Beautiful Things

Madame Bovary, Mrs Dalloway and the Power of Pretty Possessions

I have a soft spot in my heart for Emma, the Madame Bovary of the same-titled novel by Gustave Flaubert. Concerning the tale of a “peasant” who catches the eye of a blundering, boring doctor and becomes his wife, Madame Bovary charts the actions and consequences of living beyond your means and wanting too much.

Illustration of Madame Bovary by Charles Leandre

Set in provincial 19th century France, Emma Bovary and her husband Charles live during a time when marriage is still a marketplace, and due to the French Revolution, the elitism of inherited wealth had given way to the rise of merchants and capitalists. Emma, daughter of an uneducated farmer but given the chance to transcend her class, is presented to us as a product and also victim of a new social order that places commercial values over human, and – the moral suggests – irresponsibly encourages social mobility.

‘She Looks Like The Real Thing’

From the beginning, we know that Emma has a propensity to wish for more in life. As Charles plans to marry her, we are told of her “big naive eyes…her eyelids half closed, her look full of boredom, her thoughts wandering”. After marriage, when she finds her husband’s company and conversation to be “commonplace as a street pavement…without exciting emotion, laughter, or thought”, we see her try to create the state of bliss she imagined married life to contain.

“In accord with theories she believed right, she wanted to make herself in love with him. By moonlight in the garden she recited all the passionate rhymes she knew by heart, and, sighing, sang to him many melancholy adagios; but she found herself as calm after as before, and Charles seemed no more amorous and no more moved.”

The issue here, of course, is her understanding of marriage – and indeed love (for she conflates the two) – has come from books rather than experience, books that she has had access to because of an education usually denied to her social rank.  As a convent schoolgirl, she also learned “dancing, geography, drawing, how to embroider and play the piano” – the external mannerisms of the bourgeoisie.

(Pic: Own)

The potential conflict between the interior labourer and the exterior ‘lady’ is soon given ground, when the observation of her “pretty figure, and that she did not bow like a peasant” gets them a chance, one-off visit to a lavish ball held by a Marquis. It is via this experience that Emma’s disappointment in marriage, and her default state of dissatisfaction is given an outlet.

 “Emma, on entering, felt herself wrapped round by the warm air, a blending of the perfume of flowers and of the fine linen, of the fumes of the viands, and the odour of the truffles. The silver dish covers reflected the lighted wax candles in the candelabra, the cut crystal covered with light steam reflected from one to the other pale rays”

Extravagant decor at the Hermitage in St Petersburg, Russia (Pic: Own)

The more exciting way of living revealed to her through the finery of the chateau becomes both the cause of  –“The visit to La Vabyessard had made a gap in her life, like those great chasms that a mountain storm will sometimes scoop out in a single night” – and remedy to (she thinks) her ennui.

“And so it gave Emma something to do, to think about the ball…Gradually faces blurred in her memory, she forgot the dance tunes, no longer saw the liveried servants and the bog rooms so clearly: some of the details vanished, but her yearning for it all remained”.

This perfectly captures the indistinct shape of the state of ‘want’ that Emma finds herself in – there are no details or specifics, merely the feeling of an absence.

It is this central emptiness and lack of definitive meaning that fuels her descent into ruin, for it is from this state of mind that she, inspired by her love of romantic fiction, equates feelings with objects.

“She confused in her desire the sensualities of luxury with the delights of the heart…Signs by moonlight, long embraces, tears flowing over yielded hands, all the fevers of the flesh and the languors of tenderness could not be separated from the balconies of great castles full of indolence, from boudoirs with silken curtains and thick carpets”

From Consumption to Corruption

By this time, her longing for the love she has read about in books makes her an easy conquest for Rodolphe, the town’s local worldly womaniser, and quick prey also for its sinister fabric merchant-cum-moneylender Monsieur Lheureux, who exploits her naiveté, steadily manipulating her into debt through “haberdashery or linen, millinery or fancy goods”.

As such she becomes part of the world of greed, desire and pleasure – the sins and vices of the town, and open to the corruptive influence of the city on a country girl. (It is a visit to the opera in Paris, for example, that catalyses her second adulterous affair and sows the seed for her complete loss of self-control.)

Opulence at the Opera (Pic: Own)

This lack of support, of ‘real world’ education and guidance for her is very evident when, early on, she seeks help from the local Priest. When she tells him she is suffering, he asks if her doctor husband has prescribed her anything. “Ah, it’s no earthly remedy I need!” she replies, but the Priest, distracted, continues to pursue his enquiries over her husband, ironically noting that “he tends the body…while I tend the soul”. The conversation continues to go downhill.

“She fixed a gaze of entreaty upon him.

‘Yes’ she said. ‘You heal all ills’.

‘Well may you say so Madame Bovary. Why this very morning I had to go over to Bas-Diauville to see a cow that was blowing…Excuse me, Longuemarre and Boudet, for goodness sake, will you stop it?’ and he darted in to the church.

‘There!’ said he as he walked back to Emma…’Yes, the farmers have a hard time of it’.

‘They’re not the only ones’ she replied.

‘No, certainly! Workers in the town for instance’

‘No not them…’

‘I beg your pardon, but I’ve known poor mothers with families, in the towns – good women, I assure you, real saints – who wanted for their daily bread!’

‘But what of those’ rejoined Emma – and her mouth twisted at the corners as she spoke  – ‘those, Monsieur, who may have bread but haven’t…’

‘A fire in the winter?’ said the priest.

‘Oh – What does it matter!’

‘’What does it matter? Well! I should say myself that good food and a good fire…after all…’

‘O God, O God’ she breathed.

‘Is something wrong?’ he asked, stepping forward anxiously. ‘Something you’ve eaten, no doubt…You go home and have a cup of tea, Madame Bovary. That’ll set you right’”

In this moral universe, where even the church seems preoccupied with the physical and material, ‘things’ should be enough. In the face of the poor, sick, hungry and stricken, she is given no room, no ‘right’ to feel her emptiness. She is literally told to have a cup of tea.

With this in mind, when the Priest finally appears to be concentrating on Emma, would she still feel worthy of his time? Perhaps this is why, just before she abandons the attempt to speak, she is described as looking “like one waking from a dream”.

“It suddenly struck him: ‘there was something you were asking me. What was it now? I can’t recall’

‘Was there? Oh no, nothing – nothing.’”

It is into this ‘nothing’ that Madame Bovary casts her plush curtains, elaborate armchairs and gilt candlesticks. The remedy, however, doesn’t work, because the harder she tries to create the world of her fantasies, the more reality lets her down – as seen with her love affairs, where she finds “again in adultery all the platitudes of marriage”.  She becomes perhaps one of literature’s first oniomaniacs – that is – shopaholics, buying more and more things in the attempt to obliterate, but actually feed the “vague, dark chasm yawn[ing] within her soul”.

(Pic: Own)

 The Empty Space

This brings to mind another woman defined – through the book’s title – by her role as a wife, as the possession, property and extension of her husband: Mrs Dalloway, who herself in the very beginning of the novel embarks on a shopping trip.

Set over a single day in post–First World War London, Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway chronicles the life and thoughts of various characters, but principally those of Clarissa Dalloway the wife of a local MP, as she prepares for and then hosts a dinner party, and Septimus Smith, a war veteran suffering from shellshock.

Among other things, the book explores that strange space between our public and private worlds alongside England’s inter-war social structure, using fragmented and scattered speech to convey the sense of displacement, disarray and disillusion that defined the period.

London Landscape (Pic: Own)

The characters, like their country, are selves that are half remembered, half ruined, rebuilding themselves from the rubble and loss.

 “This late age of the world’s experience had bred in them all, all men and women, a well of tears. Tears and sorrows; courage and endurance; a perfectly upright and stoical bearing.”

As different characters encounter similar spaces (parks, pavements, parlours) we get a sense of a collective loneliness, made all the more apparent by the life that streams the streets “like the pulse of a perfect heart”, and the sounds of the city against the relentless “leaden” chimes of Big Ben, a reminder of mortality.

 “It was precisely twelve o’clock; twelve by Big Ben; whose stroke was wafted over the northern part of London; blent with that of other clocks, mixed in a thin ethereal way with the clouds and wisps of smoke, and died up there among the seagulls”


Meanwhile, Clarissa Dalloway’s emptiness seems explicitly tied to her house and its contents. In fact, the first impression given to us of her home is that it is “cool as a vault”; the simile suggests the protection and preservation of something dead. Clarissa’s movement though the house is equally illuminating.

“…she went upstairs, paused at the window, came to the bathroom. There was the green linoleum and a tap dripping. There was an emptiness about the heart of life; an attic room.”

Like Emma, Clarissa uses shopping as a way to address an absence. The thematic significance of this is clear; the novel’s famous opening line, “Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” leads the reader on a shopping trip that places more focus on the journey than it does the action of shopping. Seen in direct contrast, shopping appears to be a way to leave the house- the vault- for an ‘outsiders’ experience of life.

“In people’s eyes, in the swing, tramp, and trudge; in the bellow and the uproar; the carriages, motor cars, omnibuses, vans, sandwich men shuffling and swinging; brass bands; barrel organs; in the triumph and the jingle and the strange high singing of some aeroplane overhead was what she loved; life; London; this moment of June.”

Going to market – Spain (Pic: Own)

Dreams, Delusions and the Marketplace

Here we see shopping as a diversion, a distraction, but also a device to explore an interior journey and to access a kind of removed ‘dream space’.

“But what was she dreaming as she looked into Hatchards’ shop window? What was she trying to recover? What image of white dawn in the country, as she read in the book spread open:

‘Fear no more the heat o’ the sun

Nor the furious winter’s rages.’”

The link between dreaming and shopping in both Clarissa Dalloway and Emma Bovary is interesting, as it serves to highlight the differences between them. For Emma, shopping for furniture and finery is a route to the “immense land of joys and passions” she believes is only just out of reach. Through the above quote from Shakespeare’s Cymbeline read by Clarissa, we could argue that Mrs Dalloway is seeking the opposite, that shopping is an empty space. Are extremities of emotion – the “heat o’ the sun” and “the furious winter’s rages” exactly what she is trying to control?

“Mrs Dalloway said she would buy the flowers herself” (Pic: Own)

We can see that the wives’ motives differ, yet both narratives link the action of domestic shopping to a dream-state separateness that suggests a fragile relationship with reality and the physical world.

The (Un)Reality Effect

A focus on objects, the physical presence of things is a crucial stylistic element of Flaubert’s writing. Roland Barthes refers to this in his essay ‘The Reality Effect’, in which he notes the purpose of inconsequential details in Flaubert’s short story ‘A Simple Heart’. He states that “Flaubert’s barometer…[says] nothing but this: we are the real; it is the category of ‘the real’ (and not its contingent contents) which is then signified.”  In other words, the ordinary household object – here the barometer – is not a symbol, and it is not an agent to the plot. The barometer is merely the barometer, thus heightening the realism.

The barometer that features in the meeting between Emma and her soon-to-be lover Rodolphe in Madame Bovary however, arguably serves another purpose.

“The little muslin curtains over the windows deepened the dusk; the gilt on the barometer, touched by a last ray of sunshine, threw a blaze of fire on to the looking glass, between the indentations of the coral”

In Emma’s home, all items have been carefully arranged. Emma’s objects not only furnish and enhance the house, but in this scene, the situation.  She is surrounded, indeed stage managed by these items, these tools. Her use of specific material items is an integral part of her quest to appear as a romantic aesthetic.

Light coming through a curtain (Pic: Own)

In Mrs Dalloway, we see a similar technique employed by Clarissa, the “mistress of silver, of linen, of china” as she sets the scene for her party. Here, however, the motives are centred on class and belonging.  As highlighted in ‘Modernism and the Marketplace’ by Alissa G Karl, the use of the maid imagining the “ladies and gentlemen” who will gather to admire the house as a ‘spectacle’ highlights how the use of objects establishes order and purpose. They construct and validate an upper class British identity.

“Lucy, coming into the drawing-room with her tray held out, put the giant candlesticks on the mantelpiece, the silver casket in the middle, turned the crystal dolphin towards the clock. They would come; they would stand; they would talk in the mincing tones which she could imitate, ladies and gentlemen…for the sun, the silver, doors off their hinges…gave her a sense… of something achieved”

These guests of course are also part of the aesthetic, as we can see by Clarissa’s distress at the news of an unwelcome attendee who she thinks will spoil “the look of a room”.

© Anna Pumer Photography
© Anna Pumer Photography

The sense of the domestic space being a literal ‘front’ travels even to the self. Clarissa, like her house, is outwardly fashioned to meet society’s needs

“She pursed her lips when she looked in the glass. It was to give her face point. That was her self — pointed; dartlike; definite. That was her self when some effort, some call on her to be her self, drew the parts together”

Where Madame Bovary’s household décor seeks to illuminate and accentuate, Clarissa Dalloway’s works to blot out and patch up. The house in its polished and perfected state is an outward display of convention, strength and stability. Even the dress she chooses for her party is symbolic of this – for while its authenticity seems lost, the appearance can still at least be restored.

By artificial light the green shone, but lost its colour now in the sun. She would mend it.”

This ‘front’, then, is a concerted effort. Attention to the exterior is Clarissa’s “gift” – an offering – “for offering’s sake” – to a disenchanted society.

“As we are a doomed race, chained to a sinking ship, as the whole thing is a bad joke, let us, at any rate, do our part; mitigate the suffering of our fellow-prisoners; decorate the dungeon with flowers and air-cushions; be as decent as we possibly can.”

Decorated bed – Morocco (Pic: Own)

Self and Self Alone

Both novels then, use the domestic setting to explore themes around appearance and surface. Interestingly, both also do so through free indirect discourse – representing the female through the gaze of other characters, and often leaving an element of uncertainty over whose perspective the narration is from. In Madame Bovary this technique is heightened whenever Emma ‘acts out’ a fantasy.  Her first sexual encounter with Rodolphe for example, poetically emphasises the effect of her blue veil.

“Then some hundred paces farther on she again stopped, and through her veil, that fell sideways from her man’s hat over her hips, her face appeared in a bluish transparency as if she were floating under azure waves.”

In Mrs Dalloway the technique produces a dreamlike quality as people’s personalities, deeds and desires are all intricately woven into others perceptions. The reader fluidly travels to skim the thoughts of one character to another within a single scene, mimicking then, a moment between Clarissa and her friend Peter Walsh where they “went in and out of each other’s minds without any effort”.

Thus, personalities become multi-formed, refracted and incomplete. Clarissa is viewed by the tutor of her daughter as a fraud whose life is a “tissue of vanity and deceit”. Her maid, by contrast sees her as a “goddess”, while a neighbour considers her “a charming woman” who carries “a particular hush”.  In the midst of this, Clarissa muses on “the oddest sense of being herself invisible; unseen; unknown”. In a more abstract way than seen with Emma Bovary, Clarissa too is disconnected from others.

Shutting in/shutting out (Pic: Own)

A key aspect of her aloneness is her emotional isolation. As she ruminates on past intimacies with Peter and the bohemian Sally Seton, (the former she nearly married and the other with whom she shared a passionate kiss) it becomes clear that by choosing the customes of a rigid society wife, Clarissa has confined the spirited and emotional life of her past. She keeps it preserved, revisiting it in her inner life and, like Peter, “turning it round, slowly, in the light”.

However, by conserving this precious inner experience, Clarissa must remain slightly removed from the world, unable to truly feel and experience, sexually and emotionally repressed.  We see the extent of this as she regards her “narrow” bed and recalls what seems to be the nearest she got to real sexual and emotional intimacy.

 “Then, for that moment, she had seen an illumination; a match burning in a crocus; an inner meaning almost expressed. But the close withdrew; the hard softened. It was over — the moment”

As Clarissa enters the house “like a nun who has left the world”, she feels the home “fold round her the familiar veils and the response to old devotions” – these are the structures of custom and class, that come in the form of “the inlaid table, the mounted paper-knife, the dolphin and the candlesticks, the chair-covers and the old valuable English tinted prints”.

Virginia Woolf’s own narrow bed (Pic: John Cummings)

Consequently, the safety of the domestic space offers order but also constriction, the house a defence but also a prison, leaving a life as “half-burnt” as the candle at her bedside.

The Protection Paradox

This state of aloneness is not necessarily unwelcome. As noted in this New Yorker article on the subject, Mrs Dalloway suggests that bringing too much of the ‘self’ out to the surface dispels its power and, paradoxically its realness. In relation to her kiss with Sally, she feels that “she had been given a present, wrapped up, and told just to keep it, not to look at it…something infinitely precious”.  Of Peter she opines “everything had to be shared; everything gone into. And it was intolerable”.

Here, life is considered a gift that one “must hold onto and treasure but never open”, for the truly powerful experiences should remain “undescribed, unspecified, and unknown”, and the self should never be given completely. (Ref).

Out looking in and in looking out (Pic: Own)

Instead, through walking the city, smelling the flowers and looking at the sky, Clarissa connects to others through the mind – through intangible things. She feels herself to be “part of people she had never met; being laid out like a mist between the people she knew best, who lifted her on their branches as she had seen the trees lift the mist”.

It is telling, then, that one of the most notable characteristics shared between Clarissa and Septimus is the sensory, mystical connection with nature. While for Septimus, “leaves were alive; trees were alive. And the leaves being connected by millions of fibres with his own body”, Clarissa feels herself to be “part, she was positive, of the trees”.  For Clarissa, it is the material things, signs and symbols of nation, industry and harvest, that anchor and institutionalise what perhaps could otherwise be ‘madness’. (Septimus is eventually committed to an asylum. His wife could not, as medically advised, “make him notice real things”). In the combined city/mind-scape of Mrs Dalloway’s London, “the skeleton of habit alone upholds the human frame”.

Green Park, London – part of Mrs Dalloway’s commune with the trees (Pic: Own)

Something To Hold On To

This poignant difference in the state of separateness encountered by Clarissa and Septimus can also be applied to Emma Bovary. Unlike Emma, Clarissa’s firm and physical place – the “skeleton” strength of her house – affords her room to dream, but restricts her space to feel. Her apartness allows her to connect inwardly, through thought, to people and place in a way that defies the transient, ‘vanishing’ nature of the physical world, in a city doomed to one day become “a grass-grown path and all those hurrying along the pavement… but bones”. We are reminded of the theories of her youth, when she tells Peter Walsh “the unseen part of us, which spreads wide, the unseen might survive, be recovered somehow attached to this person or that, or even haunting certain places, after death.”

(Pic: Own)

Correspondingly, the status of the home, of her party and the process of the party, is what keeps her rooted to the here and now – they function, ironically, as a ‘reality effect’. Objects, furniture and ornaments are a display for the outside world, and in that capacity, Clarissa can look at the life she has consciously designed, and conclude “it was enough”.

Emma Bovary on the other hand furnishes and decorates her life to serve her imagination – her inner world. Subsequently, these material goods only push her further away from reality. The impact of this is felt at the beginning of her long, drawn out death, when she sees the look of concern on her husband’s face.

“He threw himself on his knees by her bed.

“Tell me! what have you eaten? Answer, for heaven’s sake!”

And he looked at her with a tenderness in his eyes such as she had never seen.”

Was it this exposed, meaningful human connection (the very thing Clarissa Dalloway seems to shun) the real thing that was missing from Emma’s life?

Meanwhile, news of Septimus’ suicide reaches Clarissa’s party, bringing the mirrored identities of these two characters in the novel to a climax. Clarissa’s reaction reinstates how, in contrast to Madame Bovary, where the pursuit of objects -of beautiful things – points to Emma’s vulnerability, Mrs Dalloway uses these same things as her defence. A defiance of the “well of tears”, to see beauty, to survive.

“She felt somehow very like him—the young man who had killed himself. She felt glad that he had done it; thrown it away. The clock was striking. The leaden circles dissolved in the air. He made her feel the beauty; made her feel the fun. But she must go back. She must assemble.”


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