Multiple Layers and Interpretations of Agriculture Fair Scene

The literary set piece of the Agricultural Fair is the stuff of cinema. The set piece is a linear pan-opticon of images and events, given unity through the magic of editing. Flaubert, as the cameraman, moves in and out of focus, craning in to catch an important strain of dialogue and panning out to capture the entirety of the surrounding spectacle. As is the case with cinema, context is derived from the clever sequencing of disparate images and actions, which are then made into a convergent whole by the connections the reader draws between the images. The descriptive power and the cut-and-paste movement of Flaubert’s Agricultural Fair glue all the disparate characters and dialogues into one neat super-organism of hypocrisy and seduction in the provinces. The set piece is an exercise in the grotesque; meaning that what comes across as funny in our first reading, seems tragic in our re-reading of it, and then, in a deeper third reading, is quite horrific.

Flaubert’s description of the Fair succeeds in compressing all the characters of Yonville-l’Abbaye into the manifest character of a single body politic. The thick description of the assembled townspeople (and their cattle) gel to create a congruous density of scent, sense and color. The mass of “flabby, fair-suntanned faces” of the crowd are presented with no more distinction or detail than are the rumps of livestock.

Set at each corner of the courthouse is a flag commemorating “Agriculture,” “Commerce,” “Industry,” and “Fine Arts,” in a garish presentation of civic dignity, what would nowadays be called ‘Rotarian.’ Embodied in this image of the four corners of each courthouse, is the idea of an agrarian utopia, reminiscent of wood-block prints from the 19th century where the farmer is leaning against his ox-plow and reading a copy of Harper’s. Industry barely fits into the spectrum of Yonville, and the Fine Arts are an outright joke, shoved in absurd extreme with “Commerce” and “Agriculture.” The Fair represents an extraneous, desperate effort—an attempt to celebrate a town that is in every aspect unremarkable and even awful. It is bare picture of the provinces, one which would essentially presume to render Emma and Rodolphe almost sinless for attempting to escape it through an affair.

Yonville itself is a model of self-limiting provincial meanness and imposed conformity. In trying to present itself at its very best, the town is revealed at its very worst. The pomp, ceremony and patriotism celebrated there is a thin shadow over the sense of self-conscious inadequacy permeating the event. Binet drills his local fire brigade against the National Guard’s brigade, out of competition and spite. Later, Tuvache, the mayor, recoils as if stung when a prefect councilor shows up instead of the prefect himself. The crowd listens agog to the words of the councilor, who reaches to define a particular type of rural ‘intelligence’ that is hardly distinguishable from blind patriotism and good ignorance.

At its keenest, provincial intelligence is a boorish kind, like Homais’s, one that yearns passionately to scientifically increase crop yield through the thorough study of manure. The case in the provinces is that you have dumb people who pretend to be smart (which is acceptable, because everyone knows Homais is a bore, anyways), and conversely, smart people, like Rodolphe, who are looked down upon for putting on airs and not acting dumb. By this declension, the ideas of rustic virtue and modesty celebrated at the fair are self-limiting strictures set to guard the insecure confidences of townspeople from the fearful potential of individuals who might be remarkable, and might some day distinguish themselves.

The proceedings of the fair are a spiraling torus through which the primary action, Rodolphe’s seduction of Emma, lances through the center like a shuttle through weft. Together, they flit through the bedlam, held high by a sense of untainted inviolability. Bolstered by their own sophistication, Charles and Rodolphe are given leave to pass through the fair, disassociated, at least in their own minds, from the provincial fecundity surrounding them. They deftly sidestep the bore Lhereux’s attempts to intrude into their conversation. Moving through the spectacle they complain to one another about “the mediocrity of provincial life” and the sore lack of people who can’t recognize the cut of a good coat. They watch the councilor’s speech from the high, private vantage of the 2nd story council chambers, viewing the processes with the observant remove of dreamers at play. While the bourgeoisie and farmers listen to the speech below with mouths agape as if to eat the words, Emma is similarly absorbed by Rodolphe’s intimate diatribe on love, freedom, and passion.

It’s puzzling to establish the measure by which traditional ideas of ‘goodness’ or ‘villainy’ could be attributed to the characters existing in the relative blur of Flaubert’s naturalistic world. Madame Bovary addresses the frailty of the best and most sincere human intentions. The theme is established at the book’s very outset when young Charles Bovary trys failingly to pronounce his own name, “Charovari! Charovari!” to the ridicule and punishment of his classmates and teacher. What is wrong in this case? Is it that Charles can’t pronounce his name, or is it that the classroom laughs at him for not being able to do so? Likewise, in the inter-weaving of Emma and Rodolphe’s mutual seduction amidst the ridiculous environment of the Agricultural Fair, one is not sure whether to criticize Emma’s weak integrity or pity her for the hopelessness of her circumstances.

Rodolphe’s speech cuts between the hot-air political prating of the councilmembers. The inter-weaved juxtaposition creates an odd synchronicity between the two speeches, and both are seductions in their own way. For Emma, the speeches are representative of the two lives she can choose for herself: a country wife, or a mistress.

Commerce and the arts are thriving everywhere; everywhere new channels of communication, like so many new arteries in the body politic, are multiplying contacts between its various parts; our great manufacturing centers have resumed their activity; religion, its foundations strengthened, appeals to every heart; shipping fills our ports; confidence returns; at long last, France breathes again!

The councilmember’s words promise a ‘great day’ that has already arrived, wherein one may find the ultimate sense of satisfaction by offering him or herself to the public weal. His promises, ludicrous and absurd, represent the bland comfort existing within the structures of rural life. An example of the ends to that life is when Catherine Leroux, wrinkled; with hands gnarled by toil and possessing the stare of a farm beast, is called up to receive 25 francs and a token medal for obedience and duty to the provincial life. By becoming Rodolphe’s mistress, Emma is indiscreetly breaking pact with the town, laying her reputation open, ultimately, to the vicious grapevine of tongue-clucking and whispered judgement meant to destroy those who try to rise above their station.

Adversely, Rodolphe’s speech, being a refutation of those notions of duty and an endorsement of the individual, makes a similar promise of an approaching ‘great day’.

We feel the need to pour out our hearts to a given person, to surrender, to sacrifice everything. In such a meeting no words are necessary: each senses the other’s thoughts. Each is the answer to the other’s dreams. There it is then, the treasure so long sought for—there before us: it gleams, it sparkles. But still we doubt; we daren’t believe; we stand there dazzled, as though we’d come from darkness into light.

Both promises, the civic dream and the individual one, are unsustainable in the world of Flaubert, where dreams wither under the ineptitude and inadequacy of those who nurse them. It is not good enough to say that promises are deceptions, for the characters lack the self-awareness to offer anything earnest in their statements. In the end, everyone is like the example of the young “Charovari!” They try their hardest and they fail. The sublime fails to exist in Flaubert’s world. Both seductions offered to Emma, civic and intimate, are unknowing lies, unable to pierce, for one second, the indistinct cloud which obscures meaning in life. No option offered to Emma is good enough to save her from decline and self-deterioration.

Do you really not know, that there exist souls that are ceaselessly in torment? That are driven now to dreams, now to action, driven from the purest passions to the most orgiastic pleasures? No wonder we fling ourselves into all kinds of fantasies and follies!

In this statement, Rodolphe is commenting, in some part, on the pointlessness of the ceremony below. The fair is the folly of the town trying to break free of its own limits, to attach itself to a fantastic ideal of the great French Society. Without knowing it yet, Emma and Rodophe are engaging in the same folly, by offering themselves to one another as an escape from reality. The further they attempt to distance themselves from social reality, the tighter the close walls of the provinces will lean into their affair, and all that will be left for Rodolphe and Emma is the inadequacy of each other.

In light of what we learn about provincial life through the agricultural fair, can one blame Emma and Rodolphe for flinging themselves selfishly and recklessly into a doomed romance? For those who might still label Rodolphe a villain, let us translate his case through the moral lens of another great Modern mind. Chekhov wrote a famous letter to A.S. Suvorin addressing his anger towards the public’s reception of his first play Ivanov. Ivanov is an aging and depressed provincial landowner who spurs his wife’s death by initiating an affair with the young girl next door. Chekhov wrote that the ‘villain,’ is not Ivanov, as the public had interpreted him to be, but the blandly self-righteous rural doctor, a secondary character who unloads his own virtuous standards on the desperate Ivanov: “[The doctor’s] judgement about everything is preconceived. . . A man has an ailing wife yet he visits a rich woman living near by—there, isn’t he a scoundrel?” The temptation to make a neat moral incision of this novel cheats the complex frailty of the human spirit, which provides Madame Bovary with its greatest allure.

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