Flaubert’s Provocation

  • Jonathan Culler Cornell University
Keywords: Madame Bovary, novel, condition of women, provincial life, narrative technique


Madame Bovary, which was scandalous in its own day for its focus on the adultery of a provincial woman, has had a strange, complex fate. Flaubert remade the image of the novelist, as pure artist, for whom style was all that mattered, and disrupted novelistic technique, in ways that critics and writers have found exemplary, treating this as the novel novelists cannot overlook; yet for readers Madame Bovary is not a “book about nothing” but provides a searing portrait of provincial life and of the condition of women. The vividness and complexity of the character Flaubert created here made Emma a type: a sufferer of “Bovarysme.” Flaubert’s revolutionary notion that a trivial subject was as good as a noble subject for a serious novel was taken to be connected to the democratic notion that every human subject is as worthy as another and allowed to have desires. Yet, while promoting Emma as a valid subject of literature, equal to others, Flaubert writes against the attempt to democratize art, to make it enter every life, and renders trivial the manifestations of this subject’s desires, while making her an exemplary figure.


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Author Biography

Jonathan Culler, Cornell University

Jonathan Culler (BA Harvard; BPhil and DPhil, Oxford), author of Flaubert: The Uses of Uncertainty (1974), was Fellow in French at Selwyn College, Cambridge, then University Lecturer and Fel­low in French at Brasenose College, Oxford, before moving to Cornell University in 1977, where he succeeded M. H. Abrams as Class of 1916 Professor of English. Former President of the American Comparative Literature Association, Chair of the New York Council for the Humanities, and Secretary of the American Council of Learned Societies, he is a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences and of the American Philosophical Society. He is the author of numerous books on contemporary critical theory, French and English, including Structuralist Poetics (1975), On Deconstruction (1983), and The Literary in Theory (2006). His Literary Theory: A Very Short Introduction (augmented edition, 2011) has been translated into 26 languages. His latest book is Theory of the Lyric.


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How to Cite
Culler, J. (2017). Flaubert’s Provocation. Text Matters: A Journal of Literature, Theory and Culture, (7), 55-70. https://doi.org/10.1515/texmat-2017-0003