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Flaubert: Transportation, Progression, Progress


Kate Rees

A belief in progress tells us something about the way a society views itself. Progress speaks of confidence, optimism and dynamism. It assures us of pattern and structure. In the nineteenth century, as the Christian model of development is increasingly challenged and as geological findings expand understanding of history, so progress emerges from the Enlightenment as an ever more acute subject for debate. This book addresses the theme of progress and patterns of progression in the work of Flaubert. Through close textual analysis of his works and particular scrutiny of his narrative structures, this book argues that Flaubert’s position in the mid-nineteenth century situates his work at an intriguing historical crossroads, between Romantic faith in progress and assertions of Decadent decline. Flaubert’s response to progress is rich and complicated, offering stimulating views of momentum and perfectibility.
In this study, actual progression is seen as a metaphor for understanding Flaubert’s attitude to historical progress. Each chapter focuses on a particular vehicle or pattern of movement, analysing journeys undertaken by characters in Flaubert’s texts as models of disrupted, non-linear progression which provide a counter-current to contemporary ideologies of progress. A closing chapter examines connections between Flaubert and Huysmans, investigating the response to progress in later nineteenth-century literature.


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Chapter One - Flight. Smar and Madame Bovary 27


Chapter one Flight. Smar and Madame Bovary On 25 July 1852, Flaubert was impressed upon witnessing a balloon f light.1 After the ‘balloonomania’ inaugurated by the Montgolfier brothers in the 1780s, balloon ascensions had by the nineteenth century become a form of popular entertainment.2 The aeronaut whose ascension Flaubert went to watch, Poitevin, took his horse with him into the air, or mounted his wife on a live steer and lifted this in slings to more than three hundred feet above the crowd.3 There were lofty projections as to the distances that balloon travel could ultimately reach. The Dictionnaire des idées reçues notes that ‘Avec les ballons, on finira par aller dans la lune’. Yet it also records f latly the fact that such travel remains an impossibility, as if humanity cannot keep up with its own inventiveness: ‘On n’est pas près de les diriger’ (O II 1001). Although ascent into the clouds had become physically feasible, Flaubert’s fascination with f light is revealed in his texts through journeys which instead embrace the more mythical and unfettered practice of f lying associated with earlier examples of French literature – Voltaire’s Micromégas or Cyrano de Bergerac. Such f lights into space become, in Flaubert’s works, associated with investigations into conceptions of progress, knowledge and civilisation. Many of the journeys and methods of transportation which will be discussed in this analysis of Flaubert’s work will be problematic, 1 See letter to Louise Colet: ‘Hier j’ai été voir à Rouen une...

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