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Nothing consumed: the dangerous space of food in Madame Bovary.

The economy of consumption in Madame Bovary does not allow for desires to be fulfilled. It is a novel about emptiness, and eating badly; Emma cannot eat or experience other pleasures in a way that sustains her. This is why the act of consumption--of food and drink, which will be the focal point of this study, but also of material goods and of lovers--is so crucial to Flaubert's novel. Significantly, she understands her discontent in terms of consumption, or rather, the impossibility of it: "Un homme, au moms, est libre; il peut parcourir les passions et les pays, traverser les obstacles, mordre aux bonheurs les plus lointains. Mais une femme est empechee continuellement" (153, emphasis mine). This inability to consume as she wishes or to "mordre aux bonheurs," will be the cause of her undoing and, eventually, her death--which, of course, is a result of dangerous consumption.

Analyses of Emma as consumer have been largely confined by critical discourse to her role as reader. The questions raised by le bovarysme, first identified in 1892 by Jules de Gaultier, revolve around reading and subjectivity, and define an audience which, like Emma, was unable or unwilling to clearly separate the dreamworld of the text from a less appetizing reality. As Gaultier explained it, le bovarysme is a question of "le pouvoir departi a l'homme de se concevoir autre qu'il n'est" (1o). In recent studies devoted to this theme, Marielle Mace proposes that Emma is a montage, a self-made assemblage of parts plucked from the texts she has consumed: "des imitations choisies plusieurs sources, des 'flux imitatifs' contradictoires" (8). Borrowing a phrase from Jules Valles, Colette Camelin in turn raises the question of Emma as a "victime du livre" (3). Similar matters surface in Jacques Ranciere's "La mise a mort d'Emma Bovary," as his explanation of Emma's death implicitly recalls a central problem of bovarysme: "Telle est l'erreur d'Emma, sa faute contre l'art. Nous pouvons lui donner un nom: esthetisation de la vie quotidienne" (68). Though her appetite for literature is, admittedly, an unhealthy one, these studies neglect the most obvious form of consumption--one that is perhaps even more dangerous for the heroine of the novel. For while food is ever-present in Madame Bovary, and would seem to represent bounty and plenitude, it is, for Emma, a violent point of absence.

The field of gastronomic studies would seem a natural point of entry to this problematic. For example, in French Food: On the Table, on the Page, and in French Culture, literature is used as a means of better understanding social and historic shifts in French food culture. With this sort of approach, however, food is often merely a means among others of charting the emergence of gastronomy which, in the nineteenth century, as Priscilla Parkhurst Ferguson notes, was "a cultural field in the making" (5). However, the volume also contains studies by such critics as Naomi Schor and Lawrence Schehr, whose work attends much more closely to the problems posed by food in fiction--problems which, in Madame Bovary, are critically important, both to the heroine and to the author's creative process. As Schehr observes, "food is never there for the sake of food" (125). And indeed, this statement could not be more true than it is in Madame Bovary. This study will examine the extent to which the space that Flaubert accords to food can serve as a microcosm of the work itself--a model of the perfect form Flaubert famously aspired to in his art.

Even the most extensive criticism touching on the alimentary motif in Madame Bovary fails to expose the utter emptiness that characterizes food in the novel. In his seminal Litterature et Sensation, Jean-Pierre Richard devotes several pages to this topic in Bovary, in a chapter he begins with the following claim, with which few would argue: "On mange beaucoup dans les romans de Flaubert" (119). But this is precisely the point: on mange beaucoup. Emma does not, however, eat a lot. In fact, the actual act of eating is kept decidedly vague despite the bounty of food in the text. This renders Richard's sentence truer than ever, though not in the way that he intended. Interestingly, we find this very on in the novel itself: Flaubert writes of the wedding banquet, "on resta seize heures a table," and "Jusqu'au soir, on mangea," without there being a single act of consumption by any one individual (85, 88, emphasis mine). At a lunch following the Vaubyessard ball, Flaubert again notes the duration of the meal, quantifying what should be a pleasurable event, thereby dematerializing it with the very language used to describe it: "Le repas dura dix minutes; on ne servit aucune liqueur" (114, emphasis mine). Again, on the night when Berthe is baptized, the celebratory meal is entirely devoid of edible matter and the "on" resurfaces: "il y eut un grand diner; le cure s'y trouvait; on s'echautfa" (155, emphasis mine).

The repeated use of the impersonal subject pronoun contributes to the sense that when eating takes place in Flaubert, it doesn't really take place in the space of representation. It is instead relegated to a kind of hors-scene of the text. And when it does take place, it is negatively valorized, as with Charles, whose unrestrained, undiscerning appetite and uncomplicated satisfaction following meals seems to earn him the bovine image that his name evokes: "[...] satisfait de lui-meme, il mangeait le reste du miroton, eplu-chait son fromage, croquait une pomme, vidait sa carafe, puis s'allait mettre au lit, se couchait sur le dos et ronflait" (102). As Lilian Furst writes, "food has the function in Madame Bovary of a mirror, almost of an objective correlative to character" (60). Brillat-Savarin, long before her, famously posited one's chosen food as a mirror of the self. Here, as we will see, the emptiness that characterizes Flaubert's representation of food is indeed mirrored in Emma in remarkable way.

If Emma consumes with abandon in other ways, she rarely eats. Admittedly, Richard recognizes her bulimic tendency: "voulant tout immediatement consommer, elle ne peut rien retenir" (124). But his claim encompasses Emma's material and carnal appetites, too, allowing food to be subsumed by, and treated together with, the ensemble of desires which--as Flaubert writes--Emma herself feels so violently that she is unable to distinguish one type of longing from another: "Alors, les appetits de la chair, les convoitises d'argent et les melancolies de la passion, tout se confondit dans une meme souffrance" (173). Furthermore, though aware of Emma's inability to retain anything of her experience with food, Richard nevertheless writes, "l'offre des nourritures vient combler le desir de ['heroine" (120). I would suggest instead that food is a point of absence in the novel which only deepens desire, eventually creating a "trou" in Emma--a mortal wound (116).

The Art(ifice) of the Table

Soon after Charles begins to visit Les Bertaux, the farm where Emma lives with her father, M. Rouault asks Charles to "stay for a bite." Flaubert draws our attention to Rouault's invitation through italics: "Une fois le pansement fait, le medecin fut invite, par M. Rouault lui-meme, a prendre un morceau, avant de partir" (74). Flaubert thus puts consumption on stage in the text itself, emphasizing its function as a sort of theatrical enactment, something artificial. While this detail may seem insignificant, it points to a much larger issue surrounding consumption within the novel: since Emma finds her reality unappetizing, she makes of consumption--an act that would necessitate a sort of ingestion of reality, of what present circumstance can afford--a thing separate from real life, like theater.

In a later scene, also at her father's house, a courting ritual that would normally involve drinking is a moment of pure theatricality. The coded, artificial nature of this offering of drink is made clear in a kind of dance in which she must offer, he must refuse, and she in turn must persevere so that the offering is taken: "Selon la mode de la campagne, elle lui proposa de boire quelque chose. Il refusa, elle insista, et enfin lui offrit, en riant, de prendre un verre de liqueur avec elle" (81). This is not a spontaneous gesture but a routine, an act carried out because this is how it should be, "[s]elon la mode de la campagne." The stage is set, but the real moment of theater is yet to come:
  Elle alla donc chercher dans l'armoire une bouteille
  de curacao, attei-gnit deux petits verres, emplit run
  jusqu'au bord, versa A peine dans l'autre et, apres
  avoir trinque, le porta s sa bouche. Comme il etait
  presque vide, elle se renversait pour boire: et, la
  tete en arriere, les levres avancees, le cou tendu,
  elle riait de ne rien sentir, tandis que le bout de
  sa langue, passant entre ses dents fines, lechait a
  petits coups le fond du verre. (81)

Having deliberately poured a full glass of curacao for Charles and hardly a drop for herself, Emma performs a sort of erotic dance at the table, as she must purse her lips, bare her neck and lick the bottom of the glass, if she is to consume anything at all. Therefore, what should be a sip of drink taken in the company of her suitor is hardly that; instead, it is a dramatization of the act of consumption. Just as a still life feeds only the eyes--the food is posed, intended for the paintbrush and not the mouth--Emma's drop of drink is not destined for the stomach, since it is more fully realized as a dramatic, outward gesture, rather than an internal moment of ingestion. Indeed, throughout the novel, food for Emma is most often pure art(ifice): stripped of its alimentary value, it is a representation within representation, the act of consumption amounting to mimicry, an imitation of life. (1)

This is not simply a manifestation of Emma's psychology, but is determined by the world of the text itself. Famous for his formal perfectionism, Flaubert is naturally more concerned with the surfaces of the table, the things that lend it its shape. Their colors and textures interest him more than the food they contain, and certainly more than the sense of plenitude usually associated with food. Furthermore, it is noteworthy that in his own life, gustatory pleasure seems often to elude him. He eagerly anticipates a meal with childhood friends ("Nous passerons de bons moments, ainsi tous trois a philosopher et a Pantagrueliser"), but soon after, predicts that he won't be able to derive any pleasure from it: "Je suis dans une atmosphere de diners. [...] Et avec tout cela je m'ennuie, je m'emmerde. J'ai le coeur plus vide qu'une botte" (Correspondance I: 32, 45). This inability to be present to pleasure is not only echoed in Emma's own inability to be fulfilled, but lends a unique significance to the formal representations of food that dominate the text.

An example of this can be found in an early scene, soon after Charles and Emma have first met. Upon arriving one day at Les Bertaux, Charles is immediately met with the sight of a perfect nature morte, a scene which might just as well have been painted by Manet, as written by Flaubert. Here, he stresses the control he exercises over the act of consumption by once again situating eating and drinking firmly outside of the framework of the novel. But in this instance, it is not italicized text that marks the division between consumption and everything else, as in Rouault's invitation; it is instead time:
  Il entra dans la cuisine [...], les auvents
  etaient fermes. Par les fentes du bois, le
  soleil allongeait sur les paves de grandes
  raies minces, qui se brisaient a l'angle
  des meubles et tremblaient au plafond. Des
  mouches, sur la table, montaient le long
  des verres qui avaient servi, et bourdonnaient
  en se noyant au fond, dans le cidre reste
  [...]. (81)

The act of consumption itself is left to the imagination while the flies are attracted to this nature morte as if to something truly dead. They buzz avidly around the dregs of cider, remnants of an act that is relegated to the past ("verres qui avaient servi") without ever having taken place within the narrative itself. This scene illustrates Flaubert's separation of food from its function as edible matter. It suggests a death of real food--consumption being entirely removed from the world of the text, located in a vague, irretrievable past--in favor of food as surface, or rather, food as structure--a construct which comes sharply into focus at Emma and Charles's wedding.

The Architecture of Desire

The emergence of food as empty structure unavailable for consumption at the wedding banquet presages the absence that comes to define the economy of consumption in the text as a whole. Many critics have recognized Emma's incapacity to be nourished by what she consumes; Barbara Vinken writes, "Mme Bovary does not find such enjoyments in food or in love; in contrast to her husband, she is always only briefly satiated" (772). Although this is a valid observation, I would not locate this problem entirely in the person of Emma. I would contend that, as a close look at this scene would suggest, she is not satiated by food at all, because food was never endowed with the capacity to nourish in the first place; it was only ever an elaborate construct, inedible to Emma before she proves herself unable to be fed by it.

Flaubert valorizes the surface of the table and builds on and around it an elaborate architecture where appearances are everything. Here, the Flaubertian artifice of consumption--Emma's aforementioned theatrical gesture occasioned by a drink from a nearly empty glass, for example--comes to suggest actual artifice, in three dimensions, with an outside and an inside, itself capable--unlike a nature morte--of containing. In the following description of the banquet, we witness Flaubert's passion for form; the position of each thing is accounted for, as is the vessel containing it:
  C'etait sous le hangar de la charreterie que la table etait
  dressee. Il y avait dessus quatre aloyaux, six fricassees
  de poulets, du veau a la casserole, trois gigots et, au
  milieu, un joli cochon de lait roti, flanque de quatre
  andouilles a l'oseille. Aux angles, se dressait l'eau-de-vie,
  dans des carafes. Le cidre doux en bouteilles poussait sa
  mousse epaisse autour des bouchons et tous les verres,
  d'avance, avaient ete remplis de vin jusqu'au bord. De
  grands plats de creme jaune, qui flottaient d'eux-memes
  au moindre choc de la table, presentaient, dessines sur
  leur surface unie, les chiffres des nouveaux epoux en
  arabesques de nonpa-reille. (87-88, emphasis mine)

Numbers abound where notes on taste or smell would otherwise logically appear. Flaubert accounts for the quantity rather than the quality of the foods at the wedding banquet, contributing to what already appears to be a representation of food as inedible structure, rather than comestible matter. But the most striking example of this structuring of the Flaubertian table is to be found in Charles and Emma's wedding cake, the famous piece mon-tee, a feat of culinary wizardry which--in the nineteenth century--was also appropriately known as an extraordinaire. This cake, central to the wedding table itself, is, more generally, a crowning symbol of the emptiness of food in Madame Bovary:
  A la base, d'abord c'etait un carre de carton bleu
  figurant un temple avec portiques, colonnades et
  statuettes de stuc tout autour dans des niches
  constellees d'etoiles en papier dore; puis se tenait
  au second etage un donjon en gateau de Savoie, entoure de
  menues fortifications en angelique, amandes, raisins secs,
  quartiers d'oranges; et enfin, sur la plate-forme superieure,
  qui etait une prairie verte ou il y avait des rochers avec
  des lacs de confiture et des bateaux en ecales de noisettes
  [...]. (87-88, emphasis mine)

Structures are made to define boundaries, to divide space, not to be consumed. The fact that certain bits of the piece montee are edible does little to make this imposing edifice more appealing, since they are interspersed with, not to mention outnumbered by, inedible elements. This structure indeed seems to defy consumption; after all, the "gateau de Savoie" forms a don-jon--a defensive, forbidding structure--and the decorations one would normally consider edible (almonds, raisins, oranges) are now commingled, by virtue of their shared function as "fortifications," with the inedible (carton, stuc, papier dore, angelique, rochers and ecales de noisettes). This confection thus appears made to repel anyone who might dare to disturb its form.

It is appropriate, then, that elaborate pieces montees such as this were in fact not necessarily intended for consumption. They were little works of art, meant to please the eye alone. Nevertheless, any patissier worth his weight--and especially Marie-Antoine Careme, the nineteenth-century chef whose interest in architecture translated seamlessly into the elaborate pieces montees he made famous--would have taken care to make such a cake of edible ingredients. (2) Although certain purely decorative elements fashioned from pate morte, for example, or pate d'office, and glued together with gum arabic, were not delicious, they were nevertheless edible (Kelly 40). Flaubert would have been aware of this, for his correspondence attests to his own complicated preoccupations with food, and his admiration of Careme's craft, which he regarded as fine art on a par with writing: "C'est magnifique comme existence d'artiste enthousiaste; elle ferait envie a plus d'un poete" (Corre-spondance II: 60). However impressive it may appear to the wedding party ("[elle] fit pousser des cris"), Emma and Charles's piece montee must remain just that: a cake that rises up only for the sake of appearances, recalling the fine art of the great patissier only in its architectural form (87).

What remains, once food is stripped of its ability to nourish, is a perfect structure--an architecture of the table that is exactly what we would expect of Flaubert, for whom perfect form is the ultimate beauty. Made to resemble architectural space, this is precisely what the piece montee yields to the "consumer": space. Stylized space, absence. Fashioned in the shape of a grand chateau complete with colonnades, statues and a tower, the piece montee resonates with Emma's interest in the surface of things. But it is even more empty and unsatisfying than mere inedibility would suggest, for it represents the kind of space Emma cannot expect to inhabit as Charles's wife. It is a decorative embodiment of absence, and its centrality to Emma's wedding banquet anticipates the lack that also haunts the conjugal table.

The Inedible Food of Married Life

Conjugal life is of course filled with disappointment for Emma, whose disgust for Charles's unrefined mannerisms and expanding waistline is acted out, among other ways, in her complicated relationship to food. And if food was only ever intended to be surface matter for Emma, as I have suggested, then it is not surprising that the only way for her to increase its appeal would be to alter its appearance. Accordingly, her table is set for aesthetic, rather than culinary pleasure. Having made of consumption a theatrical act in their "pre-nuptial" drink, she also makes of their conjugal table a theatrical space, filled with visual flourish: "Quand us avaient, le dimanche, quelque voisin a diner, elle trouvait le moyen d'offrir un plat coquet, s'entendait a poser sur des feuilles de vigne les pyramides de reines-claudes, servait renverses les pots de confitures dans une assiette" (101-102).

Dressed as it is in this scene--for "coquet" applies more readily to the clothing she covets than to a plate of food--the table becomes an imitation of the life Emma would like to lead, a fictional space filled with the kind of loveliness she doesn't find in reality. Her arrangement of plums in pyramid form recalls the architectural table of the wedding banquet. (3) She makes of the plums and jars of jam decorative objects, models of the elegant tables depicted in the ladies' journals she devours. By taking other forms--pyramids, or inverted shapes--, they become elements of design whose primary function, as decided by the hostess herself, is no longer purely alimentary. As long as Emma can maintain the pleasure she derives from sharing the beauty of form at the table, she is content. But, when others are not there to be served this kind of fiction, reality takes hold, and it is unbearable, inedible:
  Mais cetait surtout aux heures des repas qu'elle n'en pouvait
  plus [...]; toute l'amertume de l'existence lui semblait
  servie sur son assiette, et, a la fumee du bouilli, il montait
  dufond de son ame comme d'autres bouffees d'affadissement.
  Charles etait long a manger; elle grignotait quelques noisettes,
  ou bien, appuyee du coude, s'amusait, avec la pointe de son
  couteau, a faire des raies sur la toile ciree. (126)

In Mimesis, Erich Auerbach defines this scene as the culminating point of Emma's dissatisfaction, and it is certainly true that everything goes downhill for her from this point on, and that food plays an essential role in the illustration of her fall (478). But, as I have suggested, food has already been made inedible at this point in the novel, so that if Emma does not eat here, it is not simply because she is psychologically unable, but, more importantly, because food is never really present to her.

Emma in Wonderland

Looking back, we find that the wedding banquet scene, with the piece montee at its center, not only presages, ironically, the disjunction between Emma's ideal life and her reality, but also an actual ideal world--the Chateau de la Vaubyessard. The chateau represents in reality what up to this point were merely the "assouvissements imaginaires" Emma gleaned from romantic novels and magazines, full of glimpses of a material world that always eluded her (118). The same sort of architecture that defied consumption at the wedding banquet in the form of the piece montee now seems to be expanding in a way that calls to mind Alice's fantastical adventures with food in Wonderland. It seems that Emma has passed into another world when she enters the chateau, as the inedible surface of the cake is transformed into a three-dimensional space that opens up, offering its beauty for her consumption. The structure of the piece montee, with its "colonnades et statuettes," surrounded by a lake made of jam, is echoed in the chateau, with its similarly grand architecture and grounds, its "deux ailes et trois per-rons," "immense pelouse" and "riviere [qui] passait sous un pont" (88, 106). But, more extraordinary than the immensity and reality of this edifice is the fact that Emma is actually able to enter into the chateau, ushered into it by the Marquis himself--thereby entering, in a sense, the romanticized world of the cake. Although it may be true that Emma reaches the height of her disgust for life earlier in the novel, I would propose that it is in the rapport between these two spaces that the tragedy of Emma's inability to "mordre aux bonheurs" is ultimately played out (126). This might initially appear paradoxical, since a scene I will soon present, which contains one of the few instances where Emma eats of her own accord, takes place while at the ball. But the particular circumstances of this act render this scene more complex than prior readings have accounted for: despite the fact that she seems to be having an ideal (even ecstatic) experience, we will find that Emma is herself transformed into an object here; she is rendered strangely immobile by the act of eating, rather than enlivened by it.

Things are not what they appear at La Vaubyessard. The chateau represents all that Emma wishes to consume, and both the ball and banquet to which she is invited seem to provide her with an unprecedented opportunity to derive pleasure from reality, to drink of the beauty that surrounds her. If Emma is entering into the world of the wedding cake as she enters the chateau, the reader should be immediately suspicious of the bounty it seems to offer to her, since such structures in Bovary ultimately prove to be incarnations of absence. And indeed, looking closely, we find that Emma's emptiness will only be further emphasized by the unattainable spaces she encounters there. The architecture of the chateau extends first horizontally, and then vertically: "Le chateau, de construction moderne, a l'italienne, avec deux ailes avancant et trois perrons, se deployait au bas d'une immense pelouse [...]. Il etait pave de dalles en marbre, tres haut [...] En face montait un escalier droit [...]" (106-107). This vertical ascent recalls the vertical display of the piece montee, which Flaubert begins "a la base" and ends with the "sommet." Emma wants to interiorize this space, to appropriate its grandeur: "Elle regarda les fenetres du chateau, longuement, tachant de deviner quelles etaient les chambres de tous ceux qu'elle avait remarques la veille. Elle aurait voulu savoir leurs existences, y penetrer, s'y confondre" (114). Once again, architectural space substitutes for edible matter--hardly surprising, since Emma's appetites hew so closely to the surface of things. The past tense assures us that although Emma hasn't yet left La Vaubyessard, her desire to incorporate all of this will not be fulfilled; despite the elaborate display of exotic, actually edible foods (in contrast to the piece montee) with which she will be presented in the following banquet scene, eating--the most obvious vehicle for assimilation--will remain an almost exclusively visual act.

Once in the dining room at the ball, Emma focuses less on indulging herself in food and drink, than on continuing to visually devour all of the small details of the opulent setting. As at the conjugal table, but on a much grander scale here, food's function is mostly decorative (121). The placement of a lobster on a serving platter, for instance, could as easily be a blot of paint on a canvas, for it is the shape of the object--its situation on the platter and whether it remains within the bounds of its intended structure--that matters: "Les pattes rouges des homards depassaient les plats" (108). Flaubert continues, "de gros fruits dans des corbeilles a jour s'etageaient sur la mousse; les cailles avaient leurs plumes, des fumees montaient" (108). The feeling of overabundance is accompanied, inversely, by a suggested impossibility of eating, apparent here in the lavish display of fruit, offset by a description of game birds still covered in their feathers, surely more suited, once again, for a still life painting, than for actual consumption (108).

In one of the most marked scenes of consumption at the ball, Emma eats vicariously through an elderly aristocrat. There is an undeniably erotic, if grotesque, tone to this passage--Emma, herself an empty vessel, ingests this man through her eyes, while he eats, unperturbed and utterly absorbed by the food on his plate:
  Cependant, au haut bout de la table, seul parmi toutes ces
  femmes, courbe sur son assiette remplie et la serviette
  nouee dans le dos comme un enfant, un vieillard mangeait,
  laissant tomber de sa bouche des gouttes de sauce. [...]
  C'etait le beau-pere du marquis, le vieux duc de Laverdiere,
  [...] qui avait ete, disait-on, l'amant de la reine
  Marie-Antoinette [...]. Il avait merle une vie bruyante
  de debauches, pleine de duels, de paris, de femmes enlevees,
  avait devore sa fortune et effraye toute sa famille. (109)

With his napkin tied behind him, "comme un enfant," and his pendulous lips dripping sauce, he is hardly the conventional object of a young woman's desire. His unbecoming appearance mirrors his destructive nature, realized throughout his own history of overconsumption, which--like Emma's destructive appetites--"avait devore sa fortune et effraye toute sa famille" (emphasis mine). Improbably, Emma finds him provocative, and cannot control her urge to continue looking, attempting to absorb what she sees: "sans cesse les yeux d'Emma revenaient d'eux-memes sur ce vieil homme a levres pendantes, comme sur quelque chose d'extraordinaire et d'auguste. Il avait vecu a la Cour et couche dans le lit des reines!" (109). Though joined in parallel acts of consumption, these two individuals remain anchored in two unbridgeable worlds, in a way that defines Emma; for this aged debau-che embodies, both in the story of his past and in his present appetite, that capacity she envies to "mordre aux bonheurs."

I have suggested that Madame Bovary is a tragedy of consumption; less for the famous self-poisoning that concludes the novel, than for the heroine's continual inability to eat in a way that sustains her. No matter how impressive the piece montee may be, it is ultimately inedible; Emma's attempt to reduplicate it at the conjugal table will only increase her disgust for real food. It is logical, then, that even when Emma is eventually able to enter into this ideally formed world, no matter what she consumes during her evening at the ball, she is left strangely empty: "Son voyage a la Vaubyessard avait fait un trou dans sa vie, a la maniere de ces grandes crevasses qu'un orage, en une seule nuit, creuse quelquefois dans les montagnes" (116). The abundance of food and beauty at the table of the day before stands in sharp contrast to Emma's impoverished spirit. It seems that the more Emma consumes, the emptier she becomes.

Cherries and Forgetting (Memoire glacee)

Although sights are what Emma most hungrily consumes at the ball--empty glasses, lobsters stretching beyond the bounds of their platters, candles flickering, and the old duke as he eats--, they are not her only sustenance. In a rare moment of voluntary consumption, she eats a cherry ice. (4) This is much more than a simple act of eating, and its significance is emphasized through Emma's reaction, which removes her entirely from the reality of the world around her:
  Mais, aux fulgurations de l'heure presente, sa vie passee,
  si nette jusqu'alors, s'evanouissait tout entiere, et elle
  doutait presque de l'avoir vecue. Elle etait la; puis,
  autour du bal, il n'y avait plus que de l'ombre, etalee
  sur tout le reste. Elle mangeait alors une glace au
  marasquin, qu'elle tenait de la main gauche dans une
  coquille de vermeil, et fermait a demi les yeux, la
  cuiller entre les dents. (112)

Elisabeth Cardonne Arlyck sees the highly structural but nevertheless edible sorbet ("edifie pour etre detruit et absorbe") of Proust's Albertine as the antithesis of the defensive edifice of Flaubert's piece montee (58). To propose another contrast in the two authors' representations of food, I would suggest that this cherry ice has the reverse effect of Proust's famous madeleine, which, by comparison, permits his narrator not only to regain desired access to the past, but to do so while aware of the effect that this food has on him: "je tressaillis, attentif a ce qui se passait d'extraordinaire en moi" (45). Emma couldn't possibly be more different: she loses her past entirely during this moment. If food aids in the recuperation of lost time in Proust, it does just the opposite here.

With this bite of cherry ice, the site of consumption shifts, unusually for this novel, from the eyes to the mouth. And this is where the emptiness that defines food in Madame Bovary becomes particularly dangerous to its heroine, despite appearances. What happens here is indeed much more complicated than prior readings suggest. In Crack Wars, Avital Ronell claims that Emma is a "grand self-medicator," who experiences "hallucinogenic, analgesic, stimulating, euphorizing effects" resulting from such things as religion, reading and eating (63, 74). Emma does self-medicate, of course--early in the novel, for example, she drinks vinegar in an attempt to lose weight. But there is also the famous final act of consumption, which as everyone knows results in the ultimate act of self-negation, rather than the altered states that Ronell's descriptions of a drug trip suggest. Similarly, and more significantly, nothing is produced by this seemingly "euphorizing" consumption of cherry ice: this is an inverted act of consumption, and--like most of Emma's "eating"--it involves an erasure rather than a sustenance of the self. Although she does use the cherry ice as a means to an end, as one would use a drug, she is utterly negated by the experience. Drug .use would require some degree of consciousness, for in order to experience the effects of drugs, one must be somehow present to the experience--attendant to a shift in the state of one's mind. But is Emma present? "Elle etait la," Flaubert writes (112). But where? Her past has disappeared and her surroundings are covered in shadow.

This scene points to a moment of absolute emptiness. The absence of smell and taste, as we know by now, are characteristic of eating in Flaubert. Remarkably, sight, too, is absent from this particular act: Emma partially closes her eyes as her mouth closes upon the spoon, and she is for once blind to the surfaces around her ("[elle] fermait a demi les yeux, la cuiller entre les dents"). It is as if the event of eating itself took place in a vacuum, kept carefully out of contact with the rest of the text. Mouth and eyes closed, looking inward, she drowns out thoughts of her father under his apple trees ("Elle revit son pere en blouse sous les pommier [...] sa vie passee [...] s'evanouissait tout entiere")--links to her humble past. (5) Closed off to the world, Emma is suspended in a liminal state between life and death. Elissa Marder's description of her general state of being as a "falling out of time" applies well to this instance, in which Emma seems neither here nor there (132). But in this scene, with its abrupt and absolute erasure of her past and the absolute darkness that envelops the room ("il n'y avait plus que de l'ombre, etalee sur tout le reste"), Emma seems not only to be out of step with time, but to have disappeared altogether (emphasis mine). She inhabits a truly dead space--her physical reaction to this bite of cherry ice seems at once suggestive of la petite mort, and, moreover, seems to anticipate the violent death by the willed act of consumption soon to come.

It is thus not only when consuming something blatantly poisonous, as she ultimately does, that eating is dangerous for Emma. Even in this rare instance where she eats of her own accord, paradoxically, her mouth closes upon more hollow space than edible matter. There is a startling emptiness to what is ostensibly an act of consumption; Flaubert writes that Emma has "la cuiller entre les dents," conjuring up an image of the hard surface of her teeth closing upon the equally hard surface of the spoon--a concave form, an empty shell. More important than what Emma actually ingests of the cherry ice is her pose: closing her mouth upon the scooped shape of the spoon, she appears poised to consume nothing.

The "extase" Emma is supposedly experiencing is a strange one, for ecstasy is a state of being outside of oneself ("hors de soi et du monde sensible") (Le Petit Robert 870). Emma's ecstasy is terribly close to death, though, for here, she isn't at all; she is reduced to a kind of petrified physical form--a statue. This scene recalls the aforementioned theatrical drink of a mere drop of curacao, for here--as there--a purported moment of ingestion serves to make emptiness visible, to give form to absence. The Flaubertian table--and in fact, to a larger extent, the novel as a whole--owes its shape to the hollowness it holds. And this is entirely appropriate, since Flaubert famously believed, as we are reminded in his correspondence, that in order to create the most beautiful art, a certain emptiness was necessary: "Les ceuvres les plus belles sont celles ou il y a le moms de matiere" (Correspondance I: 31).

Recognizing the author's desire to preserve this particular emptiness, Auerbach observes, "Il ne se passe rien" (484). More importantly though, he continues, "mais cc rien est devenu un quelque chose qui est lourd, diffus et menacant" (484). Nowhere is this more true than in Flaubert's representation of food. Indeed, not only is the nothingness at the heart of the novel menacing, but it is deadly, and eating--paradoxically, since it is something we tend to relate to sustenance and plenitude--is, as I hope to have demonstrated, Flaubert's most powerful embodiment of this absence. It evacuates Emma, not only in the famous final scene, but also at the ball, in a moment of ecstasy which seems to have been overlooked as an act of dying--a moment of complete and utter absence anticipating that final, deadly "meal." This abstraction of food in Bovary helps to assure that Flaubert's heroine will remain the ultimate empty form of the novel--always desirous, but never fulfilled. Food is forever an empty construct, unintended for consumption by its central character, who must remain the sacrificial victim to Flaubert's idol of form.

Emory University

Works Cited

Auerbach, Erich. Mimesis. Paris: Gallimard, 1968.

Camelin, Colette. "Bovarysme et Tragique." Fabula--LHT, N[degrees]9. [Online], URL: February 2012.

Cardonne Arlyck, Elisabeth. "Piece Montee et Sorbets: Flaubert et Proust." French Forum 3.1 (January 1978): pp. 56-64.

Carroll, Lewis. Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. New York: Grosset & Dunlap, 1984.

Descharmes, Rene and Rene Dumesnil. Autour de Flaubert. Paris: Mercure de France, 1912.

Ferguson, Priscilla Parkhurst. "A Cultural Field in the Making: Gastronomy in Nineteenth-Century France." In French Food: On the Table, on the Page, and in French Culture. Eds. Lawrence Schehr and Allen Weiss. New York: Routledge, 2001.

Flaubert, Gustave. Madame Bovary. Paris: Gamier Flammarion, 1986.

--. Correspondance. Ed. Jean Bruneau. 2 vols. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1973-80.

Furst, Lilian. "The Role of Food in Madame Bovary." Orbis Litterarum, 34 (1979), pp. 53-65.

Gaultier, Jules de. Le Bovarysme, suivi d'une etude de Per Buvik, Le Principe bovaryque. Paris: Presses de l'Universite Paris-Sorbonne, 2006.

Kelly, Ian. Cooking for Kings: The Life of Antonin Careme. New York: Walker & Company, 2003.

Mace, Marielle. "Paulhan: rejoindre une forme." Fabula--LHT, N[degrees]9. [Online], URL: February 2012.

Marder, Elissa. Dead Time: Temporal Disorders in the Wake of Modernity (Baudelaire and Flaubert). Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2001.

Pifteau, Benjamin. Alexandre Dumas en manches de chemise. Paris: Leon Vanier, 1884.

Proust, Marcel. Combray. In A La Recherche du Temps Perdu. Ed. Pierre Clarac and Andre Ferre. Vol. 1. Paris: Editions Gallimard, 1954.

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Vinken, Barbara. "Loving, Reading, Eating: The Passion of Madame Bovary." MLN 122.4 (September 2007): 759-778


(1.) The theatricality of eating in Flaubert comes as no surprise, considering his interest in theater: "[...] il n'a guere cesse de penser a l'art dramatique, au sens large du mot. Pour tout dire, le theatre fut un peu [son] 'violon d'Ingres'" (Descharmes and Dumesnil 201).

(2.) Careme's passion for architecture is evident in his book titles alone, among them Projets d'architecture pour l'embellissement de Paris (1926) and Le Patissier pittoresque, precede d'un traite des cinq ordres de l'architecture (1842).

(3.) Flaubert looked upon books as monuments--like pyramids, built methodically to stand the test of time: "les livres [se font] comme les pyramides" (Correspondance II: 783).

(4.) In another rare moment of voluntary consumption, Emma eats cherries while similarly afloat in a dream world in which, as at the ball, she would prefer to remain permanently: "[Emma et Leon] mangeaient [...] de la creme et des cerises. [...] Et ils auraient voulu, comme deux Robinsons, vivre perpetuellement dans cc petit endroit" (329).

(5.) Cherries would be an apt antidote to these memories. The bitter cherries in marasquin liqueur, which flavors Emma's cherry ice, came from Italy, the fashionable source for exotic products in her time. The apples Emma remembers, by contrast, have decidedly humble associations; they were both a common fruit in her region, and a common sight in the rural background she wants to forget. Therefore it isn't surprising that they should flash through her mind when she sees the faces of the peasants.
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Author:Igou, Anna
Publication:French Forum
Article Type:Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2013
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