Charles in Madame Bovary
Charles in Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary represents a provincial archetype -- in fact, the exact sort of common countryside provincialism that his wife Emma comes to resent, find banal, and from which seek to escape. Yet, it is exactly this provincialism that allows Charles to remain grounded in his work and life: his "common sense" as it might be called keeps him, essentially, from becoming a "jealous type." Whether Emma (and the reader) would have benefited more had Charles become such a type, we may not say, but neither is it the course of the narrative to show. This paper will examine the precise reasons why Charles shows no human jealousy of Emma, even as she begins her adulterous way of living.
We can, to a certain degree, better understand Emma than we can Charles. Emma at least represents for us the modern consciousness -- bored, neglected, and dying to escape the banalities of the modern world. She has been raised, as Vladimir Nabokov points out, on romantic novels -- exceedingly popular in the 19th century and read by Emma "emotionally, in a shallow juvenile manner, putting herself in this or that female character's place" (136); in other words, she loves "romantic cliches" rather than the man who becomes her husband.
While such an analysis of Emma may afford us a better understanding of her character and role in the novel (and make us more sympathetic to her person and plight), it does not say much for the character and role of her husband. In fact, there is not much (at first glance) that may be said of her husband. He arrives on the scene of the novel as a "new fellow," marries at the bidding of his elders a woman who actually does become jealous of Charles (as Charles begins to notice Emma, the daughter of one of his patients). When his first wife dies, Charles courts Emma, they marry, and Emma realizes that she is not content to spend her time with a bumbling, provincial fool of a man -- even if he is kind-hearted. He is not the dashing, Byronic hero of whom she has read so much in her romantic novels.
As Emma begins her escapades outside the marriage contract, Charles fails to notice, "since as we are told, in a rare authorial intervention, he is not the jealous type" (Anderson 126). That this analysis of one his own main characters should necessitate an authorial intrusion speaks volumes of the precise nature of Charles: just as there is not much to him, there is not much that can be said of him; to get to the heart of him -- his sins, his weaknesses, his tendencies -- requires either the utmost scrutiny or else a god-like pronouncement or judgment of sorts -- in shot, an authorial interruption: "This is Charles: he is not jealous." Indeed, we might not be surprised by such an intrusion. After all, the subtitle of the novel is "Provincial Manners," reminding us that Madame Bovary is not strictly a novel about an adulterous woman. It is much more than that: it is a reflection of a particular time and way of life in 19th century France. More explicitly, it is a reflection of village-life in Normandy. Charles is the archetypal provincial: decent, hard-working, drawn to the more fascinating creatures of the world (like Emma) but not very bright when it comes to understanding them.
Instead, what we see in Charles is an intellect somewhat equal to Emma's. She is consumed by the passion of the Romantic era -- he, in turn, is consumed by the novelties of his wife. He does not understand her romance, but he finally allows it to seize possession of him: after her...
Even after he realizes the true nature of his wife's infidelities, he forgives her and remains loyal to her vision of life. The vision, of course, is not healthy and all suffer for it -- even the daughter, who is finally sent to work in a cotton mill.
Perhaps if Charles had become aware -- or had become jealous -- life might have been different for all. Perhaps it would have been for Emma a new and romantic twist in her adventures: the jealous husband chapter of the romantic novel. Perhaps it would have been enough to bring her back to her senses and allow her to make an attempt at appreciating the common lot of life in provincial France. But it is not so. Let us return to Charles as he truly is.
Charles is, in a sense, a contradiction: at the same time that we recognize his buffoonery, we also value his sense of decency. As Malcom Bowie states, Flaubert "devalues and simultaneously revalorizes the objects that fall beneath his gaze" -- and Charles is a perfect example (x). In a way, we might argue that Charles himself is responsible for his wife's deviations. His own mother suspects that he is not keeping his new wife in line, when she comments that she appears to be neglecting her duties around the house: "The elder Madame Bovary reproaches Charles for not forbidding his wife's novel reading" (Amann 228). As their debts increase, his mother realizes that Charles is truly foolish.
What are we to think of this foolishness? Is it love for Emma, or weakness of character? Or perhaps both? Truly we are not obliged to say either way. But Nabokov gives us a clue as to the actual depth and complexity of Charles, and indicates the way in which it might be approached. Just as Flaubert approaches a setting, and describes it one layer at a time (first, the exterior, then the front room, then the side room, then the back room -- going deeper and deeper as it moves along), we might slowly move more deeply into the character of Charles before fully understanding his nature and his "lack" of jealousy:
In Mach 1846 after eight years of married life, including two tempestuous love affairs of which her husband knew nothing, Emma Bovary contracts a nightmare heap of debts she cannot meet and commits suicide. In his only moment of romanticist fantasy, poor Charles makes the following plan for her funeral: 'He shut himself up in his consulting room, took a pen, and after a spell of sobbing, wrote: 'I want her to be buried in her wedding dress, with white shoes, and a wreath. (Nabokov 132)
He is, at heart, a soul suffering under the yoke of a provincial outlook -- a worldview that sees no further than what it must: it is susceptible to outward intrusions, just as Emma intrudes upon the vision of Charles when he is already married. His soul is further intruded upon by her romantic outlook, and he makes way for it, and is affected by its consequences. But he is never truly freed from his provincialism: he is rooted in it. Yet, by the end of the novel this provincialism is now coupled with romanticism -- and the combination proves destructive. One sees the coupling in the preparations Charles makes for the burial of Emma: he reverts to a kind of nostalgic whimsy, a romantic-provincial sort of attitude. He also insists that there be three caskets, one over top the other, so that Emma in her death represents a kind of puzzle box -- just like the villages of Normandy area puzzle box, hidden under layer after layer of externals. If Charles awakens to any kind of knowledge, it is this: that everyone and everything has more than one layer. Yet, true to his nature, he prefers to think of Emma (not as a cheater) but as his wife (which is why he buries her in her wedding dress). To the end, he loves her. But if he loves, why is not jealous?
We may find the answer from Flaubert himself, when he remarks on the scene in which Leon and Madame Bovary form a bond of "constant commerce of books and of romances" while Charles, "little given to jealousy, did not trouble himself about it" (Flaubert 108). This little phrase -- "did not trouble himself about it" -- is very telling and quickly compels us to ascertain the heart of the matter. If Charles is the archetype of provincialism, then we must ask ourselves what exactly provincialism means. If we think of it as a mode of life outside the hustle and bustle of the city, we can all agree that Charles exudes provincialism. If we think of it as insularity and narrow-mindedness, we hesitate to apply it to Charles even if it does fit. Rather, we might view provincialism as a simplistic way of life -- a way of life that does not force itself upon others and does not tackle concerns that are not forced upon it. Mary Orr states…
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