Thursday, 5 September 2019

Motifs in Madame Bovary: the cigar cases

“As Charles was giving the harness a final check he noticed something on the ground between the horse’s legs; he picked up a cigar case edged with green silk which had a coat of arms in the middle, like on a carriage door. 
‘There are even 2 cigars in it,’ he said. ‘They’ll do for this evening after dinner.” (P.1, ch.8) 
This is the 1st time Flaubert uses the motif of the cigar case in Madame Bovary. It is after the Marquise’s ball. 
“Snatching up the cigar case, Emma threw it at the back of the armoire.” (ibid.)  
It is only a cigar case, but to Emma, it becomes a symbol.
“When Charles was out, she would often take the green silk cigar case from among the folded linen in the cupboard where she had put it. 
She would look at it, open it, even sniff the scent of its lining, a mixture of vervain and tobacco. Whom did it belong to?... To the Vicomte. Perhaps it was a present from his mistress. It had been worked on some rosewood embroidery frame, a pretty little possession that was kept hidden from prying eyes, and had taken many long hours, with the soft curls of the musing female head bent over it. A breath of love had blown through the fine net of the canvas; every stitch of the needle had woven a hope or memory into it, and the intertwined silk threads were all inseparable from that same silent passion. And then one morning the Vicomte had taken it with him.” (P.1, ch.9) 
Flaubert, like Jane Austen, is a master of the free indirect speech. Such a short passage is enough to reveal the ennui, sentimentality, and melodramatic tendencies in Emma Bovary. To someone else, a cigar case is a cigar case is a cigar case. To Emma, she imagines that it belongs to the Vicomte and comes from a mistress, and attaches meaning to it. 
This moment, after the Marquise’s ball, is when Emma becomes disillusioned, regrets her marriage, and dreams of a life of luxury, excitement, and passion that her husband cannot provide. This is also when she starts betraying Charles, for Emma betrays him and their marriage long before she has sex with Rodolphe. 
In the structure of the novel, the cigar case becomes part of a pattern. But it’s not the only one. Look at this passage: 
“The conversation flagged, Madame Bovary kept breaking off every few minutes, while he seemed rooted in self-consciousness. Sitting in a low chair by the fire he turned an ivory cigarette case round in his fingers; she carried on with her sewing…” (P.2, ch.5) 
A cigarette case appears in this moment, around the time Emma realises she and Léon are in love (well, that’s what she thinks—I think they just want to bang). 
Later on, there’s another cigarette case, when Rodolphe enters the story. 
“… At this the peasant dropped the cigarette case he was holding.” (P.2, ch.7)
In this scene, Emma doesn’t feel anything yet, but on Rodolphe’s side, the 1st time they meet, he already wants sex with her. And they would become lovers. 
“As well as the whip with a silver gilt handle, Rodolphe had been given a seal with the motto: Amor nel cor, plus a muffler and a cigar case exactly like the Vicomte’s that Charles had picked up on the road years ago, and which Emma had kept.” (P.2, ch.2) 
As Rodolphe becomes Emma’s lover and therefore the embodiment and subject of her fantasies, she gives him a copy of the green silk cigar case.
In short, Flaubert creates a motif of a cigar or cigarette case to link with the 3 men whom Emma fantasises about and/or cheats on Charles with. 
Interestingly, the passages in this blog post come from the copy I’m reading, translated by Christopher Moncrieff. In the Eleanor Marx-Aveling translation, Léon plays with a thimble-case, and Rodolphe’s peasant drops a lancet-case. Can anyone who reads French please check? But even if the Moncrieff’s translation is inaccurate and the cases of Léon and the peasant have no meaning, the original green silk cigar case and the one Emma gives Rodolphe are still part of an important pattern.


  1. so Flaubert must be a free indirect speech person also? i'm still not sure if that means anything... i know i don't understand novels like this; they just seem like they're not about anything... or much... "the fault is in ourselves, Horatio, not in the clouds" or some such...

    1. Mudpuddle,
      I made some mistakes and have just corrected them, so please read the blog post again. Sorry about this.
      Meanwhile, Flaubert does use free indirect speech a lot, but what do you mean about "i'm still not sure if that means anything"?
      Madame Bovary is definitely about something, I just decided not to write about the plot or Emma and chose to write about motifs and patterns because people tend not to write about them, but I suppose I should write about the characters, and what the novel is about.

    2. well, people are continually having affairs and complaining about their lives and experiencing different feelings and emotions... so what is F trying to say about (sorry, the kitchen sink just overflowed and i had to clean up...)

  2. Léon: "l'étui d'ivoire," ivory case, so who knows what kind.

    The peasant: drops "l'étui," while being bled, so why would he hold the case of surgical tools? But it doesn't say cigarette case either.

    Still, two scenes with "l'étui qu'il tournait entre ses doigts," more or less; curious.

    1. Ah, the problem of reading a translation- seeing things that are not actually there. Lol.
      But that is curious indeed.

  3. enter plumber: the sink just plugged up and almost overflowed and i had to fix it... as i was saying, people are always having affairs and being emotional about that and moaning about their lives, but i shouldn't think that this in itself is the basis for a classic book... so what am i missing? it's not like listening to Beethoven's Ninth or anything... is it?

  4. What Madame Bovary is about, as directly stated by Flaubert:

    "Whereas the truth is that fullness of soul can sometimes overflow in utter vapidity of language, for none of us can ever express the exact measure of his needs or his thoughts or his sorrows, and human speech is like a cracked kettle on which we tap crude rhythms for bears to dance to, while we long to make music that will melt the stars."

    Making music that will melt the stars is a lot. It is quite hard.

  5. Beethoven’s 9th, in its last movement at least, has a very direct message, and as such, it is quite rare amongst major works of art. For if a work of art can be reduced to a message, to “what it says”, then the work itself becomes superfluous. And even Beethoven’s 9th is far, far more than the “message” that the words of the final movement explicity state; merely reading Schiller’s words does not give anything like a full picture of what the music communicates.

    Yes, I agree, many people lead dreary lives, have affairs, moan about it, and so on. But this does not mean that such things are not suitable material for art. Quite the contrary: if such things happen frequently in life, then art, if it is to hold up the mirror to life, should reflect these things. Flaubert obviously faced the challenge of how to write about tedium without himself being tedious, how to write about the commonplace without himself being commonplace.

    I have just started re-reading this novel myself (for the third time), but, from what I remember from my previous readings, Flaubert was doing more than merely recording the tedium of unfulfilled, everyday lives. From what I remember of my previous readings, he depicted a world in which human beings are woefully mediocre, and inadequate to the challenges of life; where they feel constrained and frustrated by the soul-destroying daily trivia that bind them, but lack the ability to transcend these things, or even the imagination to visualise any such transcendence; of the aimless sense of dissatisfaction to which this gives rise; of attempted escape that is just as stupid as that from they are trying to escape from; and so on. There is great irony in Flaubert’s writings: so great a gap between reality and our vague and undirected aspirations lends itself to irony. But alongside that irony, there is, I think, a great sympathy. As we read, we recognise that we ourselves are not superior to these characters: we are all in the same predicament. As Flaubert famously said, “Madame Bovary, c’est moi”. Amidst all the trivia, amidst all that is banal and sordid, we experience nonetheless emotions and passions that really should move the stars with pity.

    These things to not constitute a “message”, or something the author is “trying to say”. It offers us, as any major work of art should, a certain perspective on human life. It offers us a tragedy of human hearts that is every bit as devastating as any tragedy by the Greeks, or by Shakespeare, or by Racine; but Flaubert places this tragic grandeur amidst the everyday, with all its sordidness and banality. He depicts boredom without ever himself being boring. He offers us a picture of our vague awareness that our lives should be better, but also of our inability to reach towards that which we cannot even begin to understand. Is not this art?

  6. i guess so: i understand what you're saying and that that is the purpose and intent of art... my reactions are more personal than universal, which might be unfair or selfish. i just know that Beethoven blows me away whereas many literary masterpieces have a sort of hohum effect... possibly it's connected with age: i'm 76 and have perhaps lost patience and perspective over the years, but in my reading i do notice i look for deeper perceptions in an author than i used to... anyway, interesting comments; tx, Himadri...

  7. Ah, I was out all day. Thanks for everyone for your comments.
    I might write about this later.