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Hope is the thing with feathers, Emily Dickinson wrote. Had she composed a longer poem or lived a longer life, would she have come to agree with Gerard Manley Hopkins, in “God’s Grandeur,” that “the Holy Ghost over the bent / World broods with warm breast and with ah! bright wings”? Or would she have concurred with Flaubert, in Un Coeur Simple, that the Holy Ghost is really a stuffed parrot to whom simpletons, like his mockingly named heroine, Felicité, pray in their lunacy? From a poet who could lament in her last years that God’s right hand “is amputated now / And God cannot be found,” one cannot dismiss the latter likelihood.

Despair we have always had with us. Jesus warned against it in Luke’s mysterious passage: “And whosoever shall speak a word against the Son of Man, it shall be forgiven him, but unto him that blasphemeth against the Holy Ghost it shall not be forgiven” (12:10). St. Benedict sought to deflect it from the prayer life of his monks by enjoining them, in the seventy-second (and final) precept of his Rule, “never to despair of the mercy of God.” And when St. Thomas Aquinas distinguished between presumption (the sin against hope by excess) and despair (the sin against hope by defect), he tagged only the latter as unforgivable.

Rarely in the history of Western literature—until the mid-nineteenth century, that is—has the virtue of hope been sinned against in any final and irretrievable way. This or that devastated character falling into despair, yes, like Lear on the heath, railing at the storm when turned out of doors by his daughters, or Gulliver preferring to sleep with his horses when returned to his Yahoo family; but in each case the despairer is an aberrant measured against exemplars of hope: Cordelia and Kent in the former, and Captain Pedro de Mendez, the spurned Good Samaritan of Gulliver’s fourth voyage, in the latter. Even Ishmael, in Melville’s darkest novel, is saved from the vortex of the doomed Pequod by Queequeg’s coffin and by the whaler Rachel in “search after her missing children.” How distressing to realize, then, that a deliberate and irrevocable violation of hope should have constituted the clear intention of the premier practitioner of the realistic novel, Gustave Flaubert (1821–1880).

By Flaubert’s time, of course, hope, coming after faith and before charity in the lineup of the three theological virtues, had undergone serious secular transformation. Certainly the Enlightenment had severed it from all eschatological promise; the provenance of hope to a Deist like Benjamin Franklin extended largely to the civitas terrenis, his kite and key the heavenly host, his street-swept Philadelphia the New Jerusalem. Later, the Romantics had tried to find hope in the countryside, but they presumed in the beneficence of Nature and in the innocence of the self. Pace Words­worth, could any impulse from a vernal wood really teach “more of man, / Of moral evil and of good” than all the sages? And could anyone have been vain enough to obey the Emersonian injunction to “obey thyself,” expecting thereby to touch the hem of the Transcendent? Flaubert thought not and said so with withering satire in Madame Bovary, his masterpiece.

For those who suspect that the catastrophes emanating from the Enlightenment have, over the slow pace of history, outdistanced its achievements, Flaubert’s censure of the movement, via his mashing of the pharmacist Homais, seems just. Appropriately named, Homais is man—man alone—supremely confident in his own accomplishments and scornful of those superstitions, like primal falls and redemptions, that would compromise his newfound stature. Pompously self-reliant, he would cure the ills of the world by empirical fiat. It is from his apothecary’s shop that the miracles of science issue and from his Comtean sagacity that uninvited dollops of the new morality are apportioned. His letters to the editor in the Fanal de Rouen dogmatize upon every conceivable subject: “There was no longer a dog run over, a barn burnt down, a woman beaten in the parish, of which he did not immediately inform the public, guided always by the love of progress and the hate of priests.” He has named his sons Franklin and Napoleon. His poison helps to undo Emma Bovary long before she literally partakes of it from his laboratory, mockingly called Cafarnaum. He will outlast three doctors after Charles Bovary, “so effectively did he hasten to eradicate them.” And for all this he will earn, as reward for his appalling career, the cross of the Legion of Honor. Hatred was the great spur to Flaubert’s genius, and it is for the “enlightened” Homais that Flaubert reserves his singular contempt. Abandon all hope, ye who have presumptuously entered there.

Abandon all hope, also, ye who have succumbed to the siren call of Romanticism. By his own admission, Flaubert was in his youth addicted to the “disease” of Romanticism, and he wrote Madame Bovary as an act of self-exorcism. (He was supposed to have said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi.”) In the 1840s he wrote in a letter to his mistress, Louise Colet: “I am bored with great passions, exalted feelings, wild love affairs. . . . I prize common sense above everything else, perhaps because I so lack it.” In another letter in which he complained about the sentimentality of Romanticism, he wrote: “I refuse to consider Art a drain pipe for passion. . . . No, no! Genuine poetry is not the scum of the heart,” a meta­phor that seems to mock Wordsworth’s famous definition of poetry as “the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings.” In its place, Flaubert sought, in his own words, “to render ignoble reality artistically.” The “ignoble reality” he tried to render was the hollow and sordid society of his time, half of which he thought was sick with romantic self-indulgence (the inanity of the French nation returning another Napoleon to a recreated emperor’s throne in 1852 is a case in point) and the other half with bourgeois acquisitiveness. Emma Bovary is the most pitiful victim of the illusions of Romanticism, and of acquisitiveness (although Frederic Moreau of A Sentimental Education would come in a close second), and the tragedy that issues from those illusions—perhaps pathos would be a better word—is the subject of Flaubert’s great novel.

First among the Romantic “virtues” that Flaubert dissolves with his acidic realism, is feeling, Romanticism’s vaunted mode of penetrating into the heart of reality: “I felt before I thought” was Rousseau’s anti-Cartesian manifesto from his Confessions, just as in “Tintern Abbey” Wordsworth exalted the role of feeling into mystical intuition. In Emma Bovary, Flaubert diagnoses feeling not as the salubrious power that Rousseau and Wordsworth extolled, but as a neurosis. Later in the novel, Emma’s feeling degenerates into psychosis and arsenic-induced suicide.

Nature too was high on the list of Romantic ideals. Wordsworth might claim her as “the anchor of [his] purest thoughts, the nurse, / The guide, the guardian of [his] heart, and soul / Of all [his] moral being”; but Flaubert, writing his novel shortly after Wordsworth’s death, could see in the landscape of his native Normandy only “a mongrel land . . . without accent or character.” Sainte-Beuve, the great critic of French literature, said that Flaubert saw in the rural countryside only “pettiness, poverty, conceit, stupidity, routine, monotony, and boredom,” a far cry from the quasi-pantheistic celebration of nature in “Tintern Abbey” or in Tho­r­eau’s Walden.

Sincerity was another Romantic “good,” much praised by its greatest writers. But Flaubert in Madame Bovary is utterly scornful of its vaunted efficacy. He memorably belittles the sincerity of romantic love in the description of the agricultural fair when Rodolphe’s protestations of love to Emma intermingle with the announcements of prizes for the best manure and the best hogs. No less contemptuous of Romantic sincerity is Flaubert’s rendering of the scene, in the last moments of their affair, in which a love-weary Rodolphe squirts a few drops of water on his goodbye letter to Emma in order to simulate tears. Like the Romantics who died young with decidedly outré ideas about sex—Byron and Shelley in particular come to mind—Flaubert in his youth could lyricize about “the most beautiful of human words—adultery, [which is] vaguely enveloped with an exquisite sweetness.” But by the time he wrote his masterpiece that “exquisite sweetness” had soured into disgust. Emma’s tawdry adultery in the bumpy back seat of a hackney cab, with curtains drawn, making the rounds of Rouen in the middle of the day, was not what the Romantics had in mind.

If Flaubert could so vivisect Enlightenment and Romantic hope, he was even more pitiless in anatomizing the species of hope traditional to Christianity. Admittedly, he seemed to prefer the peasant virtues of the abbé Bournisien, who is not above laboring in the fields with his parishioners, to the intellectual posturing of Homais. However, when it comes time for the priest to offer the balm of Christian hope to a frantic Emma, totally disillusioned with her marriage to Charles, he too fails. Stirred to momentary piety by the Angelus, Emma seeks out consolation from Bournisien, who is about to teach the catechism to a group of recalcitrant boys. To Emma’s complaint that “she is suffering,” the priest can only respond with a tired formula from St. Paul which says that we are all born to suffer. Incapable of imagining any suffering in Emma beyond the gynecological, he wonders why her doctor husband hasn’t prescribed an appropriate medicine.

Meanwhile, the unruly boys waiting for the lessons to begin get more of the priest’s attention, and he deflects Emma’s signals of despair: “I’ve known housewives who didn’t even have bread to eat,” he says. To Emma’s rejoinder that “there are women who have bread but no . . . ,” Bournisien interrupts by obtusely finishing her sentence with “fire in the winter.” Further spiritual sparring yields no relief; the scene ends with the priest excusing himself in order to return to the catechism and Emma departing with the voices of Bournisien and his charges fruitlessly, mockingly, echoing in her ears: “Are you a Christian?” “Yes, I am a Christian.” “What is a Christian?” “He who, being baptized . . . baptized . . . baptized . . . .” From such a ham-fisted sower of Christian seed, even the good ground would have sprouted thorns. What eventually follows is Emma’s first adultery with Rodolphe.

Later in the novel, the assignation that Emma arranges with Léon in the Rouen Cathedral presents Flaubert with still another opportunity to disenfranchise Christian hope. For Léon, the cathedral’s six centuries of architectural and iconic witness to the glories of Christianity serve only to frame Emma in a “a huge boudoir, the arches bending down to shelter in their darkness the avowal of her love.” The intrusion of the verger, who stupidly assumes that the couple are tourists ripe for his packaged kerygma, briefly frustrates Léon’s amorous strategies and briefly compromises Emma’s initial resolve not to yield to them. The lovers’ escape from his pedantic badgering is not made, however, without the verger’s ludicrous, but ominous, insistence that on their way out they at least notice the sculptures of the Resurrection, the Last Judgment, Paradise, King David, and the damned consigned to the flames. For an aroused Léon and Emma, this is hardly the moment to dread the loss of heaven and the pains of hell; the couple flee Notre Dame de Rouen—the church of the Virgin, with its futile panoply of holy goads to virtue—and hail a hackney cab that will presently serve as their mobile cloister.

If Flaubert had ever read Alexander Pope’s line that “hope springs eternal in the human breast,” he summoned up all his narrative genius—in his description of Emma’s death, wake, and funeral—to excise any remnant of it from Madame Bovary. The manner of her death is well known. In despair over her lovers’ abandonment and hopelessly in debt, she commits suicide by devouring arsenic filched from Homais’ Cafarnaum. At the vigil of her funeral, three characters, who represent the competing weltanschauungen in Flaubert’s day (as the Karamazov brothers do in Dostoevsky’s), engage in competition for the last word. Chief among them is Emma herself, around whom, even in death, the Romantic aura lingers. Despite early signs of putrefaction, the grief-stricken Charles can still gaze at her veiled form on the deathbed and romantically venerate “the watered satin of her gown shimmering white as moonlight. . . . It seemed to him that, spreading beyond her own self, she blended confusedly with everything around her—the silence, the night, the passing wind, the damp odors rising from the ground.”

But when, desperate to blend once more with her himself, Charles performs the ultimate romantic act of lifting her veil, “He uttered a cry of horror that awoke the other two.” The other two are Homais and Bournisien, who have spent most of the vigil in fruitless polemic. Voltaire, d’Holbach, the Encyclopédie, priestly celibacy, confession, the Jesuits—all become topics of wrangling between them. Yet the most telling moment comes wordlessly when, after “time and again falling asleep—something of which they accused each other whenever they awoke—Monsieur Bournisien sprinkled the room with holy water and Homais threw a little chlorine on the floor.” Here, dark realism surrenders to even darker symbolism, for Flaubert renders the hopelessness of the human condition by an opaque epiphany: against the irrevocability of death neither Romantic dreams nor the pitiful talismans of religion and science can hold sway.

This may well be narrative art at its dazzling best, but the discomfited reader hesitates all the same to concede Flaubert his carrion-comfort despair. Some critics have read Madame Bovary as a moral, even didactic, novel because it demolishes the sordidness of a corrupt civilization. Yet because Flaubert’s brilliant diagnosis of his sick society is unaccompanied by even the most modest prognosis for amelioration (“Ah, love, let us be true to one another,” Matthew Arnold could plead in his moment of contemporary despair), it has also been read as an artful exercise in nihilism. For Flaubert closes his great opus, in the words of one critic, with neither a bang nor a whimper, but with a snarl. What he tells us is not only that the vicious prosper while the innocent suffer—no surprise there—but also that this Mani­chean rule brooks no exceptions. The meek clearly do not inherit Flaubert’s scorched earth.

We know, of course, that Flaubert defended his art by appealing to its strict objectivity: “Nowhere in my book,” he wrote, “must the author express his emotions or his opinions.” Rather, he must remain detached and utterly impersonal, telling things as they really are and not as tender feelings would prefer them to be. But do his fictional chronicles of Toste and Yonville and Rouen in the 1840s tell things the way they really were? Flaubert’s brilliant but self-serving line, now become a cliché, was that at this very hour his poor Bovary was suffering and weeping in twenty villages across France—to which the rejoinder might well be: Why does misery alone enjoy this privilege of universality? Should not its antinomies ask for equal time? Another village or two, somewhere, with a faithful Emma, a clever Charles, and an understanding curé? When reading Flaubert, should we not remind ourselves that at the other end of France, a year after the publication of Madame Bovary, Marie Bernarde Soubirous saw her astonishing visions at Lourdes? Did Flaubert, notwithstanding his genius, deliberately withhold some truths about the human condition?

Indeed, at those rare moments in the novel when Flaubert seems to relent and to crack open, ever so slightly, a Dutch door to hope, he quickly closes it again. Justin, Homais’ adolescent helper who loves Emma from afar and whom she tricks into gaining access to the arsenic, is usually adduced as the best example of Flaubert’s compassion. Yet his narrative carefully restricts Justin’s love from connecting to anyone; it remains encaged, like the fenced unicorn. Only once is it noticed and even then it is cynically misunderstood: the grave digger Lestibudois, who secretly plants potatoes among his burial plots, spots Justin scaling the cemetery wall the night after Emma’s funeral and decides that he has found the thief who has been stealing from his crop. Flaubert’s mashing of the greedy grave digger in this scene trumps his compassion for the boy, whose love is sacrificed to the more compelling cause of high dudgeon.

One is moved to wonder: could not the author have sheathed his ironies this once and allowed Lestibudois to peek at Justin weeping over Emma’s grave an instant before he scaled the wall? Similarly, after Charles dies and the remnant of his property is sold, was it not overkill to set the escrow at twelve francs, seventy-five centimes so as to guarantee that the impoverished orphaned daughter, Berthe, would be sent to work in a cotton mill? And how deeply would Flaubert’s ironies have been compromised had he found a less wounding name than Hippolyte for the limping innocent who, through others’ ambitions, suffered the amputation even of his clubfoot? Was it not gratuitously cruel to attach the name Felicité to the unhappy maid both of this novel and of Un Coeur Simple? Did narrative compulsion require that Charles’ first wife, the widow Dubuc, “ugly, as dry as a bone, her face with as many pimples as the spring has buds,” be named Heloise?

In an early short story, Pigeon Feathers, John Updike describes the adolescent fears of an innocent named David, who is precociously troubled by the inevitability and finality of death. At Lutheran catechism class, which he had valued as a Christian buffer to his dark thoughts, David is upset by his teacher, a young liberal pastor, who finesses the meaning of the Resurrection so as to deny its literal reality. He is further upset by his mother, who after admitting that she, too, in so many circumspect words, denied the Resurrection, casually asks him to take his new .22 rifle and rid the barn of pigeons that have rooked there. David reluctantly obeys his mother and shoots six pigeons, only dimly aware that by this act he too is somehow complicit in that killing of hope, the thing with feathers. It is a Flaubertian moment.

The story could have ended with this objective correlative unamended, and it would have if Flaubert had written it, but Updike—inspired perhaps by more orthodox Lutheran catechetics—recovers from this blasphemy against the Holy Ghost by allowing David the epiphany of examining one of the fallen birds before burying it: “He had never seen a bird this close before. The feathers were more wonderful than dog’s hair, for each filament was shaped within the shape of the feather, and the feathers in turn were trimmed to fit a pattern that flowed without error across the bird’s body. . . . And across the surface of the infinitely adjusted yet somehow effortless mechanics of the feathers played idle designs of color, no two alike—designs executed, it seemed, in a controlled rapture, with a joy that hung level in the air above and behind him.”

Flaubert was incapable of such recovery. Four years before his death, and twenty after writing Madame Bovary, in ill health and beset by financial problems, he wrote Un Coeur Simple, a story in which he retrieved the name Felicité from his earlier novel and permitted himself a second chance to display his scorn. The story is a masterpiece, unquestionably, but Flaubert’s scorched-earth strategies continue unabated. A simple-minded maid to Mme. Aubain, Felicité suffers a string of crushing losses throughout her life: an unfaithful lover, the death of her beloved sailor nephew, the death of her beloved young charge, Virginie, the onset of total deafness, the death of her beloved mistress, and—grotesquely climactic—the death of her beloved parrot. To cling to any vestige of hope, she has the bird stuffed and installs it on her shelf: “She enveloped him with a look of anguish when she was imploring the Holy Ghost and formed the idolatrous habit of kneeling in front of the parrot to say her prayers. Sometimes the sun shone in at the attic window and caught his glass eye, and a great luminous ray shot out of it and put her in an ecstasy.”

Cruelty triumphs over compassion in this rendering of St. Teresa manquée. The story could only have been conceived and executed by a man who could write about himself thus: “I lead a bitter life, devoid of all external joy and in which I have nothing to keep me going but a sort of permanent rage, which weeps at times from impotence, but which is constant.” The only relief Flaubert testified to was his art, his personal stay against confusion, but because he required it to bear the burden of his permanent rage it is variously antipathetic, unforgiving, vindictive, even vengeful against those who, like Felicité, would presume to hope. No less a critic than Jean-Paul Sartre called Flaubert’s realism spiteful, and I am inclined to agree with an author who knew enough of spite—and of hopelessness. Sartre would never have phrased it thus, of course, but his is another way of saying that, materially if not formally, Flaubert sinned against the Holy Ghost.

In the last moments of Un Coeur Simple, that blasphemy crests. Felicité lies near death in the room above the courtyard where the Corpus Christi festival is being celebrated. The priest places the gold monstrance, containing the consecrated host, on the altar while the censers are “gliding to and fro on the full swing of their chains.”

An azure vapor rose up into Felicité’s room. Her nostrils met it; she inhaled it sensuously, mystically, and then closed her eyes. Her lips smiled. The beats of her heart lessened one by one, vaguer each time and softer, as a fountain sinks, an echo disappears; and when she sighed her last breath she thought she saw an opening in the heavens, and a gigantic parrot hovering above her head.

One does not often encounter so exquisite an expression of unpitying contempt.

Rodney Delasanta is Professor of English at Providence College in Providence, Rhode Island.