Thursday, July 30, 2015

the Reverend Mr Arthur Bovary and Emma Dimmesdale

I cannot help thinking, while finishing up the novel, that The Scarlet Letter is a precursor to Madame Bovary, that Bovary is a version of Letter. Certainly Hawthorne's book was known in France before Flaubert wrote Bovary. Critic Émile Montégut had been writing about Emerson and Hawthorne since 1848, and I believe The Scarlet Letter was being read in France by 1852, when Montégut's essay about Hawthorne's novels was published. Flaubert is supposed to be more of a realist than Hawthorne, but who can deny the network of allegory and symbolism so tightly-woven throughout Bovary, making it almost as thickly unreal as The Scarlet Letter? Flaubert created a surface realism affixed to a metaphorical world; he did not actually create The Realist Novel. I digress, though.

There are differences between the books, of course, but they seem to me quite the same thing in many ways. Both are rather intimate tales of adultery and death by poisoning (real poison in one case, moral poisoning in the other) in somewhat repressive remote locations, with dreams of escape to freedom in the big city. In both novels, the physician husband is seen by the straying wife as the villain of the piece. The two wives are both deeply interested in clothing. The men with whom the wives commit adultery are symbols of a possible new and better life. Did Flaubert read Hawthorne?

6 comments:

  1. This is intriguing! We know that Hawthorne lived in France, and we know that TSL was published in U.S. in 1850, and we know that MB was published in France in 1856, but we do not know if Flaubert was familiar with Hawthorne's novel. BTW, the Frederick Brown biography of Flaubert includes only one reference to Hawthorne (regarding his time in France as a relief from Italy versus Flaubert's time in Italy as a relief from France). You have baited the hook sufficiently for me to reread both novels and consider your comparisons. My mind remains open, but I suspect coincident rather than influence.

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    1. Reread Madame Bovary? Better you than me.

      I'm sure it's just coincidence, but I still see the similarities. The other thing I noticed, though I don't plan to write about it, is the Transcendentalism running through Scarlet Letter, which made me think about how Transcendentalism is examined in Moby-Dick, which came out at more or less the same time.

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    2. Yes, Transcendental threads seem to be woven throughout both. Have you read Gura's book on Transcendentalism? What about Carlos Baker's bio of Emerson, and Susan Cheever's American Bloomsbury? They are all great perspectives on the era, authors, and attitudes.

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    3. I've read Emerson's essays, and two bios of him (don't remember the authors but one book was a hagiography and the other was not). I've read some analyses of Transcendentalism by current philosophers. Mostly my interest in the movement centers on the damage it's done to the American culture.

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  2. I came here looking for bees.

    But I'd far rather reread "Madame Bovary" than read "The Scarlet Letter" once, based on things I've heard about the latter by an eminent critic.

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    1. The bees are over there, ma'am.

      Both books are claustrophobic and narrow, though Flaubert let his sense of humor show. The intro, "The Counting House" part of SL is funny. It's the part about the politically-based firing, with the line about the suicidal man who has the good luck to be murdered.

      The bees are over there.

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