In this first of two parts, Carol explores hats as a motif in Flaubert's Madame Bovary.
A “hat,” i.e., cap, hat, hood, or veil, is a recurrent image in Madame Bovary There are ninety-seven descriptions of ‘hats’ and over a hundred mentions of ‘hats’ in the 247 page novel. Examples include: “We were in the habit of throwing our caps on the ground so as to have our hands more free” (1); “It was one of those head-gears of composite order, in which we can find traces of the bearskin, shako, billycock hat, sealskin cap, and cotton nightcap; one of those poor things, in fine, whose dumb ugliness has depths of expression, like an imbecile’s face.” (1, 2); “He trampled on horses’ dung with them, one hand in the pocket of his jacket and his straw hat on one side.” (97)
Flaubert further highlights the importance of ‘hats’ in his story by noting their absence. There are more than a dozen mentions of characters whose heads are not covered by a ‘hat,’ i.e., a bald head or unfettered, flowing hair or strands of hair. Examples include: “little bareheaded children” (43), “He read aloud, bareheaded, sitting on a footstool of dry sticks;” (87), “in his hand was a long tress of black hair.” (247)
On the first page of the novel, Charles Bovary’s cap is an essential detail, i.e., “the new fellow was still holding his cap on his knees even after prayers were over.” (1) Bovary’s worry that his cap will be stolen, “casting troubled looks round him,” (2) offers a premonition of the general theme of Bovary’s life, i.e. that he will have a prized possession, his wife’s love and fidelity, stolen from him.
The loss of a cap foreshadows the loss of his wife’s affection during her affairs with Rodolphe and Leon. Furthermore, the cap is the object of Bovary’s worry and a catalyst for the bully behavior of his classmates. Later, his wife Emma is the object of Bovary’s worry and the catalyst for the bully behavior of a merchant, a tax collector, his mother and others.
The hat-imagery unifies characters and events in the entire literary work, with the exception of a curious twelve-page absence of the motif (from pages 125 to 137), until the final pages conclude with these passages: “A terrible curiosity seized him. Slowly, with the tips of his fingers, palpitating, he lifted her veil.” (236), and “The women followed in black cloaks with turned-down hoods” (239)
Are ‘Hats’ effective as a motif in Madame Bovary?
The emphasis Flaubert places on ‘hats’ serves a dual purpose. One purpose includes a ‘hat’ in the literal description of a character’s outward appearance, i.e., “He (the druggist) had on a frock-coat, nankeen trousers, beaver shoes, and, for a wonder, a hat with a low crown.” (93) or “The councilor pressing his little cocked hat to his breast repeated his bows” (99).
Another purpose is symbolic. Flaubert crafts a ‘hat’ to symbolize a character’s feelings. In the scene at the masked ball, Emma Bovary is described as follows: “She wore velvet breeches, red stockings, a club wig and three-cornered cocked hat on one side.” (205) Emma’s outfit of breeches and red stockings indicate rebellion, given the mores of the time, however, her “three-cornered cocked hat” points to her feelings of cocky, arrogant, brash confidence to “dance(d) all night to the wild tones of the trombones.” (205) Her feelings of wild abandon are symbolized by the cock of her hat. The irony is that her abandonment by Leon is the catalyst for her behavior that night.
In another scene, Emma and Leon consummate their passion behind curtained windows in a carriage dashing through the countryside and streets of Rouen. As she leaves the carriage, the veil of Emma’s hat symbolizes the curtained windows and the secrecy with which she feels she must keep her love affair with Leon. “At about six o’clock the carriage stopped in a back street of the Beauvoisine Quarter, and a woman got out, who walked with her veil down, and without turning her head.” (173)
Earlier, in Leon’s seduction of Emma, he alludes to a dream in which the motif appears. “In an engraver’s shop on the boulevard there is an Italian print of one of the Muses. She is draped in a tunic, and she is looking at the moon, with forget-me-nots in her flowing hair. She resembled you a little.” (165) His wish for Emma not to forget him after he moved to Rouen is symbolized in the flowers in the hair of a Muse.
“From that moment her (Emma’s) existence was but one long tissue of lies, in which she enveloped her love as in veils to hide it.” (191) The choice of a veil is a perfect image to me. Not only does a veil evoke a soft covering of netting or fabric to conceal one’s face, it also evokes a wedding veil and a nun’s headdress, alluding to vows Emma once cherished. Now she cherishes Leon’s love and needs to protect it. Flaubert’s motif of multiple veils hiding her lies also evokes the image of lying, when layers of untruths build and multiply.
“She would have liked to be once more lost in the long line of white veils, marked off here and there by the stiff black hoods of the good sisters bending over their prie-Dieu.” (78) The choice to insert “white veils” into Emma’s memories is effective as it literally recalls her days in the convent. However, it also symbolizes her wish for childhood days of innocence, a universal feeling to which most adult readers can relate, and the memory of “good sisters” in “stiff black hoods” that offer her solace as well.
“You were downstairs in the anteroom, ready to go out, standing on the last stair; you were wearing a bonnet with small blue flowers;” (166) In this passage, Leon proves to Emma that she is an “incomprehensible force that took captive my life” (166). His devotion to detail in his description of Emma’s bonnet symbolizes his devotion to her. His attention to her, his memory of her to the most exacting degree, his vision of her months before still remembered as if frozen in time, evokes his charm, his youth, his besotted feelings, his passion. Flaubert exposes the power of how “paying attention” to another person is not only flattering but also seductive.
Another example of Flaubert’s insight into the effectiveness of his ‘hat’ motif can be found in the introductory scene of the book. Bovary’s cap is so unusual (2), it symbolizes how different Charles Bovary is from the other students. The effect of Charles Bovary’s oddity evokes my concern for him as a sympathetic character. The ‘hat’ motif not only heightens my feelings of tension, it also compels me to pay attention to the behavior and choices of this young, vulnerable boy.