A Flower For My Love: Color Symbolism in Madame Bovary
Thomas J. Tobin
Many critics have raised the issue of Gustave Flaubert’s sense of structure and style in Madame Bovary, Elaine Showalter foremost among them. Showalter argues in Sexual Anarchy that Flaubert’s novel is a great stylistic achievement, in that Flaubert is a feminist writer, even though a man in the decidedly phallocentric Nineteenth Century (175). A side-note of her argument, one which she posits and then leaves as unprofitable, is that Flaubert “built, rather than wrote, Madame Bovary, so artfully is it put together” (176). Each part of the novel has its place; each chapter can stand as a whole. The book is, therefore, a string of connected vignettes. Showalter leaves it at that--that the novel is a unit in its entirety--and returns to her critique.
I wish to pursue the argument left undeveloped by Showalter; what exactly is the thread which holds these chapters together, aside from their being about the same group of characters?1 I find that this thread comes in many colors; it is, in fact, the symbolism of color and its effects throughout the novel that creates parallels between episodes otherwise disconnected. The same sorts of colors appear in the same sorts of situations, and indicate characters’ moods. Much has been said, especially by Stephen Heath in his 1992 study of Madame Bovary, about the omnipresence of the color yellow in the novel. However, Flaubert also used other colors--red and green, especially--to signal general changes in mood and tone. More particularly, Flaubert uses flowers as the vehicle for his color symbolism, anticipating in 1856 the theories of the Impressionist painters who would begin to “build” their paintings in France in the 1870s. Wherever flowers appear in Madame Bovary, their color and place of appearance reliably indicate the general mood of the scene at hand.
Mood and Tone Through Color
In general, Flaubert uses color as a major part of his framework in setting up the moods and tones prevalent throughout the novel. The work’s many subtle changes in atmosphere occur in passages where color is described. Albert Béguin comments in his “Relire Madame Bovary” that “the color metaphors . . . gave [these passages] a particularly intense poetic quality” (160).
The catalogue of colors is evident in the following description, cut against Flaubert’s wishes from the passage concerning the Bovarys’ trip to Vaubyessard. Emma looks through a stained glass window, and Flaubert describes the mood each color evokes:
She found herself in a room covered with blue wallpaper. . . . Two canoes waited behind this green cabin. Through the blue pane everything seemed sad and pure. She put her eye to the green pane. Everything was green, [and] the shadows were all black. How pretty it looked, and yet how foreboding! In front of the red glass. . . the stream flowed like a rose-colored river, the peat-covered flower beds seemed to be seas of coagulated blood, and the sky blazed with innumerable fires. She became frightened. (Cor. 2: 270)
Flaubert was livid at having this passage cut from his work because it explained the moods which corresponded to each color. He was worried, he says in another letter to Léon Laurant-Pichat, that the average reader was not sophisticated enough to catch the intricacies of his symbols unaided. Laurant-Pichat obviously thought otherwise, and this cut alone was finally allowed by Flaubert (Cor. 2: 325).
Red and Green
The two most often-described colors in the book are red and green. Opposites in the spectrum, these colors function as harbingers of opposing moods. Red things in the book signal passages dealing with the dangerous, the sinful. Contrarily, green flags the rich and ambivalent; those who are most kind to Emma are often dressed in green, which is itself a symbolic aspiration to perfection, to Nature. Red and green almost always occur individually; when they appear together, it is to signify a moment of great tension, or a weighty decision about to be made.
Red appears at the turning points of Madame Bovary. It is a warning that there may be sneaky doings afoot, as in the scene in Part One at Vaubyessard. This is the first time that we see Emma in the refined world to which she aspires, and it is filled with the warning flags of red. The guests already at the party are described simply as “wigs resting on the powdered shoulders of red coats” (34), and the main course of dinner is served with red wines and “the red claws of lobsters” (34). The marquis’ father-in-law, ridden with syphilis, is an especially forceful example of the consistent warning expressed by red. With his “bloodshot eyes” (34) and red-splotched complexion, the old man’s condition implies all the dangers of the high-society life for which Emma longs. Even Emma herself partakes of the warning when she watches the peasants outside Vaubyessard’s windows while eating a “maraschino ice . . . in a silver-gilt cup” (37).
While she does not pay heed to the warnings strewn throughout the novel, Emma Bovary is especially keen to the instances wherein green appears in the novel. In opposition to the warning of red, green symbolizes richness, luxury, sensuality, and the secretive mystery of ambivalent Nature. Grass, trees, and the rest of nature bloom in green when Emma satisfies her desires with Rodolphe in the woods during her horse-riding constitutional:
In the avenue a green light dimmed by the leaves lit up the short moss that crackled softly beneath her feet. The sun was setting: the sky showed red between the branches. (32)
Though there is a description of the warning-red of the sunset, it is blocked, subjugated by the overpowering lushness of green Nature. This passage in particular introduces the duality of Emma’s desire, which is at once both dangerous to her and yet fulfilling. It combines the warning and the pleasure in a single thought, mixing the effects of the two colors.
An instance of green alone is after the party at Vaubyessard, when Emma finds the viscomte’s cigar case (39). The embroidered green case symbolizes the possible realization of all of the fantastic plots Emma had secretly read while at the convent. The second symbol is Rodolphe’s coat. Emma first sees him as “a gentleman in a green coat” (91). These scenes are tied together when Emma gives the cigar case to Rodolphe, drawing the parallel between the real rake, Rodolphe, and the idealized lover, the viscomte (137).
Red and green, along with other colors already mentioned, appear most frequently in Flaubert’s use of flowers to convey symbolic meaning. Red roses obviously connote warnings; white daisies stand for innocence and purity; other flowers function according to their colors and the places where they appear in the novel. Flaubert uses flowers to fine-tune, as it were, his already-established general moods. Emma’s and Charles’ wedding, Rodolphe’s inspection of old love letters, the ball at Vaubyessard, Emma burning her wedding bouquet, the descriptions of Emma’s trysts: all of these are instances in which Flaubert uses flowers to subtly enhance the tone of his passages.
The first flowers in Madame Bovary appear very early, emaphasizing tone. It is no surprise that the color emphasized is green. Charles sees, in this passage, “a pear tree in bloom, radiantly green” (15), and soon thereafter finds out about the death of his first wife. The green of the pear tree foreshadows Charles’ liberation from his oppressive first wife. Considering his next wife, it is interesting to note that no flowers appear in the place we would most expect them: Charles’ and Emma’s wedding. In this omission, Flaubert predicts the future hollowness of the Bovarys’ marriage. In places in the scene where flowers might be, we instead see artificial things. Elegant paper-and-cardboard constructions adorn the wedding cake, and the guests wear ribbons and medallions instead of the usual corsages (24-28 ff.).
Flaubert consistently uses flower imagery to set a scene’s mood. D. L. Demorest, in his chapter “Imagery in Madame Bovary,” points out that “there are a certain number of actions or attitudes which could be cited here. For example Rodolphe . . . at the moment when he is about to abandon Emma, opens an old box in which he keeps his love letters from various ladies, and as he does so, ‘an odor of withered roses emanated from it’” (285). This example illustrates how Rodolphe’s falsity toward Emma is finally expressed: in the scent of long-dead roses. The death of the flowers foreshadows Emma’s own suicide, as we shall see when we return to this example later.
A third instance in which flowers appear is the ball at Vaubyessard. Emma wears “three bouquets of pompon roses” (35) on her dress. We also see “gentlemen with carnations in their buttonholes. . . talking to ladies round the fire” (34). The hair of many of the women at the ball “bore crowns, or bunches, or sprays of myosotis, jasmine, pomegranate flowers, [and] wheat sprays” (36). The red of the carnations in the buttonholes of the men is echoed in the red of the myosotis and pomegranate flowers, which links them together as warnings to Emma about the grimness and selfishness beneath the veneer of their “high society.” The white jasmine flowers represent this veneer of purity and gentility.
Demorest comments on another of Flaubert’s uses of flowers. In particular, Demorest makes use of the scene in which Emma burns her wedding bouquet. He sees this passage as a foreshadowing of Emma’s eventual dissatisfaction with life, and her suicide. In support of my own arguments, Demorest calls to mind this passage:
One day, when, in view of her departure, she was tidying a drawer, something pricked her finger. It was a wire of her wedding bouquet. The orange blossoms were yellow with dust and the silver-bordered satin ribbons were frayed at the edges. She threw it into the fire. . . . The shriveled paper petals, fluttering like black butterflies at the back of the stove, at last flew up the chimney. (283)
Demorest sees the flowers as representative of Emma’s body, her physical person. I would add that the flowers are paper. To return for a moment to Emma’s wedding, let us remember the “artificial” quality of the wedding. Now, when we finally do see the floral symbol of her marriage, we find that it too is artificial, made of paper. This passage also denotes Emma’s growing ennui toward the artificial, hollow institution of marriage itself. What she does not yet realize is that the flowers are also her spirit: Emma’s self-immolation is here played out in miniature, both physically as Demorest suggests, and mentally. Her mental torture is not only at her own hands, but at that of her lovers.
Every time Emma meets her lovers, the flowers described set the tone of the entire scene. Rodolphe’s scenes are short, but very telling, if we pay attention the flowers which appear in them. For instance, when Emma meets Rodolphe at the agricultural fair, they spy some daisies. Rodolphe gives away his intentions when he says “Here are some pretty Easter daisies, and enough to provide oracles for all the lovers in the vicinity. . . . Shall I pick some?” (98). Emma replies, trapped in his sham, “Are you in love?” (98). By suggesting the divinatory use to which the daisies may be put, Rodolphe skillfully plants (no pun intended) fantasies of true love in Emma’s mind. The next time Rodolphe appears, Emma places some roses in a vase. These roses set the tone of apprehension and warning for the scene, as evinced by Rodolphe’s hesitant reply to Emma’s profession of undying love (108 ff.).
Léon, however, is described by more floral images than is Rodolphe. Before Léon meets Emma at the cathedral, he looks about the street and sees “the flowers that bordered the pavement: roses, jasmines, carnations, narcissus, and tuberoses” (172). These red and white flowers signal both a warning and an ironic comment on the “purity” of the seduction which Léon is planning. During their tour of the cathedral, Léon and Emma “breathed in the perfumes of the full-blown carnations and roses in the large vases” (174). The tone has changed from one of warning and wry comment to one composed solely of red--the last warning for Emma before her wild carriage ride with Léon.
Emma’s lovers can be interpreted through the flowers we associate with them, but Emma cannot. Like her marriage, her death-scene is conspicuous for its lack of floral signifiers. It seems that the major points of Emma’s life--her marriage, her infidelities with Léon and Rodolphe, and her death--are the only times when she is not surrounded by flowers. This absence of meaning-giving symbols suggests that Flaubert portrays Emma’s life as one of trivialities and shallow relationships.
It is this final irrelevance of Emma’s life which brings Flaubert full circle; if he did not talk explicitly of character, then structure necessarily superseded it as the core of the novel. Color, then, plays a central role in setting mood and tone in the larger units of Madame Bovary, while flowers clarify and amplify these color symbols in the shorter passages of the novel. Flaubert’s use of colors and flower imagery allows the reader to anticipate the tone of the passage being read, and thus to read each of them with a pre-informed eye. This guideline, as it were, for the reader reveals to a great extent the exacting sense of style Flaubert used in “building” his book, and also illustrates his painstaking attention to detail and symmetry in Madame Bovary.
1 To illustrate further the idea that Madame Bovary
was “built,” consider this passage from Harry Levin in his essay “Madame Bovary
: The Cathedral and the Hospital”:
The chapter, as Flaubert uses it, is in itself a distinctive literary genre. Its opening is ordinarily a clear-cut designation of time or place. Its conclusion habitually entails some striking effect: a pertinent image, an epigrammatic twist, a rhetorical question, a poignant afterthought. . . . The succession of episodes, like the articulation of a rosary
, shapes the continuity of the work. (417)
This commitment to style was so great that Flaubert would not allow his publishers to cut any of the material he sent them. Madame Bovary
was published as a serial, and Flaubert’s editors claimed license to cut what they saw as scandalous or in bad taste (Hurt & Wilkie 1138). In a letter to Léon Laurent-Pichat in 1856, Flaubert blasts the editorial decisions of Laurent-Pichat’s Revue de Paris
I consider that I have already done a great deal, and you consider that I should do still more. I will do nothing
; I will not make a correction, not a cut; I will not suppress a comma; nothing, nothing! . . . By omitting the passage about the cab
, you have not made the story a whit less shocking; and you will accomplish no more by the cuts you ask for in the sixth installment.
You object to details, whereas you should object to the whole. The brutal element is basic, not incidental. Negroes cannot be made white, and you cannot change a book’s blood. All you can do is to weaken it. (Cor. 2: 320)
Other support of the view that the novel is built comes from Harry Levin, again from “The Cathedral and the Hospital.” He goes one step further in his analysis of Flaubert’s strict adherence to style, and argues convincingly that Madame Bovary
is a craftily constructed series of interwoven symbols and recurring motifs (411). He stresses that “such effects are governed by a rigorous process of selection” (412). Levin also concludes that the symbolism in the novel is based on objects
, is grounded in the materialistic aspects of the novel’s events, and is based on colors representative of mood and tone (412).