Quote 4

[Rodolphe] had heard such stuff so many times that her words meant very little to him. Emma was just like any other mistress; and the charm of novelty, falling down slowly like a dress, exposed only the eternal monotony of passion, always the same forms and the same language. He did not distinguish, this man of such great expertise, the differences of sentiment beneath the sameness of their expressions. Because he had heard such-like phrases murmured to him from the lips of the licentious or the venal, he hardly believed in hers; you must, he thought, beware of turgid speeches masking commonplace passions; as though the soul’s abundance does not sometimes spill over in the most decrepit metaphors, since no one can ever give the exact measure of their needs, their ideas, their afflictions, and since human speech is like a cracked cauldron on which we knock out tunes for dancing-bears, when we wish to conjure pity from the stars.

Madame Bovary’s subtle commentary on the inadequacy of language becomes explicit in this passage from Part Two, Chapter IX. Rodolphe doesn’t believe Emma because she is forced to use the same words as others have used to describe a very different sentiment. That the same vocabulary must be employed to communicate varying emotions means that words fail in the description of feelings. The extreme degree of this inadequacy is rendered beautifully in the simile of the cracked cauldron, one of Flaubert’s most famous lines. This passage is also a great example of how Flaubert shifts between different perspectives. Through the first part of the passage, we see mostly what Rodolphe sees. In the last part, however, the narrator switches to his own point of view to provide us with an opinion on the nature of language.