Exploring the orthodoxy of maleness

September 8, 2000

In an extended introduction to this vigorous essai á thèse , Mary Orr identifies her approach as incorporating a range of late 20th-century perspectives on gender with insights derived from the 1804 Code Napoleon, as a means of avoiding both naivety and anachronism in her interpretation of the masculine in the novels of Flaubert.

The governing premise is that Flaubert is a writer in whose oeuvre the male protagonists are accorded primacy of interest, in a complex range of manifestations that compositely afford an unflinching critique of French 19th-century masculinity. Orr's main brief is to assess the modes of being male, in conformity with or in opposition to masculine orthodoxies, rather than in relation to the role of women.

Orr proposes that individual chapters can be taken independently from the whole, and indeed offers them, irenically perhaps to those not committed to gender studies, as discrete readings of the successive fictions, with her concerns ranging well beyond a single interpretative grid (which is indeed largely absent from - or at least eclipsed in - the chapter on La Tentation de Saint Antoine ). On the other hand, her concluding synthesis is just that, bringing together the strands of her analysis.

She posits the existence of two masculine categories in the novels: that of strong patriarchs, implying as a corollary the existence of sacrificed daughters; and, more intriguingly, that of men who demonstrate non-conformity to masculine stereotypes through either unmasculine or over-masculine traits and, in particular, through their anti-patriarchal search for authenticity. Going beyond this, Orr shows how Flaubert as author destroys such figures (signally Mâtho in Salammbô and Charles Bovary in Madame Bovary ) "for daring to demask the false face of patriarchy"; and,vitally in a study of a writer who famously considered that " la bêtise consiste à vouloir conclure ", proposes further fertile areas for exploration.

At the outset, Orr conducts a subtle rehabilitation of the much-maligned figure of Charles Bovary, as a flawed exemplum of the partner in a democratic marriage, explored in terms of the banalisation of marital life,in distinction to its more conventional status as the culminating point of a romantic narrative; and thereafter, in a similarly fresh account of L'Education Sentimentale , examines the homosocial nature of the secular fraternity in which Frédéric is implicated, a concept that then receives its Christian variant in the confrerie, now perceived as temptation, in La Tentation de Saint Antoine . Elsewhere one could single out Orr's convincing account of the much-dissected Trois Contes , read as adult fairy tales, in which the most bestial protagonists are male humans, and in inverse order, as exploring the head ( Hérodias ), body (with the same-sex embrace in La Légende de Saint Julien l'Hospitalier as the climax) and finally heart ( Un Coeur Simple ), in an interpretation that is engaging for its simplicity and humanity.

There follows an assertively homosexual reading of the unfinished and wilfully dystopian Bouvard et Pécuchet as the "mausoleum of masculine achievement". What strongly emerges is the historical context, most notably in considering the dilemma faced by the post-revolutionary male, seeking an authentic masculinity in a democratic society, yet casting into question the dehumanising implications of soi-disant progress.

Where the reader may feel short-changed is in the relative paucity of quotation from the Code Napoléon, which is limited to just two or three excerpts late in the book. More fundamentally, it could be argued that Flaubert's fictive creations are accorded on occasion an excessive degree of historical reality, despite the author's pre-emptive fielding of that potential criticism. The writing is dense and sometimes technical, but clear and precise, and the range of secondary reference is impressive. On the down side, the punning and onomastic play end up grating, and the contemporary parallels (which are already in part out of date) do not always carry the argument convincingly into the present.

Overall, however, this is a rigorous and persuasive piece of criticism, full of asides and tangents, and yet firm in the marshalling of its primary thesis. Yet, that thesis is unwaveringly bleak, and introduces the reader to a particularly nihilistic Flaubert, in whose writing, for all the variant masculinities, the absence of the sympathetically drawn woman is symptomatic of the absence of all aspects of "the reproductive and regenerative forces of life".

Richard Parish is professor of French, University of Oxford.

Flaubert: Writing the Masculine

Author - Mary Orr
ISBN - 0 19 815969 2
Publisher - Oxford University Press
Price - £45.00
Pages - 239

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