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12. Passion, Counter-Passion, Catharsis: Flaubert (and Beckett) on Feeling Nothing


Subject Literature, Philosophy

People Beckett, Samuel, Flaubert, Gustave

Key-Topics catharsis, emotion, skepticism

DOI: 10.1111/b.9781405141703.2010.00014.x


The plot of Madame Bovary can be stated in a single sentence: a young woman reads too many romances, finds no satisfaction in her marriage to a mediocre husband, has two affairs, finds no more satisfaction in either, accumulates huge debts to her clothing supplier, and finally, when the bill comes due, swallows arsenic and dies. This, I imagine, is how most of us remember the work, when we are merely remembering it, rather than looking at it up close. This is the shape it comes to occupy in our minds: a single road which seemed for a moment as though it might lead to marital happiness but which quickly forks into the parallel paths of adultery and acquisition, before reconverging in apparently inevitable catastrophe. As we recall it, the novel begins in a convent, where Emma first reads dangerous literature handed to her by an old maid, and ends in a bedroom, where she breathes her last to the sound of a blind man's salacious song. (At most perhaps we recollect the galling triumph of Homais, the pharmacist with an excessively high opinion of his own abilities who winds up receiving France's highest honor.) But the novel does not, as it happens, start and end with Emma. In fact, it would be closer to say that it starts and ends with Charles. We follow him from youth, in the opening chapter, to death, in the final chapter, almost as though this were the story of his life, the ... log in or subscribe to read full text

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