How Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" transports us into an imaginary universe

Seminar Paper, 2005

23 Pages, Grade: 2,0


Table of Contents

1. Introduction

2. Why Madame Bovary ?

3. Cognitive Poetics Applied: The Contextual Frame Theory in Practice
3.1. The inductive approach
3.2. The deductive approach

4. Discussion
4.1. World knowledge
4.2. Inferences

5. Emotions and feelings

6. Introspection

7. Contextual frame theory and emotions

8. The transportation of the reader into an imaginary universe

9. Conclusion


Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary (Extracts) – Arranged according to order of discussion

1. Introduction

And indeed, what is better than to sit by one’s fireside in the evening with a book, while the wind beats against the window and the lamp is burning? … One thinks of nothing … the hours slip by. Motionless we traverse countries we fancy we see, and your thought, blending with the fiction, playing with the details, follows the outline of the adventures. It mingles with the characters, and it seems as if it were yourself palpitating beneath their costumes.

(Madame Bovary, part II, chapter 2)

This quotation elegantly sums up what reading literature should be like: most enjoyable. We find people reading on the train, at the bus stop, in bed, in the waiting room. And every reading is unique. That is why we usually can remember the circumstances under which we have read a book. And the mere fact that people can be carried away by the written word is fascinating – and worth further investigation.

This essay is about reading, to be more precise about reading fiction. It is an attempt to explore how we read, or process, literature. We want to investigate how we comprehend fiction and how we monitor the tracking of characters and events in a story. Doing this, we will have to lay much emphasis on the reader as an individual being fully conscious of what and how he is reading. For this exploration, cognitive poetics with its relatively new way of thinking about literature will provide the necessary frameworks, one of which I will apply and discuss in more detail: Emmott’s contextual frame theory.

One question that I hope I will be able to answer in this paper is: How does fiction transport the reader into an imaginary universe? The approach to this question is not easy as I will have to draw on a number of interrelated disciplines such as linguistics, psychology and philosophy. The text I will ‘exploit’ for this end is Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece Madame Bovary (1857) which I have a particular relation to. So this essay will also be a very personal evaluation on literary reading.

We will proceed as follows: First of all, we will explore the opening to Flaubert’s text to analyse it on the basis of Emmott’s contextual frame theory (inductive approach). Afterwards, we will apply selected key concepts of this theory to suitable passages of the novel (deductive approach). Then we will engage more fully with some theoretical assumptions of cognitive poetics. Afterwards we will elaborate on the concept of emotion.

I must admit that this coursework is teeming with bizarre ideas. Nevertheless, I hope to provide an accessible, readable and interesting essay on how we read literature.

2. Why Madame Bovary ?

Before I present an original piece of cognitive poetics, we should briefly stray into some personal remarks about the piece of literature we will deal with: Madame Bovary. Admittedly, this was (and still is) of one the few longer novels I read for pleasure. It must be mentioned at this point that Flaubert was my first conscious encounter with French literature. It was compulsory reading at school (along with Theodor Fontane’s Effi Briest). Of course, you cannot really appreciate foreign literature in translation, but Madame Bovary can be considered an exception because ‘one of the things that marks [it] out as a true work of genius is the clipped, precise nature of its prose style. Flaubert was notoriously exact in his choice of phrase and syntax; endlessly searching, as he put it, for le mot juste ’ (Harness 2003: 426). Professional translations reflect this style.

There are several reasons why this novel appeals to me more than other texts. Firstly, Madame Bovary – being a great work of literature and a central book in the canon of French literature – had an unexpected emotional effect on me. In addition, it is relatively easy to read and contains not too many recurrent characters (less than 20).

Secondly, this novel was written in a period which we today call realism – and thus being a mirror of reality, the novel embraces ‘human’ themes such as love, destroyed illusions, the boredom of provincial life and adultery. As we will see later, literary texts with ‘realistic’ topics, and characters that people can identify with are essential in order to be fully drawn into a fictional world.

Finally and most importantly, it was one of the first texts that has done something to me: I got ‘carried away’. I liked the idea of being transported into the post-revolutionary France of the mid-19th century. This book whetted my appetite for visiting the original setting of the novel: the village of Ry in Northern France (compare Bova-ry). But I did not ask myself how this transportation works? I simply enjoyed this romanticized – and therefore simplified – imaginary universe, a universe we will explore in the following two chapters.

3. Cognitive Poetics Applied: The Contextual Frame Theory in Practice

3.1. The inductive approach

Right in the beginning of the novel, the setting is made explicit: a classroom. ‘We’ is bound into this frame. It is interesting to note at this point that there has been much debate over who this famous collective ‘we’ is because later on it is bound out in the middle of the first chapter without explicitly signalling it. And it never appears again throughout the whole novel. The reader may infer, however, that it must be someone sitting in the class, most likely a pupil.

The frame is promptly modified by the successive appearance of three characters. Successively, they are bound into the scene by entering the classroom. First, the headmaster, then a ‘new boy’ in ordinary clothes, and finally a school servant who carries a large desk. Our focus then moves on to the dozing pupils. All characters of this scene are now primed in the reader’s attention.

In the second paragraph, our focus switches back to the headmaster who binds the class-master into the frame by addressing him. At this point, a frame modification does not take place because we may firmly assume that the teacher had been at the scene before. In direct speech, the new boy becomes primed and textually overt whereas the school servant and the class become textually covert. By the end of the second paragraph, we may expect the school servant to have left the classroom although there is no explicit binding out of that frame.

The textual overtness of the new pupil continues by describing his outward appearance, the depiction being episodic. The whole third paragraph may be considered to be a belief frame of one character sitting in the class as this accurate description is partly subjective and based on the usual inaccuracy of first impressions.

In the fourth paragraph, the class, the boy and the master move into primary focus again. Now they are all textually overt and primed. An instantaneous switch in time takes place at the beginning of the fifth paragraph because we may suppose that there has been a break before the pupils started throwing their caps around. The new boy has become textually convert.

The whole reading process may take us not more than one minute and a half. During this short period of time, there is a constant switch between focused and unfocused characters. The reader’s attention, however, remains in the classroom. There is no change in location. Thus, the contextual frame does not change either.

Unfortunately, my analysis is not exhaustive because some notions of the contextual frame theory cannot be used in the opening of the novel. That is why I will now take the deductive approach and try to apply these concepts to selective passages in Flaubert’s text.

3.2. The deductive approach

In order to keep the readers’ attention, frames should change and present new characters and events. Frame modifications occur constantly in Madame Bovary. For example, at the very end of the novel (part III, chapter 11) when Charles is sitting on the bench in his garden, his daughter Berthe enters the scene – signalled by the verb of movement to go (to fetch). Berthe is bound into the primed frame and becomes textually overt. Before another frame moves into primary focus, an instantaneous frame switch is made (‘thirthy-six hours after’), and it does not have to be explicitly mentioned that Berthe left the garden to call for help. We can assume that she is unbound from the scene.

A progressive frame switch occurs, for instance, in part II, chapter 13: Emma receives a letter from her lover Rodolphe in which he advises not to elope and take flight with her. She is devastated and we see her moving from one location to another: kitchen table – sitting room – her room – stairs – second floor – attic. All the previous frames are left behind unprimed, and Emma is bound in the new primed frames first.

Two consecutive belief frames can be found in chapter 12 of part II of the novel: that of Charles and the protagonist Emma Bovary. Whereas Charles daydreams about the destiny of their daughter Berthe, Emma – pretending to be asleep – conjures up her future with his lover Rodolphe. The binding in of Berthe and Rodolphe coincide with the first sentence of the belief frame. Flaubert avoids a frame mixing. One sentence keeps the two belief frames apart – bringing the reader briefly back to the current frame. The coughing of the child ends Emma’s belief frame. Here, the notion of enactor as a salient feature of Madame Bovary comes into play. Charles and Emma imagine themselves in a hypothetical situation. They would ‘enact’ differently under potential future circumstances.

A frame recall is presented when the protagonist is at a ball (part I, chapter 8). As the ballroom gets too hot, a servant breaks the windows to let in the air. Emma looks outside and sees peasants gawking in. She is reminded of her life on the farm, which now feels a world away. For a moment only, this looking back becomes the primed frame: Emma is ‘bound back’ into the scene of her father’s farm. The reader is returned to the current frame by the brief reference ‘But in the refulgence of the presence …’.

The only frame mixing we can find in the novel is in part II, chapter 8 in which the reader has to keep track of two frames at the same time: that of a declaration of love and that of a prize-giving ceremony. Briefly, the context is as follows: In the town of Yonville, the main setting, there is an agricultural fair. Emma and Rodolphe, her admirer, go inside the empty town hall to watch the show from the window undisturbed. While Rodolphe declares that he loves her, prizes are awarded in the market place. Flaubert presents both scenes in turns. As both plots proceed, the segments get shorter and shorter, until they merge into one another. Here, the reader must keep track of which information applies to which of the two primed contexts. The frame mixing is dismissed when we have to monitor only one current frame – that of Emma and Rodolphe.

After we have applied Emmott’s contextual frame theory, it became obvious that her model is quite narrow in its scope because it focuses on three questions only:

1. Who is present?
2. Where does the action take place?
3. How long does the action last?

This information-driven model is, in my view, quite mechanical. It just tries to maintain an up-to-date mental representation of the current context in the narrative, tracking mainly the coming and going of characters. Nevertheless, let us elaborate on two basic concepts of this framework: world knowledge and inferences – essential elements for creating a picture in our mind.

4. Discussion

4.1. World knowledge

There is no doubt about it: world knowledge is vital for understanding a literary text. Imperfect knowledge makes reading different, or difficult. In order to make texts easy to understand, ‘they [must] conform to knowledge of how things usually happen in the world’ (Garnham 1985: 182). And a lot of things happen in the world: people meet and fall in love, they sit by the window and daydream, they get into dept, they commit adultery or even suicide. These are themes that we can find in Flaubert’s fictional world. Does it therefore make easy reading? The answer is no.

An example from the novel shall illustrate my argument. Let us presume a 16-year old student reads the passage about curing clubfoot (part II, chapter 11). He will fail to fully comprehend this text because it is teeming with Latin medical terms. Although a brief explanation in everyday English is given for some words, he will have to read back to reconstruct the meaning of equinus and varus as they are probably not stored in his short-term memory.

Passages like these make reading quite troublesome. You must have studied medicine or suffered from clubfoot to construct a precise mental representation of the foot. Therefore, we should speak of a reader’ specific knowledge rather than world knowledge as ‘elaboration of text representation is achieved using both specific and general knowledge about the world’ (Garnham 1985: 111). The more specific (or even specialized) knowledge is required, the more difficult is the text for the general reader. Mental representations of the context fail to be built up because we normally go through the content words when we read – and in this case they remain rather abstract. Hence, in order to form a mental image, we need to concretize a text: A ‘concretization is a reader’s actualization of a text. In a sentence such as ‘The man stood in the corner’, a reader will actualize the text by contributing a sense of the man’s age, size, skin colour, clothing, facial appearance, emotions etc., as well as the nature of the corner in question and the exact way he stood Paul Cobley (1999: page 153).

Let us return to Madame Bovary and practically apply Cobley’s idea to the classroom scene in the opening of the novel. After having read ‘We were in class …’, we immediately construct a picture of a classroom. This initial mental representation is very vague and blurred. If I were asked to give a detailed description of this fictional classroom, the image I mentally depicted would look like this: the classroom is rectangular in size, it has brown wooden creaking desks, it is ill-lit in the corners, there are some pictures on the wall. The door is to the left of the greenish blackboard. The floor is wooden, too … Oddly, I would not be able to tell where the windows were. If I had to, they were most probably at the back of the room.

Of course, an image like this is not created after reading the first four words. It must be constructed gradually. And the more we read on, the clearer our mental representation gets because details are being added continuously: All representations that we build up are ‘fleshed out into a mental model by knowledge of the world, which enables inferences to be made about details that are not actually mentioned, but which are probably true’ (Garnham 1985: 113), in other words, we ‘produce a representation of what the world would be like if the passage was true’ (ibid., 141). Transported readers like me believe that the door must be to the left of the blackboard, although my world knowledge tells me that most classrooms have their doors on the right of the blackboard.

So we can come to the conclusion that our reading is prototype-driven. No one would, for example, think of a triangular or circular classroom. It may sound stupid, but our world knowledge tells us that classrooms have four corners. At this point, we arrive at the notion of inference that we will focus in the following chapter.


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How Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" transports us into an imaginary universe
University of Nottingham  (School of English Studies)
Cognitive Poetics
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ISBN (Book)
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Flaubert, Madame, Bovary, Cognitive, Poetics
Quote paper
Steffen Laaß (Author), 2005, How Flaubert's "Madame Bovary" transports us into an imaginary universe, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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