Charles Bovary’s cap

Last time  I mentioned a few things that seemed to suggest that Flaubert was a pretty sloppy writer. They were things that others had mentioned in articles in learned journals and so on but writing about them in a blog frees me from the need to be circumspect and lets me just respond as a normal reader. That’s true as well of the passage near the beginning which I mentioned. It’s a well-known piece and there have been plenty of commentaries on it but let’s just read it, without any academic or historical baggage and see how we react.

The whole opening sequence seems designed to establish Charles as an awkward, oafish individual with very little going for him – altogether the last sort of person the romantic Emma should be getting hooked up with. In fact, his clumsy actions lead to the teacher telling him to write out twenty times ‘ridiculus sum’.

At the centre of those actions is Charles fussing about with his cap and the passage I mentioned is the description of that object. The other boys have the habit of throwing theirs towards the hooks in the classroom as they come in and sit down, but Charles is a new boy. He’s brought in by the headmaster and just sits with it on his knee. Here’s my own loose translation of Flaubert’s description:

It was one of those composite hats, where you find traces of the bearskin, shako, derby, sealskin cap, and cotton nightcap; in short, one of those wretched things whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression like an imbecile’s face. Oval, stiffened with whalebone, it began with three round lumps; then alternating lozenge-shaped patches of velvet and rabbit skin separated by a red band; after that came a sort of bag that ended in a cardboard polygon covered with complicated braiding, from which hung, at the end of a long thin cord, small twisted gold threads in the form of a tassel. The cap was new; its peak shone.

OK, be honest, have you any idea what it looks like?

No such thing could possibly exist. How the hell do all the various bits fit together? And, as well as that, it’s ‘dumb’ and yet it has ‘depths of expression’. Just look at the first couple of lines: It was one of those composite hats, where you find traces of the bearskin, shako, derby, sealskin cap, and cotton nightcap. What? How many hats have you seen like that? And yet there must be umpteen of them about the place because it’s ‘one of those hats where…’ That’s like introducing a character by saying ‘She was one of those women who always wear stilettos’. You do that and the reader thinks ‘Ah yes, I know the type’. But then the middle bit of the description takes it even further, conjuring up a grotesque parody of an impossible hat. How on earth could something so impossible be ‘one of those caps which…’ – an expression which suggests the world is full of them?

The short, third sentence, too, is typical of Flaubert. He frequently uses bathos to undermine his own narrative, writing long, deliberately ornate build-ups and tailing off into absurdity. After the long accumulation of excrescences on the headpiece, he ends with the banality of ‘The cap was new; its peak shone’.

This seems to be writing which asks questions. Yes it’s contributing to the idea that Charles is awkward and definitely not romantic, but it’s also challenging readers to make sense of nonsense, it’s collecting and grouping words to mean nothing. With Flaubert, you get great stories, laughs, memorable characters, but you also get intimations that the world isn’t the comprehensible, structured place we want books to bring us. Passages like this one show us that Flaubert’s doing something very different with his words. This is more than fiction..

15 comments

  1. I’m glad you explained about the absurdity of the hat description, Bill, as I was indeed trying to picture it and I think I came close! I like the idea that his world is neither completely structured nor comprehensible.

    1. Rosemary, I think I’d probably read the whole book three or four times before I read an article which drew my attention to the description and it was only then that I realised how shallow my reading had been. I’d obviously just let the words flow on and subconsciously assumed this was just an ugly sort of hat. Until that critic opened my eyes, its impossibility as an object never occurred to me. That’s when I began reading Flaubert ‘properly’. Prior to that I think I’d just been in love with Emma and angry at the unworthy fools who’d wooed her.

  2. Coco’s researches in the Musée d’Horsey have recently revealed a hitherto undiscovered volume of Flaubert’s “Lettres de mon Abri sur le Laptop”, in which appear ces mots justes: “Quelquefois, d’une nuit de grand hiver, quand la sourde blancheur rend l’ombre plus profonde, il n’y a rien que j’aime plus qu’a lire une belle poignée des blogs de Bill Kirton”…

  3. With great respect to Coco’s extensive erudition, I would advise a little circumspection on his part when it comes to interpreting the master. Flaubert used a dog in several places as a symbol of the grotesque, even of evil. On the other hand, no doubt anticipating the coming of Coco, he did write ‘L’écriture est une vie de chien’.

  4. Coco thinks the average écrivain francais would be lucky to be waited on hind paw and fore paw like what he is. Talking of peculiar paw-related pensées, he brings up (yet again) the subject of Decartes, who wrote, “Apres la coite, meme le chien est triste”, before proceeding to throw a cat out of an upper-storey window to see if the saying about cats always landing on their feet was true. Coco alleges the subsequent Cartesian report was, “Apres la defenestration, meme le chat est triste”.

  5. This is one of the reasons I love Madame Bovary!
    I’m trying to think of other examples in literature – old and new – where the thing is so meticulously described that it loses all meaning, but I have come up short. Can you think of any other examples?

    1. Thanks, Liv. (There are plenty of reasons to love him, I think.) My guess would be that you’ll find lots of examples in French, English and German literature. Some of them might be isolated examples in a bulky novel or they might be so frequent that they become a sort of trade mark for that particular author. In the latter category, I suspect we should place Dickens. His descriptions of actual characters in particular often go way beyond the ‘typical’ sketch and imply all sorts of foibles and characteristics. But you’d probably also find examples in any writer with absurdist tendencies thanks to their predilection for stressing that ‘normality’ is an alien concept.

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