It’s difficult to compare two books that are very, very good at what they do but that do very different things.
Must such a comparison be evaluative, hierarchical? Of course not. Does it often end up that way? Of course. We’re only human! We like different things, for reasons that often say more about us than about the objects of our inquiry. Is it a cheap dodge, though, to hide behind the unassailable (because ultimately indefensible) assertion of taste when you strongly prefer one great novel to another? Yes, probably. Maybe it’s better not to go there, then, but to stick with “these books do two very different things”–with the what, the fact of the matter, the precise depiction, and leave the rest unsaid, implicit.
It would be ironic for me to do that when comparing Madame Bovary and Middlemarch, though, because when I try to fix on what it is that I didn’t like about reading Madame Bovary, what I come up with is the way that novel is so relentlessly about the ‘what.’ There are a lot of things the novel just doesn’t do, things Flaubert just won’t do. To quote Lydia Davis’s introduction again, “his technique is to present the material without comment.” There’s nothing trivial or superficial about his “painstaking objective description,” which is often devastatingly perceptive, but “without comment,” it felt somehow unmoored to me. The ‘what’ is very meticulously rendered, but Madame Bovary is not a novel that deals very much in the ‘why?’ (broadly conceived), or the ‘what about it, then?’ Things and people in the novel are what they are in themselves: they are intensely specific, and it’s only indirectly, if at all, that the novel attaches them to anything general, from historical context to moral or philosophical ideas.
Middlemarch, by contrast, is fundamentally about connecting the specific to the general, about seeing the particular in as broad and varied a context as possible. Middlemarch “without comment” is all but inconceivable: how depleted, how deflated, it would be! The wisdom of Middlemarch–the excellence of Middlemarch–resides in its comments. The excellence of Madame Bovary lies (perforce) somewhere else: in its perfect realization of its own concept, perhaps? G. H. Lewes famously called Jane Austen “the greatest artist who ever lived” because she displayed, he thought, “the most perfect mastery over the means to her ends”: that seems true of Flaubert as well, at least in this case, and at least as far as I understand his ends and means. Where, though, is the wisdom of Madame Bovary? The novel itself makes this question seem foolish, misguided, naive. Nobody in the novel really learns anything, after all: “Since the events that are about to be recounted here, nothing … has changed in Yonville.” If you don’t think anybody can learn anything, no wonder you refrain from commenting. What would be the point? Middlemarch, in contrast, is profoundly pedagogical, and so its narrator balances wry awareness of her students’ inadequacies and limits with utter commitment to helping them understand and grow. This is not work that can be done by keeping out of the way.
Different means serving different ends: different visions, different aesthetics, different novels. And the reason it is so obvious how different the two novels are is that they have so much in common. There’s the basic premise: both are about ‘provincial life’ (and both, I think, see its limitations and defects in quite similar ways). Both also take a doctor and his discontented wife as main characters, a plot parallel that nicely sets me up to illustrate the authors’ contrasting approaches.
It would be impossible by now for any of us to recall a thing about him. He was a boy of even temperament, who played at recess, worked in study hall, listening in class, sleeping well in the dormitory, eating well in the dining hall. He had as local guardian a wholesale hardware dealer in the rue Ganterie, who would take him out once a month, on a Sunday, after his shop was closed, send him off to walk along the harbor looking at the boats, then return him to school by seven o’clock, before supper. In the evening, every Thursday, he would write a long letter to his mother, with red ink and three pats of sealing wax; then he would review his history notebooks or read an old volume of Anacharsis that was lying around in the study hall. Out walking, he would talk to the servant, who, like him, was from the country.
By dint of applying himself, he stayed somewhere in the middle of the class; once he even earned a first honorable mention in natural history. But at the end of his third year, his parents withdrew him from the school in order to have him study medicine, convinced that he would be able to go on alone to the baccalaureate. . . .
The curriculum, which he read on the notice board, made his head swim: a course in anatomy, a course in pathology, a course in physiology, a course in pharmacy, a course in chemistry, and one in botany, and one in clinical practice and one in therapeutics, not to mention hygiene and materia medica, names with unfamiliar etymologies that were like so many doors to sanctuaries filled with solemn shadows.
He understood none of it; though he listened, he did not grasp it. He worked, nonetheless, he possessed bound notebooks, he attended all the lectures, he never missed a hospital round. He accomplished his little daily task like a mill horse, which walks in circles with its eyes covered, not knowing what it is grinding. (Part I, Chapter 1)
He had been left an orphan when he was fresh from a public school. His father, a military man, had made but little provision for three children, and when the boy Tertius asked to have a medical education, it seemed easier to his guardians to grant his request by apprenticing him to a country practitioner than to make any objections on the score of family dignity. He was one of the rare lads who early get a decided bent and make up their minds that there is something particular in life which they would like to do for its own sake, and not because their fathers did it. Most of us who turn to any subject we love remember some morning or evening hour when we got on a high stool to reach down an untried volume, or sat with parted lips listening to a new talker, or for very lack of books began to listen to the voices within, as the first traceable beginning of our love. Something of that sort happened to Lydgate. . . . one vacation, a wet day sent him to the small home library to hunt once more for a book which might have some freshness for him: in vain! unless, indeed, he took down a dusty row of volumes with grey-paper backs and dingy-labels — the volumes of an old Cyclopaedia which he had never disturbed. It would at least be a novelty to disturb them. They were on the highest shelf, and he stood on a chair to get them down. But he opened the volume which he first took from the shelf: somehow, one is apt to read in a makeshift attitude, just where it might seem inconvenient to do so. The page he opened on was under the heading of Anatomy, and the first passage that drew his eyes was on the valves of the heart. He was not much acquainted with valves of any sort, but he knew that valvae were folding doors, and through this crevice came a sudden light startling him with his first vivid notion of finely adjusted mechanism in the human frame. A liberal education had of course left him free to read the indecent passages in the school classics, but beyond a general sense of secrecy and obscenity in connection with his internal structure, had left his imagination quite unbiassed, so that for anything he knew his brains lay in small bags at his temples, and he had no more thought of representing to himself how his blood circulated than how paper served instead of gold. But the moment of vocation had come, and before he got down from his chair, the world was made new to him by a presentiment of endless processes filling the vast spaces planked out of his sight by that wordy ignorance which he had supposed to be knowledge. From that hour Lydgate felt the growth of an intellectual passion.
We are not afraid of telling over and over again how a man comes to fall in love with a woman and be wedded to her, or else be fatally parted from her. Is it due to excess of poetry or of stupidity that we are never weary of describing what King James called a woman’s “makdon and her fairnesse”, never weary of listening to the twanging of the old Troubadour strings, and are comparatively uninterested in that other kind of “makdom and fairnesse” which must be wooed with industrious thought and patient renunciation of small desires? In the story of this passion, too, the development varies: sometimes it is the glorious marriage, sometimes frustration and final parting. And not seldom the catastrophe is bound up with the other passion, sung by the Troubadours. For in the multitude of middle-aged men who go about their vocations in a daily course determined for them much in the same way as the tie of their cravats, there is always a good number who once meant to shape their own deeds and alter the world a little. The story of their coming to be shapen after the average and fit to be packed by the gross, is hardly ever told even in their consciousness; for perhaps their ardour in generous unpaid toil cooled as imperceptibly as the ardour of other youthful loves, till one day their earlier self walked like a ghost in its old home and made the new furniture ghastly. Nothing in the world more subtle than the process of their gradual change! In the beginning they inhaled it unknowingly; you and I may have sent some of our breath towards infecting them, when we uttered our conforming falsities or drew our silly conclusions: or perhaps it came with the vibrations from a woman’s glance. (Book II, Chapter 15)
Then she recalled the heroines of the books she had read, and this lyrical throng of adulterous women began to sing in her memory with sisterly voices that enchanted her. She herself was in some way becoming an actual part of those imaginings and was fulfilling the long daydream of her youth, by seeing herself as this type of amorous woman she had so much envied. Besides, Emma was experiencing the satisfaction of revenge. Hadn’t she suffered enough? But now she was triumphing, and love, so long contained, was springing forth whole, with joyful effervescence. She savored it without remorse, without uneasiness, without distress. (Part II, Chapter 9)
[T]his result, which she took to be a mutual impression, called falling in love, was just what Rosamond had contemplated beforehand. Ever since that important new arrival in Middlemarch she had woven a little future, of which something like this scene was the necessary beginning. Strangers, whether wrecked and clinging to a raft, or duly escorted and accompanied by portmanteaus, have always had a circumstantial fascination for the virgin mind, against which native merit has urged itself in vain. And a stranger was absolutely necessary to Rosamond’s social romance . . . . Now that she and the stranger had met, reality proved much more moving than anticipation, and Rosamond could not doubt that this was the great epoch of her life. She judged of her own symptoms as those of awakening love, and she held it still more natural that Mr. Lydgate should have fallen in love at first sight of her. These things happened so often at balls, and why not by the morning light, when the complexion showed all the better for it? (Book I, Chapter 12)
Meanwhile, acting upon theories that she believed to be sound, she kept trying to experience love. By moonlight, in the garden, she would recite all the passionate rhymes she knew by heart and would sing melancholy songs to him, with a sigh; but she would find that she was as calm afterward as she had been before, and Charles seemed neither more loving nor more deeply moved.
When in this way she had made some attempt to strike the tinder against her heart without causing a single spark to fly from it, incapable, in any case, of understanding something she was not experiencing herself, just as she was incapable of believing in anything that did not manifest itself in a conventional form, she easily persuaded herself that Charles’s passion was no longer extraordinary. (Part I, Chapter 7)
So now they were going to continue one after another like this, always the same, innumerable, bringing nothing! Other people’s lives, however dull they were, had at least the possibility that something would happen. A chance occurrence would sometimes lead to an infinite number of sudden shifts, and the setting would change. But for her, nothing happened. God had willed it! The future was a dark corridor, with the door at its end firmly closed. (Part I, Chapter 9)
Poor Rosamund for months had begun to associate her husband with feelings of disappointment, and the terribly inflexible relation of marriage had lost its charm of encouraging delightful dreams. It had freed her from the disagreeables of her father’s house, but it had not given her everything that she had wished and hoped. The Lydgate with whom she had been in love had been a group of airy conditions for her, most of which had disappeared, while their place had been taken by everyday details which must be lived through slowly from hour to hour, not floated through with a rapid selection of favourable aspects. The habits of Lydgate’s profession, his home preoccupation with scientific subjects, which seemed to her almost like a morbid vampire’s taste, his peculiar views of things which had never entered into the dialogue of courtship — all these continually-alienating influences, even without the fact of his having placed himself at a disadvantage in the town, and without that first shock of revelation about Dover’s debt, would have made his presence dull to her. There was another presence which ever since the early days of her marriage, until four months ago, had been an agreeable excitement, but that was gone: Rosamond would not confess to herself how much the consequent blank had to do with her utter ennui. . . (Book VII, Chapter 64)
[Will] would have made, she thought, a much more suitable husband for her than she had found in Lydgate. No notion could have been falser than this, for Rosamond’s discontent in her marriage was due to the conditions of marriage itself, to its demand for self-suppression and tolerance, and not to the nature of her husband; but the easy conception of an unreal Better had a sentimental charm which diverted her ennui. She constructed a little romance which was to vary the flatness of her life: Will Ladislaw was always to be a bachelor and live near her, always to be at her command, and have an understood though never fully expressed passion for her, which would be sending out lambent flames every now and then in interesting scenes. His departure had been a proportionate disappointment, and had sadly increased her weariness of Middlemarch; but at first she had the alternative dream of pleasures in store from her intercourse with the family at Quallingham. Since then the troubles of her married life had deepened, and the absence of other relief encouraged her regretful rumination over that thin romance which she had once fed on. Men and women make sad mistakes about their own symptoms, taking their vague uneasy longings, sometimes for genius, sometimes for religion, and oftener still for a mighty love. (Book VIII, Chapter 75)
These examples aren’t offered in a tendentious spirit. They all display, I think, mastery as Lewes defines it. Yet I can’t imagine ever loving one novel as I love the other. Sorry, Gustave: it’s not you, it’s me! But I’m looking forward to the discussion that I hope these juxtapositions provoke.
*Don’t blame me! If the blurb for the Davis translation can call Emma “the original desperate housewife,” how am I supposed to resist?