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!”