The Role of Irony in Literature. A Joint Interpretation of Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" and Flaubert's "Madame Bovary"

On the Self and the Transcendent

Term Paper, 2018

13 Pages, Grade: 1,7



I. Introduction
a. Self-reflection
b. Experiential Mediated-ness

IV. Subjectivity
a. Erasure of the other
b. Lack and Loss of Self

V. Transcendence
a. Irony
b. Impersonality
c. Truth

VI. Conclusion


Gustave Flaubert’s Madame Bovary and David Foster Wallace’s Brief Interviews with Hideous Men were written nearly 150 years apart. Flaubert, on one hand, is often categorized within the tradition of realism - a label that he himself rejected - which followed a literary period of romanticism. On the other hand, Wallace, as a contemporary writer, enters a stage that is dominated by postmodern thinking. Both their writings are shaped by their critical engagement with the literary movement and social reality of their time and the protagonists of their writings are created as prototypes of the mind-set they seek to criticize through literary reflection. Due to the differences in their literary context, however, it seems natural to assume that the two writers have very different literary agendas. Flaubert appears to propose through his writings a radical dissociation in face of and opposition to both the escapist tendencies of romantic novels and the reality of bourgeois society of his time, whereas Wallace criticizes the exact tendency of ironic dissociation as they have become rife in post-modern literature.

By drawing on an existing study on existentialist engagement in Wallace’s oeuvre to make a connection to Madame Bovary, this essay will argue for and examine the similarity of the problems illuminated in the two works as they both deal with the relation between the sense of self and the acknowledgment of a transcendent reality. The focus will be on Madame Bovary. At first sight, the ironic character of Madame Bovary appears to be susceptible to Wallace’s criticism of irony. I will show that, despite his use of irony, Flaubert is ultimately as committed to recognizing a transcendent reality through his writing.

II. The Self

The failure of Emma Bovary and several characters of Wallace’s short stories lies in their solipsistic subjectivity which leads to illusory concepts of their selves and the reality outside of them.

The individual human being is recognized in his individuality by possessing a distinct, unique self. The self is characterized i.a. by a set of values that this individual has adopted for himself and can be changed, a sense of continuity of thoughts and actions that are perceived to be performed by himself and the dimension of consciousness through which the self can relate to and interact with itself, other selves and the world.

Human interaction can at the same time reinforce and reject the necessity of the self.1 This dichotomy is illuminated through the dominant theme of self-alienation which can have two different causes: the propensity to hyper-reflection in which the self is trapped in self­definition in exclusion of an other and the propensity to rely too heavily on an other for self­identification.

III. Solipsism

a. Self-reflection

As the focus of the character’s perception is on themselves rather than on the external world, a great part of the happenings take place within their consciousness. Consciousness can be defined as the conscious experience of oneself and the world, e.g. pain. A crucial difference between Emma and Wallace’s characters lies in the extent to which their self-perception is conscious and how strong their tendency to self-reflection is.

Self-reflection happens when

“subsequently, in reflection consciousness turns back on that experience, making the experience as such the object of consciousness, reflecting on it (what does the pain feel like [...]; finally, in self-reflection (or: reflexivity) consciousness turns its attention towards itself, towards the consciousness that ‘has’ that experience and that performs the reflection upon it - so, it turns in on the conscious feeling the pain [...].2

Self-reflection can become pathological when consciousness becomes trapped in constant thinking about itself. A feeling of doubt as to the correctness of the self-perception leads to a constant overthinking and questioning of perception and thinking themselves. In order to be as objective as possible, the conscious self tries to distance itself from its thinking by distancing itself from itself so that the self is no longer experienced immediately, but as if it were an external object. This problematic form of self-consciousness can be called “hyper- reflexivity”.3

Hyper-reflexivity is damaging to the self as abstract thinking draws a person away from her relation to other people and the world.4 It evokes the illusion that the self can be understood without reference to anything from outside of itself and thus leads a person to lose contact and cut herself off from other people. As Sartre says, consciousness makes itself an object by reflection i.e. it will regard itself as a fixed being that precedes (and is therefore independent) of all relations to the world and others.5

A form of hyper-reflexivity can be observed in the main characters of The Depressed Person.6

The depressed person is unable to express her immediate feelings of pain. In her effort to find a way, she tries to resort to the description of causes and situations that are linked to her experience. They fail to convey, however, and in her desperation, the depressed person’s signified objects and signifying language become more and more abstract and therefore less and less adequate to relate to her immediate pain. It is, however, not only her own experience which is over-thought but also her relation to her therapist and the members of her Support System, as well as their experience of the depressed person. The fear of not being able to establish a genuine connection to these conversation partners, as well as being a burden on them, lead to a vicious circle of reflection that counterproductively leaves her completely alienated from them as it makes it impossible for her to focus on anything other than her own self.7 In her self-absorption, she unable to recognize them as anything other than objects for her use. Her conversation partners are called and seen as “members of the Support System” for her and are never referred to as friends (with the explanatory introduction as an exception). Just how blind her self-absorption has become is made clear by her perception of her therapist’s death, which is experienced purely with reference to her own mental well-being.8

b. Experiential Mediated-ness

Experiences are mediated when objects are not experienced first-hand but indirectly through a medium that brings them to the consciousness, e.g. books.9

In Think10, the narrative includes thoughts of the male character. He has difficulties to respond immediately to what is happening and instead finds himself reflectively observing his situation. In order to distance himself from it, he begins to relate his perception of the woman to various forms of media: The woman’s smile becomes clichéd through his comparison with the impersonal display of a magazine photo, her act of closing the doors loses its specific significance as a mere replay of a movie, and her seductiveness becomes less threatening in this specific situation by viewing it as an image (photo).

According to Wallace, “mediated experiences become an enormous frame of reference, on the basis of which individuals watch, compare and direct their own, personal experience”. The prevalence of mediated experience is partly a cause for reflexivity since people start to experience experiences.11

The case with Emma seems to be significantly different. Her mediated experience of herself and the outside world can hardly be described as “conscious”, as she does not seem to waste any thoughts on the way she perceives herself. If introspection is characterized as leading to regard of oneself as consisting of unique and private contents (Sartre)12, then Emma’s problem is that she is not capable of introspection. She is unable “of believing in anything that did not present itself in the accepted forms”13. For her, the very words are the reality of experience.14 She has no means of interpreting them in an individual way; similarly, she cannot relate to her concrete desires but through clichés. Semiotically speaking, the connection between the literary signifiers and the significants in reality are arbitrary, but Emma understands them as natural, so that she is unable to recognize love, for instance, if it does not appear to her with all the conventional signs that constitute it in fiction.15

Emma is therefore constantly impositioning fictional images over the external world, even over the most natural things as love. In her relationship with Léon, both are incapable of perceiving the other except through clichés and literary templates.16

Kierkegaard calls this form of experiences “recollection”. Recollection means the employing of certain ideal images that precede real events to which reality should be matched to understand those real events. This idealized version of reality is regarded as real and therefore recorded and recalled in this way, as Emma’s memories of La Vaubyessard and her lovers.17

As Emma’s experience is mediated to a great part by her reading of literature, her perception of herself and others is determined largely by language. Language, as determining the self, can have an alienating effect.18 As famously asserted by Wittgenstein, the limits of one’s language mean the limits of one’s world.19

Emma’s language is ridden with clichés and her tragedy is partly caused by her misunderstanding and misuse of words. She is looking out for love her whole life, but will never understand Charles’s love towards her just because he does not use the same clichéd language of love as her.20 This is why she finds temporary satisfaction in her relationships with Léon and Rodolphe - Léon expresses himself genuinely in a similar fashion, while Rodolphe has enough experience to know how to use words to seduce Emma.

Flaubert makes it clear that genuine communication and relation between Emma and another character is always disconnected to the use of language. He satirizes the conversation between Emma and Léon in which they talk about sunsets and reading by the fire while emphasizing that there is a genuine connection made that is hidden behind the superficial layer of words.21 A real connection with Rodolphe by contrast, is not possible, as Emma is not able to see Rodolphe outside of the novelistic discourse he masters so well. In her listening to him, she is trapped in the language she expects and in which she imagines him. Conversation is reduced to an exchange of monologues which consist of particular frames of language the individuals create for themselves.22

Against this, silence is presented as expressive. A real connection seems to be established during Charles’s first meetings with Emma in silence. Flaubert explicitly lets the reader know that out of all people that Emma has a relationship with, Charles loves her the most and he also grieves in the most sincere way after her death, without any words. Although Emma complains about his lack of understanding in her attempts of conversing with him, it seems that in the end, when he prepares for her funeral, he has in fact understood her.23

IV. Subjectivity

Just as the depressed person sees others as objects because she sees herself as an object, Emma insists on seeing others as figures of her literary fantasies because she wants to see herself as a literary figure. This form of subjective perception of reality is characterized by Kierkegaard: “subjectivity became the infinite, absolute negativity.” For the subjective person, true actuality is completely ignored as she is only interested in her own “ideality”. Everything is subjected to the person’s fantasy and desire.


1 Cf. Clare Hayes-Brady (2016): The Unspeakable Failures of David Foster Wallace. Language, Identity and Resistance, London: Bloomsbury, p. 18.

2 Allard den Dulk (2015): Existentialist Engagement in Wallace, Eggers and Foer. A Philosophical Analysis of Contemporary American Literature, New York: Bloomsbury Academic, p. 26.

3 Cf. loc. cit.

4 Cf. den Dulk (2015), p. 27.

5 Cf. loc. cit., p. 41.

6 The following refers to: David F. Wallace (2001): Brief Interviews with Hideous Men, London: Abacus, pp. 31-58.

7 Cf. loc. cit., p. 57.

8 Cf. Hayes-Brady (2016), p. 4, 134.

9 Cf. den Dulk (2015), p. 32.

10 The following refers to: Wallace (2001), pp. 61,62.

11 Cf. den Dulk (2015), pp. 33, 34.

12 Cf. loc. cit. p. 45.

13 Gustave Flaubert, Alan Russell (1950): Madame Bovary. A story of provincial life, Harmondsworth: Penguin.

14 Cf. Stephen Heath (1992): Gustave Flaubert. Madame Bovary, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 76.

15 Cf. Harold Bloom (1988): Gustave Flaubert's Madame Bovary, New York: Chelsea House, p. 33.

16 Cf. Rosemary Lloyd (1990): Madame Bovary, London: Unwin Hyman, pp. 94, 96.

17 Cf. den Dulk (2015), p. 214.

18 Cf. loc. cit. p. 45.

19 Cf. Hayes-Brady (2016), p. 114.

20 Cf. Diana Knight (1985): Flaubert's Characters. The Language of Illusion, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, p. 32.

21 Cf. loc. cit. p. 47.

22 Cf. Heath (1992), p. 129.

23 Knight (1985), pp. 31,33, 49.

Excerpt out of 13 pages


The Role of Irony in Literature. A Joint Interpretation of Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" and Flaubert's "Madame Bovary"
On the Self and the Transcendent
University of Cambridge  (Faculty of Divinity)
Religious Themes in Literature
Catalog Number
ISBN (eBook)
ISBN (Book)
Ironie, Realismus, Postmoderne, David Foster Wallace, Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
Quote paper
Céline Sun (Author), 2018, The Role of Irony in Literature. A Joint Interpretation of Wallace's "Brief Interviews with Hideous Men" and Flaubert's "Madame Bovary", Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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