The Strange Pathos of the Turkey in Madame Bovary

For one writer, Gustave Flaubert’s tragic masterpiece has an offbeat and deeply poignant connection to Thanksgiving.

A 1906 illustration for a Thanksgiving menu at the Hotel Riverside in Cambridge Springs, Pennsylvania (New York Public Library)

Literary portrayals of Thanksgiving Day—with all its good, bad, and stressful emotional stuffing—have varied over the years. They span from Louisa May Alcott’s sentimental 1882 New England story, “An Old-Fashioned Thanksgiving,” all the way to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s aggrieved childhood memories of it as a day of compulsory fasting and reflection in his 2015 memoir, Between the World and Me. Scattered between, there’s Philip Roth’s boisterous hosanna to the holiday’s secular roots in American Pastoral, the queasy scenes in Jonathan Franzen’s fictions, Saul Bellow’s hashish-stuffed turkey, and Jhumpa Lahiri’s fragrant cumin-and-garlic-smeared one. And while I’ve enjoyed all of the above, the book I associate most closely with this echt American festival is not an American one at all, but Gustave Flaubert’s masterpiece, Madame Bovary.

On its face, this may seem like a morbid choice. What does a 19th-century French tragedy, in which a provincial housewife kills herself as a result of her debts and affairs, have to do with an American holiday that celebrates homecoming and overeating? The answer, quite simply, is turkey (along with plum preserve). Madame Bovary not only prominently features the fowl, but also positions it as a token of thanksgiving, albeit in a personal rather than national context. And the reason this novel comes to mind on this gourmand Thursday has to do with one little passage that, more than any other in this bleak story, catches me on the raw.

Every spring, it is customary for Emma Bovary’s father, old Rouault, to send his daughter’s family a turkey. It is meant as a present to his son-in-law, Charles Bovary, in grateful remembrance of how well he had once set Rouault’s broken leg. (It was on account of this fracture that the bumbling country doctor and the farmer’s beautiful daughter had first met.) Old Rouault always sends an affectionate letter with his gift. Written on coarse paper and full of spelling errors, his notes are like a gust of fresh air in a novel scented with the pomade of Emma’s lovers.

One such letter contains the moving passage to which I’m referring. Old Rouault starts out by describing the turkey with all the sensuous pleasure of a farmer proud of his produce, and proceeds to ramble about the trials of farm life. Then, in the middle of the letter, the reader is told, “There was a break in the lines, as if the old fellow had dropped his pen to dream a little while.” The unexpected poignance of this image sets us up for what follows, for at the end of the letter, Rouault’s thoughts turn to his sole grandchild:

It grieves me not yet to have seen my dear little grand-daughter, Berthe Bovary. I have planted an Orleans plum-tree for her in the garden under your room, and I won’t have it touched unless it is to have jam made for her by and bye, that I will keep in the cupboard for her when she comes.

Why does this letter tug at the heartstrings in a novel squalid with gangrene and arsenic? It’s hard to say, really, but perhaps it’s because Rouault’s tone is so endearingly artless and so utterly innocent of the dreadful fate that awaits his family. The novel will end with Emma and Charles bankrupt and dead, old Rouault paralyzed, and Berthe in a cotton factory. The girl will have neither the expensive education her mother enjoyed nor the easeful future her adoring father had dreamed of for her, one in which she would “wear large straw hats in the summer-time.” Almost certainly, there will be no turkey and plum preserve—a classic pairing that Flaubert likely had in mind when he wrote that passage, culinary concord being as crucial to his great novel as style and rhythm. It is Berthe who will pay an obscene price for her parents’ follies, and her grotesque future casts the longest shadow over the novel.

Born at sunrise on a Sunday, Berthe Bovary makes a curiously auspicious Christian entrance, only for things to go rapidly downhill. Her mother, who has been dreaming of a “strong and dark” baby boy, faints when told it’s a girl. Her paternal grandfather, Bovary Père, an apostate, baptizes Berthe with a mocking glass of champagne. Her mother can’t wait to outsource her to an impoverished wet nurse. More casual cruelty follows, notably the incident where Emma, in an irritable fit, elbows the toddler away, causing her to cut herself on the cheek and bleed. Flaubert reserves his sharpest stiletto for the aftermath of the accident, when, sitting semi-remorsefully by the sleeping Berthe, Emma thinks to herself, “It is very strange how ugly this child is!”

Yet for all the neglect heaped on her, Berthe remains attached to her mother, and is a happy child; readers get a glimpse of her bouncing on a hayrick on a warm spring day, squealing with laughter. For the most part, she slips in and out of the story immersed in her own little world and possessing an admirable esprit—a bit like Dickens’s waif, the Little Marchioness. Even at the novel’s wretched finale, when Berthe is running around in a pinafore whose armholes are torn down to her hips, she remains uncomplaining. It allows the reader some small solace that this resilience will armor her against the hardships of the cotton factory. But even this solace is snatched away by one ominously tubercular detail at the end: “She coughed sometimes, and had red spots on her cheeks.”

Berthe’s sunny temperament and bleak future are thrown into piquant relief by the cosseted brood of kids next door, who are awash in the good things of childhood, notably jam. The novel’s superb jam-making scene unfolds in the children’s house and is presided over by their father, the odious chemist Monsieur Homais. Chez Homais—with its unwaxed floors, barred fireplace, and kids in padded headgear—must be one of the earliest literary lampoons of a childproofed house. Emma enters the kitchen to talk to Homais, only to find him in the middle of a screaming fit surrounded by his children dressed in aprons that reach to their chins. The tableau is rich in contrapuntal notes, with the comedy of Homais’ histrionics and his children’s absurd attire serrated with the premonition of tragedy. For it is at this moment that Emma first spies the bottle of arsenic that she will, at a later stage of despair, pour greedily into her mouth. Julian Barnes, Flaubert’s devoted fan, has noted that there’s no such thing as a superfluous detail in Madame Bovary, and this scene is a wonderful example of that meticulous plotting. Though Berthe herself isn’t present, the simmering pans and the surfeit of currants and sugar recall her grandfather’s futile plans to feed her plum jam.

Which brings us back to old Rouault’s letter and the turkey. Flaubert uses the bird’s annual arrival at the Bovary residence to help mark the passage of time—a reminder to Emma that yet another year of her prime has been wasted in a suffocating marriage. Instead of the masked balls and wild raptures she had dreamed of, she’s stuck with Charles, with his thick lips and “a look of stupidity”—a malicious phrase that glints not just with Flaubert’s hatred of obtuseness but also with his deep-down sympathy for Emma. Yes, the author seems to be saying, this woman is a negligent mother, a spendthrift, and a narcissist, but can you blame her for following her dreams? It’s this fierce and continual battle between Flaubert’s realist and romantic halves that makes his often appalling antiheroine so riveting and so deeply humane.

The turkey itself starts out as a straightforward gesture of thanksgiving, but it gradually acquires layers of complex meaning. All the various images associated with this gift—the broken leg, the plum jam, the springtime arrival, and the nostalgia and regrets the accompanying letter triggers—are the marrons Flaubert uses to stuff his turkey. His approach is not so different, then, from how Bellow, Roth, and Franzen have used the bird to riff on the strange, funny, and messy stuffing of American society. But for all its different marrons, Flaubert’s turkey remains freighted with the pathos of old Rouault’s love for his daughter, son-in-law, and grandchild.

At the end, when a destitute Charles has died of heartache, the novel has only one loose end left: Berthe Bovary. Her fate is tied up in a brief, astringent paragraph, in which she’s referred to for the first time as Mademoiselle Bovary. This is Flaubert the surgeon’s son at work, suturing up Madame Bovary with neat, dispassionate stitches:

When everything had been sold, twelve francs seventy-five centimes remained, that served to pay for Mademoiselle Bovary’s going to her grandmother. The good woman died the same year; old Rouault was paralyzed, and it was an aunt who took charge of her. She is poor, and sends her to a cotton-factory to earn a living.

Old Rouault never sets eyes on Berthe, much less makes her a pot of jam. He travels to the Bovary home, half demented with shock, to attend Emma’s funeral, but refuses to see his granddaughter, crying out that it will be too much for him to bear. He is a broken man, but even in his grief, he recalls the ritual of thanksgiving he has so relished for all these years. As he bids Charles farewell, his last words are, “Never fear, you shall always have your turkey.”