Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Bouvard and Pécuchet III

I finally got around to finishing the book. After philosophy, Bouvard and Pécuchet become interested in religion. Bouvard, who is more or less an agnostic, doesn't exhibit much enthusiasm for the topic, but Pécuchet becomes a complete fanatic, and Bouvard observes him flagellating himself in private. Pécuchet begins to harass the local priest with theological arguments, but, as in every other episode, his enthusiasm soon dies out. Next, they both become involved with the adoption of two children, Victor and Victorine, whose mother is dead and whose father is a jailed convict. To no avail, they attempt to instruct them, exposing them to many of the works that they have found important, and they employ various educational concepts from sources such as Émile, by Rousseau. Although at first the children seem to respond somewhat positively, Victor becomes violent, as he had been previously, and boils a cat that they give him as a pet, killing it. Victorine is less problematic initially but she soon becomes pregnant by one of the locals. Because of the pregnancy they are later forced to give up the children, whom they hadn't formally adopted. Bouvard eventually agrees to assume financial responsibility for Victorine.

In the meantime, Bouvard and Pécuchet decide that the layout of Chavignolles is improper, and they take it upon themselves to survey the town with the goal of remodeling it, in much the same way that Haussmann redesigned Paris. This would involve tearing down much of the center of town. They engage more in village life, and Bouvard becomes a highlight of the local café, where he debates whomever he meets. Both of them take on a pedagogic role in Chavignolles, and they hold public lectures for its benefit. This precipitates their downfall, unleashing all the grievances that have been building up among the townsfolk. By this point, Flaubert himself had died, and the remainder of the novel is his summary of what he intended to write. Pécuchet's lecture is pedantic and criticizes the local government and administration. Bouvard's lecture is more conventional but also meets with disapproval.

The next day, Bouvard and Pécuchet discuss the lectures at home. Pécuchet takes a gloomy position on the future of mankind: "America will conquer the earth....Widespread boorishness. Everywhere you look will be carousing laborers." Bouvard, on the contrary, believes in progress and thinks that the cultures of Europe and China will converge. He thinks that "philosophy will be religion," with "communion of all people." While they are still talking, the police enter the house and serve them with a warrant for "desecrating religion, disturbing the peace, seditious rhetoric, etc."

After this, Bouvard and Pécuchet give up their studies and revert to their earlier habits. They begin copying documents together at the close of the book. The edition I have includes the Dictionary of Accepted Ideas, written much earlier, and the unfinished Catalogue of Fashionable Ideas. I don't think these add much to the text and may not have been planned to appear with it, though the choice of including them does give the impression that the novel was intended to be facetious.

As a reader, I have mixed feelings about the book. Understandably, the villagers found that Bouvard and Pécuchet were pedantic and dismissive of local practices. What is striking to me is how insensitive the two were to how people reacted to them and how unprepared they were to anticipate ideas that didn't match theirs. There is no evidence that either of them engaged in self-criticism, and that includes their obliviousness to the fact that sometimes the subject under study remained beyond their comprehension. Flaubert seems to be making Bouvard and Pécuchet look like fools, but I did not see signs of a wider, more inclusive view of reality, and this makes it unclear to me what his point was. In the case of Madame Bovary, the novel seems realistic, while highlighting the tragic follies of the protagonist. Sentimental Education is also realistic, but has an autobiographical tone that seems straightforward, without exaggerated characters. Therefore, since Bouvard and Pécuchet seem like aberrations, and the realism is less palpable, I am less confident in assessing Flaubert's objectives. All I can say is that Flaubert may have thought that conscientious study can be a naïve pastime, perhaps because the answers aren't really there. It is possible that Flaubert was making a case for human limitations, even in an era of progress. In this instance, book learning comes across as ineffective. The assessment is further complicated by the fact that the context for the events that occur in the book is well in the past, and this potentially renders some of the satirical intentions that Flaubert seems to have had less clear than they would have been at the time – 140 years ago. Certainly, he establishes that Bouvard and Pécuchet are eccentrics, but, since they themselves never seem to find a path to more intelligible behavior and nowhere does the narrative offer much guidance, the overall effect for the modern reader is somewhat ambiguous. For this reason, I was less impressed with this novel than I was by the other two mentioned and found the going a little tedious at times. On the whole, I think it is best suited to French literary specialists, especially those who have an affinity for Flaubert.

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