Irony as a Main Stylistic Device in Madame Bovary

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Irony As a Main Stylistic Device in Madame Bovary

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Irony can be separated into three distinct categories: situational, dramatic and verbal. The first two of these ironies can be seen throughout Flaubert’s text, and there are distinct instances whereby they are seen to heighten the pathos of the narrative. Verbal irony as defined by Christopher Warner as occurring ‘when the speaker says the opposite of what he means,’ (Warner:2016) is in fact present within Madame Bovary, however, it tends not to be incorporated with or around poignant events and thus there is no pathos for it to influence. It can be said that although not all forms of irony are utilised to add to the narrative’s pathos, more so are than are not, and so it is the case that the irony within the text, indeed does not take away from pathos, on the contrary, it only adds to it.

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The first form of irony in discussion here is situational irony; arguably the most commonly understood of the three, it occurs when ‘a state of affairs or an event [..] seems deliberately contrary to what was or might be expected’ (NA: 2015). This device can be seen in the denouement of Flaubert’s novel where it adds to the pathos of the narrative. It is made clear throughout the text that the protagonist Emma has a warped idea of romance, and consequently the character yearns to be loved not only by any man, but by a man who could not live without her. It is this desire that significantly contributes to the character’s despair and eventually her suicide. The Situational Irony lies within the fact that the only man who indeed could not live without Emma was her husband, Charles, the very character who’s love she repeatedly dismisses as ‘nothing startling’ (Flaubert: 35), and in turn the last character one would assume would be able to fulfil Emma’s desire. The narrator describes the protagonist’s feelings of disappointment towards her husband stating that it was ‘inconceivable that this calm life of hers could really be the happiness of which she used to dream’ (Flaubert: 27). The character’s romanticised ideas of love are presented further when she claims to believe that love inevitably involves ‘aching hearts, promising, sobbing, kisses and tears’ (Flaubert: 29). It is only after the protagonist’s suicide that it is clear the character Charles lives up to Emma’s romanticised expectations of love, Flaubert presents this as the character dies shortly after his wife. The character dies ‘choking like an adolescent from the vague amorous yearning that swelled his achy heart’ (Flaubert: 295). Flaubert’s use of irony here is heart-rending for the reader, as he directly references Emma’s very desire for ‘aching hearts’ (Flaubert: 29), presenting a manifest similitude between the character’s fatal desires and her actualities. It is here where pathos is created, although it is arguable that suicide will unavoidably evoke sadness in the reader, regardless of narrative and situation, it is the irony and in turn the notion that the character’s death was needless which heightens this sense of sympathy and pity.

The next form of irony discussed, and one perhaps less commonly understood, is dramatic irony, which can be defined by G.G Sedgewick as a device which occurs ‘when someone on the stage reveals a failure to comprehend a situation of which the audience have understanding.’ (Sedgewick: 102) This is yet another form of irony which amplifies the novel’s pathos, this can be seen in the protagonist’s courtship with the character Rudolphe; Emma believes that she has finally found a man who can truly love her, and whom she can share the ‘happiness of which she used to dream’ (Flaubert: 32). This belief is not shared with the reader, as we are aware due to the omniscient narrator that the character does not intend to stay with Emma, nor does he love her. Flaubert presents this in describing Rudolphe’s views on women as the narrator states that to him ‘Emma was just another mistress’ (Flaubert: 159). This ironic device evokes sadness and pity within the reader, as the majority of the novel is written from Emma’s perspective it is naturally with her character that our sympathies lie. Yet it is in this instance where the narrator gives us an insight to Rudolphe’s thoughts, that we are left feeling both unsettled and helpless, as we wait for the turmoil to unfold unbeknownst to Emma. The pathos here is heightened as we are simultaneously aware of Emma’s need for love and Rudolphe’s lack thereof.

The final instance in which irony can be seen to enhance pathos is presented in the protagonist’s suicide. This situational irony occurs as the character Emma chooses to poison herself with Arsenic, believing that it will cause a quick and painless death, however it is the exact opposite which she experiences. The character’s misunderstanding of the poison’s effect is presented as she states immediately after eating it, in a rather nonchalant manner ‘I’m going to fall asleep and it’ll all be over’ (Flaubert:266). As previously stated this is vastly different to the time-consuming, painful death the character actually experiences; the narrator presents this intense pain describing the ‘ghostly jolting of [Emma’s] ribs, shaken by the furious breathing, as if her soul were jerking to break free’ (Flaubert: 274). The death is not only presented as painful but also extremely time-consuming as Flaubert dedicates almost an entire chapter to its description. Here, irony adds to the pathos as the character’s ill understanding of the poison lead to an agonising death, of which she was not prepared. As a reader, the fact that Emma believed her death would be fast and painless only adds to the sadness we feel when reading of the contrary excruciation that she actually felt.

To conclude, in the case of Madame Bovary, it can be said that irony does not take away from pathos, on the contrary, it only adds to it. The two forms of irony utilised in Flaubert’s text which help in doing so, are situational and dramatic irony. Although there are cases where Flaubert incorporates verbal irony within the novel’s dialogue, these are not mentioned within the essay as they tend to not be involved with poignant events and so to argue whether it adds to pathos or not, would be non-viable.

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