who is not a snob, not at all…

  • Lemuel,

    Not according to this and various other references.

    “Snob” still does mean “shoe-maker” in some dialects. It was a term of derision used to describe those who had gained wealth through trade instead of inheritance: no matter how they may have aped the tastes and equalled or surpassed the wealth of the upper classes, true blue-bloods knew the upstarts were nothing but glorified snobs.

    I suspect it might be one of those words with more than one origin.

  • Verity

    Squander 2, you say snob still means shoemaker in some dialects. In what language? One minute we’re talking about Mme Bovary written by Gustave Flaubert, which led me to believe you were speaking of the French origin of the word snob, now you’re talking about “some dialects” but you don’t say of which language. Certainly not English. This doesn’t fit any root that would be pertinent to shoes. And it doesn’t sound like a French word having to do with footwear – although Sylvain, Kim or Diss would have a far better take on this than me.

    Lemuel’s Latin phrase sounds far more likely, possibly coined by an English writer like Johnson. Or Thackery. That’s my bet.

  • Hey, Verity, I’m not an etymologist by trade. All I knew was that “snob” meant “shoemaker” and in what context that could mean “upstart”. I didn’t look up any further detail till challenged. According to the dictionary references I found, it comes from a Norse root and is still used in some dialects, but I forget which ones. One reference said that it’s related to “snub” as well, which seems likely. Google is your friend.

  • Oh, sorry; dialects of English; I should have said.

  • Effra

    You have completely misread the novel’s message. Mme Bovary dies of delusions. She refuses to accept her bourgeois status, with its privileges and duties, and retreats into a world of romantic adultery– first through novel-reading, later putting their spurious values into practice with Leon and Rodolphe. By transgressing the social requirement of marital fidelity, she destroys her life, her husband’s and her daughter’s.

    The novel in no way endorses rebellion against bourgeois norms; it is not even in favour of radical “enlightened” collective reform, as seen by Flaubert’s derisive picture of Homais. The only authority figure he treats with respect is the parish priest of Yonville. Even Charles’s attempt to modernise surgery by operating on the club foot ends in disaster. “Bovary” is one of the most conservative and pessimistic novels of the 19th century.

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Effra you are wrong IMHO. The book is certainly pessimistic (it is a depressing, gloomy tale), and possibly conservative (or perpaps better thought of as reactionary), but this does not contradict my charge that this is a profoundly cynical book, which mocks the values of the French middle class of the mid-19th century. Flaubert’s mockery is plainly evident. The fact that his central character, Emma, comes to a sticky end may act as a sort of “morality tale”, but it is hard to see how the novel comes across as preaching the values of fidelity, financial prudence and so forth. That was certainly not Flaubert’s intention, judging from what I have read about him and his life.

    Oh well, time for something much better, like a Patrick O’Brien novel!

  • Effra

    Johnathan: You should judge a novel by its contents, not by extrinsic matters such as Flaubert’s life. The novelist is only reliable when telling his tale. Where in “Bovary” is there any authorial endorsement of, or depiction of, rebellion against provincial bourgeois norms as conducing to success and happiness?

  • Johnathan Pearce

    Effra, there is no explicit endorsement of rebellion, but the language depicting bourgeois norms is clearly laden with heavy irony. I find it a bit odd that a book so widely seen as a gentle sendup of middle class existence and a portrayal of the boredom a woman feels in such a life could be thought of differently. Also take the treatment of Homais. The sarcasm is never far from the surface, right to the end when he gets his Legion d’honneur.

    I took my views by reading the book, but it is always interesting to know about the author himself. Anyway, I won’t be wasting more time reading this again!

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