Excerpts for Madame Bovary : Provincial Ways


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We were in Study Hall, when the Headmaster entered, followed by a new boy dressed in regular clothes and a school servant carrying a large desk. Those who were sleeping woke up, and everyone rose as though taken by surprise while at work.

The Headmaster motioned us to sit down again; then, turning to the study hall teacher:

"Monsieur Roger," he said to him in a low voice, "here is a pupil I am entrusting to your care; he is entering the fifth. If his work and his conduct are deserving, he will be moved up to the seniors, as befits his age."

Still standing in the corner, behind the door, so that one could hardly see him, the new boy was a fellow from the country, about fifteen years old, and taller than any of us. His hair was cut straight across the forehead, like a village choirboy's, his manner sensible and very ill at ease. Although he was not broad in the shoulders, his suit jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have pinched him around the armholes, and it showed, through the vents of its cuffs, red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings, emerged from a pair of yellowish pants pulled tight by his suspenders. He wore stout shoes, badly shined, studded with nails.

We began reciting our lessons. He listened to them, all ears, as attentive as though to a sermon, not daring even to cross his legs or to lean on his elbow, and at two o'clock, when the bell rang, the teacher was obliged to alert him, so that he would get in line with us. We were in the habit, when we entered the classroom, of throwing our caps on the floor, so that our hands would be free; from the doorsill, we had to hurl them under the bench, in such a way that they struck the wall, making a lot of dust; it was the thing to do.

But either because he had not noticed this maneuver or because he had not dared go along with it, after the prayer was over, the new boy was still holding his cap on his knees. It was one of those head coverings of a composite order, in which one can recognize components of a busby, a lancer's cap, a bowler, an otter-skin cap, and a cotton nightcap, one of those sorry objects, indeed, whose mute ugliness has depths of expression, like the face of an imbecile. Ovoid and stiffened with whalebones, it began with three circular sausages; then followed alternately, separated by a red band, lozenges of velvet and rabbit fur; next came a kind of bag terminating in a cardboard-lined polygon, covered with an embroidery in complicated braid, from which hung, at the end of a long, excessively slender cord, a little crosspiece of gold threads, by way of a tassel. It was new; the visor shone.

"Stand up," said the teacher.

He stood up; his cap fell. The whole class began to laugh.

He bent over to pick it up. A boy beside him knocked it down again with a nudge of his elbow; he retrieved it again.

"Get rid of that helmet of yours," said the teacher, who was a wit.

There was a burst of laughter from the class that disconcerted the poor boy, so that he did not know whether he should keep his cap in his hand, leave it on the floor, or put it on his head. He sat down again and laid it on his knees.

"Stand up," said the teacher, "and tell me your name."

Stammering, the new boy articulated an unintelligible name.

"Again!"

The same mumble of syllables was heard, muffled by the hooting of the class.

"Louder!" shouted the teacher. "Louder!"

The new boy, summoning an extreme resolve, then opened an inordinately large mouth and bawled at the top of his lungs, as though shouting to someone, the word Charbovari.

Now an uproar exploded all at once, rose in a crescendo, with outbursts of shrill voices (they howled, they barked, they stamped, they repeated: Charbovari! Charbovari!), then continued in isolated notes, quieting with great difficulty and sometimes resuming suddenly along the line of a bench from which a stifled laugh would start up again here and there, like a half- spent firecracker.

However, under a rain of penalties, order was gradually restored in the classroom, and the teacher, having managed to grasp the name of Charles Bovary, having had it dictated to him, spelled out, and read back, at once commanded the poor fellow to go sit on the dunce's bench, at the foot of the platform. He began to move but, before going, hesitated.

"What are you looking for?" asked the teacher.

"My c…;," said the new boy timidly, casting uneasy glances around him.

"Five hundred lines for the entire class!" The furious exclamation put an end, like the Quos ego, to a fresh squall. "Now, keep quiet!" continued the indignant teacher, wiping his forehead with the handkerchief he had just taken from inside his toque. "As for you, new boy, you will copy out the verb ridiculus sum for me twenty times."

Then, more gently:

"Come now! You'll find your cap; it hasn't been stolen!"

All was calm again. Heads bent over satchels, and for two hours the new boy's behavior continued to be exemplary, even though, from time to time, a pellet of paper fired from the nib of a pen came and splattered on his face. But he would wipe himself off with his hand and remain motionless, his eyes lowered. That evening, in Study Hall, he drew his cuff guards from his desk, put his little things in order, carefully ruled his paper. We saw him working conscientiously, looking up all the words in the dictionary and taking great pains. Thanks, no doubt, to this willingness he displayed, he did not have to go down into the lower class; for while he knew his rules passably well, he had almost no elegance in his constructions. It was the curé of his village who had started him on Latin, his parents, for reasons of economy, having delayed as long as possible sending him to school.

His father, Monsieur Charles-Denis-Bartholomé Bovary, a former assistant army surgeon, compromised, in about 1812, in some business involving conscription and forced, at about that time, to leave the service, had then profited from his personal attributes to pick up a dowry of sixty thousand francs, presented in the form of a hosier's daughter, who had fallen in love with his fine appearance. A handsome, boastful man, jingling his spurs loudly, sporting side-whiskers that merged with his mustache, his fingers always garnished with rings, and dressed in gaudy colors, he had the appearance of a valiant soldier, along with the easy enthusiasm of a traveling salesman. Once married, he lived for two or three years off his wife's fortune, dining well, rising late, smoking great porcelain pipes, coming home at night only after the theater, and haunting cafés. The father-in-law died and left little; he was indignant at this, went into manufacturing, lost some money at it, then retired to the country, where he intended to cultivate the land. But since he hardly understood farming any better than he did chintz, since he rode his horses instead of putting them to the plow, drank his cider by the bottle instead of selling it by the barrel, ate the best poultry in his yard and greased his hunting shoes with the fat of his pigs, he soon realized that it would be better to abandon all financial enterprises.

For a rent of two hundred francs a year, therefore, he found, in a village on the borders of the Caux region and Picardy, a dwelling of a sort that was half farm, half gentleman's residence; and there, morose, gnawed by regrets, railing at heaven, envying all the world, he shut himself away at the age of forty- five, disgusted with men, he said, and determined to live in peace.

His wife had been madly in love with him at one time; she had doted on him with countless slavish attentions that had estranged him from her even further. Once lively, expansive, and wholeheartedly affectionate, she had become, as she aged (like stale wine turning to vinegar), difficult in temper, shrill, nervous. She had suffered so much, without complaining at first, when she saw him running after every slut in the village and when a score of low-life places would send him back to her at night surfeited and stinking drunk! Then her pride had rebelled. She fell silent, swallowing her rage in a mute stoicism, which she maintained until her death. She was constantly out on errands, on business. She would go see the lawyers, the presiding judge, remember the due dates of the notes, obtain extensions; and, at home, she would iron, sew, wash, look after the workers, settle the accounts, while Monsieur, troubling himself about nothing, eternally sunk in a sullen torpor from which he roused himself only to say unpleasant things to her, sat smoking by the fire, spitting in the ashes.

When she had a child, he had to be put out to nurse. Back in their house, the little boy was spoiled like a prince. His mother fed him on jams; his father let him run around without shoes, and, imagining himself an enlightened thinker, even said that he could go quite naked, like the young of animals. In opposition to the mother's inclinations, he had in mind a certain manly ideal of childhood, according to which he tried to mold his son, wanting him to be brought up ruggedly, in a spartan manner, to give him a good constitution. He sent him to bed without a fire, taught him to drink great drafts of rum and to jeer at church processions. But, peaceable by nature, the boy responded poorly to his efforts. His mother kept him always trailing after her; she would cut out cardboard figures for him, tell him stories, converse with him in endless monologues, full of melancholy whimsy and beguiling chatter. In the isolation of her life, she transferred into that childish head all her sparse, shattered illusions. She dreamed of high positions, she saw him already grown, handsome, witty, established, in bridges and roads or the magistracy. She taught him to read and even, on an old piano she had, to sing two or three little ballads. But to all this, Monsieur Bovary, little concerned with literature, said it was not worth the trouble! Would they ever have enough to keep him in a state school, to buy him a practice or set him up in business? Besides, with a little nerve, a man can always succeed in the world. Madame Bovary would bite her lips, and the child would roam at will through the village.

He would follow the plowmen and drive away the crows, throwing clods of earth at them till they flew up. He would eat blackberries along the ditches, tend the turkeys with a long stick, toss the hay at harvest time, run through the woods, play hopscotch on the porch of the church on rainy days, and, on the most important holy days, beg the sexton to let him ring the bells so that he could hang with all his weight on the great rope and feel himself borne up by it in its flight.

And so he grew like an oak. He acquired strong hands, good color.

When he turned twelve, his mother saw to it that his studies were begun. The curé was entrusted with this. But the lessons were so brief and so poorly understood that they could not be of much use. They were given at idle moments, in the sacristy, standing up, in haste, between a baptism and a burial; or the curé would send for his pupil after the Angelus, when he did not have to go out. They would go up to his room, they would settle in; the gnats and moths would circle around the candle. It was warm, the child would fall asleep; and the good man, dozing off with his hands on his belly, would soon be snoring, his mouth open. At other times, when Monsieur le curé, on his way back from carrying the last sacrament to some ill person in the environs, spied Charles wandering the countryside, he would call out to him, sermonize him for a quarter of an hour, and profit from the occasion to make him conjugate a verb at the base of a tree. The rain would come and interrupt them, or an acquaintance passing by. Moreover, he was always pleased with him, even said that the young man had a good memory.

This could not be as far as Charles went. Madame was emphatic. Ashamed, or, rather, tired out, Monsieur gave in without a struggle, and they waited one more year until the boy had made his first communion.

Another six months went by; and, the following year, Charles was finally enrolled in the school in Rouen, taken there by his father himself, toward the end of October, at the time of the Saint-Romain fair.

It would be impossible by now for any of us to recall a thing about him. He was a boy of even temperament, who played at recess, worked in study hall, listening in class, sleeping well in the dormitory, eating well in the dining hall. He had as local guardian a wholesale hardware dealer in the rue Ganterie, who would take him out once a month, on a Sunday, after his shop was closed, send him off to walk along the harbor looking at the boats, then return him to the school by seven o'clock, before supper. In the evening, every Thursday, he would write a long letter to his mother, with red ink and three pats of sealing wax; then he would review his history notebooks or read an old volume of Anacharsis that was lying around in the study hall. Out walking, he would talk to the servant, who, like him, was from the country.

By dint of applying himself, he stayed somewhere in the middle of the class; once he even earned a first honorable mention in natural history. But at the end of his third year, his parents withdrew him from the school in order to have him study medicine, convinced that he would be able to go on alone to the baccalaureate.

His mother chose a room for him, on the fifth floor, overlooking the Eau de Robec, in the home of a dyer she knew. She concluded the arrangements for his room and board, procured some furniture, a table and two chairs, sent home for an old cherrywood bed, and bought, as well, a little cast-iron stove, with the supply of wood that was to warm her poor child. Then she departed at the end of the week, after a thousand injunctions to behave himself, now that he was going to be abandoned to his own care.

The curriculum, which he read on the notice board, made his head swim: a course in anatomy, a course in pathology, a course in physiology, a course in pharmacy, a course in chemistry, and one in botany, and one in clinical practice and one in therapeutics, not to mention hygiene and materia medica, names with unfamiliar etymologies that were like so many doors to sanctuaries filled with solemn shadows.

He understood none of it; though he listened, he did not grasp it. He worked nonetheless, he possessed bound notebooks, he attended all the lectures, he never missed a hospital round. He accomplished his little daily task like a mill horse, which walks in circles with its eyes covered, not knowing what it is grinding.

To spare him expense, his mother would send him each week, by the carrier, a piece of roast veal, on which he would lunch in the morning when he returned from the hospital, stamping his feet against the wall. Then he would have to hurry to his classes, in the amphitheater, in the hospital, and return home along all those streets. In the evening, after the meager dinner provided by his landlord, he would go back up to his room and back to work, his damp clothes steaming on his body, in front of the red-hot stove.

On fine summer evenings, at the hour when the warm streets are empty, when servant girls play at shuttlecock in front of their doors, he would open his window and lean on his elbows. The stream, which makes this part of Rouen into a kind of sordid little Venice, fl owed past below him, yellow, violet, or blue, between its bridges and its railings. Workmen, squatting on the bank, washed their arms in the water. On poles projecting from the tops of attics, hanks of cotton dried in the air. Across from him, beyond the rooftops, extended the great, pure sky, with the red sun going down. How good it must be out there! How cool under the beech trees! And he would open his nostrils wide to breathe in the good smells of the country, which did not reach him.

He grew thinner, his body lengthened, and his face took on a sort of plaintive expression that made it almost interesting.

Quite naturally, out of indifference, in time he released himself from all the resolutions he had made. Once he missed the hospital rounds, the next day his class, and, savoring this idleness, gradually he did not return.

He acquired the habit of going to taverns, along with a passion for dominoes. To shut himself up every night in a grimy public room, in order to tap on a marble table with little mutton bones marked with black dots, seemed to him a precious assertion of his freedom, which raised him in his own esteem. It was like an initiation into the world, an access to forbidden pleasures; and as he went in, he would put his hand on the doorknob with a joy that was almost sensual. Then many things that had been repressed in him opened up; he learned songs by heart and sang them to his lady friends, he developed an enthusiasm for Bèranger, knew how to make punch, and at last experienced love.

Owing to this preparatory work, he completely failed his public health officer's examination. They were waiting for him at home that very evening to celebrate his success!

He set off on foot and stopped at the entrance to the village, where he sent someone to get his mother, told her everything. She made excuses for him, shifting the blame for his failure to the unfairness of the examiners, and steadied him a little, taking it upon herself to sort things out. Only five years later did Monsieur Bovary know the truth; it was old by then, he accepted it, incapable, moreover, of supposing that any man descended from him could be a fool.

Charles therefore set to work again and prepared, unremittingly, the subjects for his examination, for which he learned all the questions by heart in advance. He passed with a fairly good grade. What a great day for his mother! They put on a grand dinner.

Where would he go to practice? To Tostes. There was only one elderly doctor there. For a long time, Madame Bovary had been waiting for him to die, and the old gentleman had not yet breathed his last when Charles was installed across the road, as his successor.

But it was not enough to have raised her son, seen to it that he got his medical training, and discovered Tostes for his practice: he needed a wife. She found him one: a bailiff 's widow from Dieppe, who was forty-five years old with an income of twelve hundred livres.

Although she was ugly, thin as a lath, as thick with pimples as the spring is with buds, Madame Dubuc certainly had no lack of suitors to choose from. To achieve her ends, Mère Bovary was obliged to supplant them all, and she very skillfully foiled even the intrigues of a pork butcher favored by the clergy.

Charles had foreseen in marriage the advent of a better situation, imagining that he would have more freedom and would be able to do as he liked with himself and his money. But his wife was the one in charge; in company he had to say this, not say that, eat no meat on Fridays, dress as she expected, pester at her command those clients who had not paid. She would open his letters, spy on his movements, and listen to him, through the wall, when he saw patients in his office, if they were women.

She had to have her hot chocolate every morning, she wanted endless attention. She complained incessantly about her nerves, about her chest, about her spirits. The sound of footsteps was painful to her; if people left her, the solitude would become loathsome to her; if they came back, it was to see her die, no doubt. In the evening, when Charles returned home, she would take her long, thin arms out from under her sheets, put them around his neck, and, having made him sit down on the edge of the bed, begin telling him about her troubles: he was forgetting her, he loved someone else! They had told her she would be unhappy; and she would end by asking him to give her some tonic for her health and a little more love.



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