In Madame Bovary, now viewed as the first masterpiece of modern realist fiction, Flaubert uses detailed descriptions of the landscapes, the scenes, and the psychology of the characters to tell the tragic and ironic story. These precise and vivid descriptions not only construct the building blocks of the story but also create the subtle shifts of emotions in the character and feelings in the reader. On the surface, there appears not that much going on in Madame Bovary; however, the reader is engrossed in the rumbling and bubbling passions underneath that always seem to be about to erupt. In this short essay, two examples are shown on how the action of non-action through details gives the story, in Flaubert’s own words, the “rapidity, clarity, passion of a purely dramatic narration.”
In the last chapter of the Part I of the novel, Emma, the title character, young and dreamy, is stuck in the dreary and passionless married life in the countryside. Often, when her country doctor husband, Charles, was out working, Emma would focus her attention on the green silk cigar case accidentally left from the vicomte, whom Emma had waltzed with on her recent trip to a high society ball in Paris. “She would look at it, open it, and even sniff the fragrance of its lining, a mingling of verbena and tobacco.” (49) Emma suspects it a gift from the vicomte’s mistress, as it “had been embroidered on some rosewood frame, a dainty little implement kept hidden from all over eyes, the occupation of many hours, and over it had hung the soft curls of the pensive worker.” (49) The details of a tiny but significant object signifies Emma’s longing for romantic love and desire for luxury. In her observation, “A breath of love had passed among the stiches of the canvas; each stroke of the needle had fastened into it a hope or a memory, and all those interlaced threads of silk were merely an extension of the same silent passion.” (49) The cigar case is a trigger to her desperate dreaming of a larger life in exciting metropolis; and in result, her behavior shifts: she subscribes women and fashion magazines, delights in “countless niceties” in home deco and clothing, and replaces her servant and turns the new one into her own lady’s maid. In her heart and soul, she now waits for something to happen on the far-off horizon. Ironically, the reader finds out that it is in this same delicate cigar case that later Emma hides the letters from her lovers.
In the first chapter of Part III of the story, Emma reunited with her first platonic lover, Leon. During the prolonged and frantic ride through the city, the action of Emma’s eventual succumb to her second adulterous affair is conveyed through a haunting image:
“Once, at midday, out in the countryside, when the sun was beating down most fiercely against the old silver-plated lamps, a bare hand passed under the little blinds of yellow canvas and threw out some torn scrapes of paper, which scattered in the wind and alighted, at a distance, like white butterflies, on a field of red clover all in bloom.” (218)
The zoomed-in description of the Emma’s bare hand throwing out the torn-up rejection letter she had written earlier to Leon moves the plot forward with such an emotionally punched force and rapidity that the reader is drawn into the presence of the material and the scene. When Emma steps down from the carriage and walked away, “her veils lowered, without turning her head,” the reader is not only convinced by the character’s initiation of action but also devastated by its course and possible outcome.
Flaubert’s conviction of employing small yet momentous details throughout the novel paints vivid pictures of the scenes and draws insightful maps of characters’ psyche. These carefully-chosen descriptions tell the reader about the character’s hopes, dreams, and fears. As in the above examples, it is the incisive specificity of the details that leave the reader captivated in the imagined reality Flaubert so painstakingly creates.
Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Ed. Viking Penguin, translated by Lydia Davis. New York: Penguin Books, 2010.