Flaubert, who knew Don Quixote by heart even before learning to read, shares Cervantes’s habit of always putting the beautiful next to the hideous, the lofty next to the petty, and the tragic next to the mundane. Hardly a chapter goes by that does not contain the juxtaposition, but the most pointed examples center on the beggar with the infected eyelids. He is there, leering and suffering, when Emma sits dreaming rosily about her new affair with Léon, and he is there singing about a young girl in love while Emma is dying.
In Madame Bovary, the contrast emphasizes the absurdity of any perspective that excludes the extremities of ugliness and suffering. Every gruesome detail seems to punish the reader, the writer, and most of the main characters for their blindness. Such details are a reproach to the vague, soaring mindset of the romantic, a perspective that must ignore so much in order to maintain itself, and which therefore chooses emotional comfort over truth. The denunciation of the romantic is also closely related to issues of abstraction and reality. A person like Emma, who lives by canned abstractions, is basically hypocritical: such a person appropriates beliefs without grounding them in action or experience.
But the novel does not come out squarely on the side of the mundane. It does not amount to unqualified praise of the realist, for Lheureux is basically a realist. The far side of realism is disbelief in anything intangible: extreme realism relegates every ideal to foolish fantasy and irrelevance, including the ideals of beauty, kindness, and love, The best and most difficult life, the book implies, is one that tries to create an implausible harmony between fact and belief, reality and fantasy, the world and the imagination.
The Sublime and the Mundane ThemeTracker
The Sublime and the Mundane Quotes in Madame Bovary
Emma was inwardly satisfied to feel she had reached at her first attempt that ideal exquisite pale existence, never attained by vulgar souls.
For now she knew the pettiness of the passions that art exaggerates.
He admired the exaltation of her soul and the lace on her skirts.
But, if there were somewhere a strong and beautiful creature, a valiant nature full of passion and delicacy … What an impossibility! Nothing, anyway, was worth that great quest; it was all lies! Every smile concealed the yawn of boredom, every joy a malediction, every satisfaction brought its nausea, and even the most perfect kisses only leave upon the lips a fantastical craving for the supreme pleasure.
Emma was recovering in adultery the platitudes of marriage.