Thursday, July 9, 2009

Social Hierarchies in Madame Bovary

The first thing Marx would note after having read Madame Bovary is the main character Emma’s palpable desire to climb the social ladder. The social hierarchies in this book are distinguished by where the characters live. The city that they reside in depicts there social class. The people of the lowest class are found in the first city of Tostes. It is a small town in the middle of nowhere, where our protagonist Emma meets and marries her husband Charles (who is a doctor). Because Charles is a doctor his status is slightly raised above everyone else in the town of Tostes and he and Emma are invited to go to a grand ball at the Vambyessard. Here Emma gets a taste of the good life and decides she is too good for a place like Tostes and demands that she and Charles move.
Charles then takes her to Yonville. This is the next step on the social ladder. People who live in Yonville are slightly more connected with the rest of the world. Here Emma is temporarily happy. So they situate themselves there and Charles meets and befriends the local pharmacist in town, Homais, figuring they will work together as doctor and medical supplier. To prove to his wife Emma that he is worthy of her and to elevate his own economic status, Charles and Homais read up on a popular and supposedly effective method of curing club foot. Marx and Gramsci would both have found the clubfoot incident in the book fascinating because to test Charles’ skill at the operation they perform the procedure on one of Homais’ servants. The only reason he agrees to this is because of what Gramsci says in his essay, “The ‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses of the population to the general direction imposed on social life by the dominant fundamental group; this consent is ‘historically’ caused by the prestige (and consequent confidence) which the dominant group enjoys because of its position and function in the world of production.” Because the doctor and pharmacist are on the highest level of social status in Yonville the servant believes it is in his best interest to have this experimental medical procedure performed on him. He does not even consider that these superior men have absolutely no clue what they are doing.
After her husbands constant disappointments Emma finds herself in need of a distraction. She buries herself in two hobbies; reading romance novels and shopping. The shopping is her ultimate downfall. Our merchant in the town of Yonville is Lhereux. He is also useful in explaining how Gramsci and Marx would interpret this book. Gramsci says that “All men are intellectuals… but not all men have in society the function of intellectuals”. This concept cannot be more clearly portrayed than in the example of Lhereux versus Charles and Homais. The doctor and pharmacist would be considered the intellectuals in society with the function of intellectuals. However, Lhereux does not have the function of an intellectual in society. He is a mere merchant but he is also the one to bring our main characters to ruin by the end if the book. Intellectual or not, he is the one with the highest status at the end of the novel.

1 comment:

  1. The use of spontaneous consent is wonderful--a very nice illustration of the means by which the upper class men manage to maintain their position. That's a great way to manage this analysis. Notice there too you're making a clear connection between the works--before that, I think, there's something much like summary, which isn't making that direct comparison to the marxists, and is a bit less effective.