In this essay I would like to discuss Gustave Flaubert's approach to family life in Madame Bovary, in particular how he uses familial scenes to explore questions of identity. I would then like to move on to Emile Zola's depiction of bourgeois life in Germinal, and discuss how he creates symbolic contrasts between this class and the family lives of the working-class miners.
Emma Bovary's search for personal identity arises from dissatisfaction at her humdrum provincial existence, an existence in which she is subordinated to a man whom she considers mediocre, a man who fulfils few of the romantic notions she has absorbed through childhood readings of authors such as Walter Scott. Her subordination is reflected by the very structure of the novel: the life of her husband Charles 'frames the story of his wife' as a possible 'gesture of enclosure and control' (Madame Bovary [Introduction], Wall, 1992); the novel does not reveal any insights into Emma's history and psychology until she is married and her disillusionment has begun.
Before Emma's adulterous and ultimately suicidal quest for fulfilment begins, however, Flaubert presents a chapter - almost like a short story - which tells us of the Bovary household as Charles grows from baby to man. His father is presented as a drunken wastrel, his mother an overbearing neurotic, their marriage a sham which reverses, in gender terms, the future marriage of their son - 'she had loved him with a servility that had turned him against her all the more' (Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p.4). They pamper their son, cushioning his progress until he emerges as a mediocre but respectable doctor. His mother even arranges his first marriage, to a clinging hypochondriac. Flaubert tells this story with a rich vein of irony to highlight the hypocrisies and cliches of a bourgeois upbringing, his mother being described as 'accomplishing a plan', his passing medical exams described as 'a great day for his mother' (Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p.8). When the elder Bovarys turn on their daughter-in-law upon their discovering that her apparent wealth is a facade, the novel's English translator amusingly uses alliteration of the letter 'h' to portray their indignant huffing and puffing: 'hitching... up to that harridan, whose harness wasn't worth her hide' (Flaubert, Madame Bovary, p.15).
Charles' second marriage, to Emma, is accomplished without interference from his parents, but this leads to a resentment against her, a prejudice which Emma reciprocates, although of course the linguistic facade of good relations is maintained: '...each woman uttering sweet words in a voice trembling with anger'. The elder Madame Bovary views her son's love for his wife as 'an encroachment on what was her property' (p.33). With this description, Flaubert emphasises the materialistic nature of the bourgeoisie, even in terms of their relationships with their children... and Charles' failure to take sides, to take responsibility for familial decisions, shows his continuing weakness and fuels his new wife's discontent.
When Emma falls pregnant with her own child, she experiences mixed emotions. Projecting her romantic materialism onto the forthcoming event, she finds her wishes financially restricted and, consequently, her affection was 'perhaps... somewhat impaired'. She wishes the child to be a boy, seeing in this a way to redeem her own disappointments. Flaubert uses this wish to reveal Emma's feelings about her unrealised romantic ambitions, to show that the delivery of a son 'was like an anticipated revenge for the powerlessness of her past... a man, at least, is free... a woman is constantly thwarted' (p.70). When the child is born a girl, Emma 'turned aside and passed out' (p.70). While this is a natural enough consequence of the exertions of childbirth, Flaubert highlights the symbolic importance of the sentence by elevating it into a paragraph. Emma is rejecting the child, seeing once again the thwarting of her romantic expectations.
Flaubert uses the baby to show the contradictions of petit bourgeois parenting; despite the fuss made over choosing a name, and the elaborate christening ceremony, we learn quite matter-of-factly that the child has been put out to a wet-nurse, a slovenly working-class woman who keeps a house where Emma is compelled to wipe her feet as she leaves.
She is torn between maternal feelings for her child, and rejection of the same due to her frustration. Rejection on one occasion leads to the child receiving an injury, and this is followed by Emma tending to her like a dutiful mother, although Flaubert does not specify whether this later action is caused by guilt, concern or fear. As the baby lies sleeping after its trauma, Emma can only wonder at its ugliness. In this scene of different attitudes and changeable behaviour, the heroine herself is described with multiple titles\; variously Emma, Madame Bovary, the young woman... all contributing to her crisis of identity. The scene is followed by a description of the Homais children, offspring of the Bovarys' pharmacist neighbour, and of how '...these good parents took every sort of precaution' (p.93). Flaubert shows this as a contrast to Emma's carelessness yet also shows it ironically, as the Homais parents are protective to a ridiculous degree.
At the end of Emma's life, as she lays dying, she believes herself free of her torments and asks to see her daughter, but the child sees her in her weakened state as a fairytale monster: 'Oh, what big eyes you have, Mummy!' (p.261). In her fear, she struggles and draws back from her parent. Emma, who has spent her life rejecting the stale predictability of her family and its petit bourgeois existence, is finally rejected herself.
While Flaubert portrays the cliched banalities of bourgeois existence, Zola introduces bourgeois families in Germinal which contrast with each other as well as the working-class mining families. The Gregoires consist of two doting parents, their daughter, and a small retaiment of servants, a 'patriarchal regime, a cosy family affair, the small community lived in harmony' (Zola, Germinal, p.76). Their life seems idyllic, they live together in love and happiness, even the servants dote on the pampered but innocent daughter Cecile. We learn that the families fortune is derived from shares in the Montsou mine.
Two key scenes in Germinal display the nature of the relationship between the Gregoires and the miners. The first details a visit to the Gregoires from La Maheude. The visit takes place shortly after the contrasting descriptions of the Gregoire and Maheu families' morning routines: while the former eat brioche in a house 'snug and warm, and not a sound... to disturb the silence' (p.78), the latter have to contend with 'nothing, not a crust, no leftovers, not a bone to gnaw' and 'coffee so weak it looked like dishwater' (p.87).
It is Cecile Gregoire who is entrusted with the charity. The Gregoire philosophy on charity is described in free indirect speech, and they believe 'that their house is God's refuge for the needy' (p.92), although they donate food and clothes rather than money, which they fear will be squandered on drink. The Gregoires are sympathetic, but seem to look upon the condition of the miners as a kind of 'idealised' poverty, and shown in the expression 'Monsieur Gregoire looked dreamily at this pitiful woman and her children' (p.94). As they are sentimental about their daughter, they are sentimental about the workers, ignorant of the desperation of poverty, cradled 'in their contented slumbers'. Cecile's final gift to the young Maheu children is two pieces of brioche wrapped in newspaper. While this gift is made with goodwill and a genuine desire to be charitable, it is also ironic insofar that it echoes the famous Marie Antoinette remark, "Let them eat cake". The blindness of the aristocracy to the plight of the peasants led to the Revolution; the echoes of that history being played out in Cecile's innocent gift foreshadows the miners' strike and its bloody, fatal confrontations.
The second scene occurs toward the end of the novel, and once again concerns the charitable deeds of the Gregoires. On this occasion they have left their comfortable home to visit the mining village, and Cecile is briefly and fatally left alone with old Bonnemort, whose very name carries connotations of death. Zola contrasts the two, displaying at the same time the differences between these two classes, the girl 'plump and fresh from her life of leisure and generations of comfortable luxury', the old man 'showing the deplorable ugliness of a race of worn-out beasts, destroyed... by a hundred years of toil and starvation' (p.490). Bonnemort's murder of the girl is symbolic, as the lives of her parents have also been destroyed, and the family line of the Gregoires has been ended; the bourgeoisie halted by the working-class.
Two other middle-class families appear in the novel, the Deneulins and the Hennebeaus. Zola uses these families also to emphasise bourgeois contradictions. Deneulin, father of two daughters, 'is presented as a courageous and hard-working manager, who has lost out to forces larger than himself' (Walder, Realisms, p.397). He too is ultimately portrayed as a victim, a victim of capitalism as represented by the Company.
The Hennebeaus are the most complex of the bourgeois families in Germinal. They consist of Monsieur Hennebeau, his wife and a nephew Negrel, who is expected to marry Cecile Gregoire. Madame Hennebeau has never attempted 'to understand this race of workers' (p.107); she takes bourgeois friends upon tours of the mining villages, and they seem to wilfully ignore the poverty they see. As one gentleman exclaims, "It's El Dorado! The promised land!" (p.106). Zola portrays wilful bourgeois ignorance here, but with a touch of irony: El Dorado and the Promised Land are aspirations rather than physical realities, and despite her 'talking up' of the miners' living conditions, Mme Hennebeau is quickly 'repelled by the stale odour of poverty' (p.107). She is also the character utilised by Zola to show hypocrisy in bourgeois moral standards, as she is conducting a secret and incestuous affair with her nephew Negrel while also trying to arrange his marriage to Cecile. Her husband, aware of this affair, keeps quiet but is sexually frustrated, and - despite his bourgeois comfort - envies the miners their sexual freedom. However, he too partakes of a calculating and hypocritical nature: although outwardly friendly to Deneulin, he is more than willing to see his friend lose his mine for the benefit of the Company, and he sees an advantage to Cecile's murder in the fact that it will be easier to keep his eye on his wife and Negrel.
The mining families, represented by the Maheus, are portrayed in a bestial and desperate condition, their principal reason for having children being to increase their meagre income from the mines. When Catherine departs to live with Chaval, her mother's reason for complaint is the drop in income. The lives of the mining families are portrayed as a perpetual grind of poverty, labour and premature death which continues for generations: the implications of the cycle can be seen in the behaviour of the village children, acting as nascent families. When the young playmates Bebert and Lydie are killed when the soldiers open fire, Zola writes that Bebert 'embrace his little wife' as he dies.
Flaubert, Gustave Madame Bovary, ed: Geoffrey Wall, 1992, Penguin, London
Zola, Emile Germinal, trans: Collier, Peter, 1993, Oxford World's Classics, Oxford
Walder, Dennis, Germinal:Zola and the Political Novel in Da Sousa Correa, Delia (ed) The Nineteenth Century Novel: Realisms, 2000, Routledge, London