Friday, May 6, 2011

The Motif of “Hats” in Madame Bovary


Welcome back guest blogger Carol Owens Campbell. Carol is an MFA student studying fiction at Pine Manor College's Solstice in Creative Writing program. Her current work in progress explores the turbulent echos of the Kent State Massacre as seen through the eyes of a young college student.

In this second of two parts, Carol continues her exploration of hats in Flaubert's Madame Bovary.


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Flaubert’s motif of ‘hats’ in Madame Bovary contributes to a nonjudgmental theme resonating throughout the novel that “Each of us is different.” As a symbol of this truth, Flaubert describes a variety of ‘hats.’ He also describes a variety of individuals who populate his novel, each symbolized by the ‘hat’ each wears, i.e., an adulterous woman in veils, a group of nuns in hoods, an ethical husband in a leather hat, two men who seduce a married woman, one man in a jaunty straw hat and another bareheaded, a druggist in a skullcap, a young daughter in a bonnet. The image of each ‘hat’ contributes to the difference between each character’s profession, age, personality or behavior.

Flaubert’s motif of ‘hats’ also contributes a curious challenge to a theme of “There’s a Heart vs. Head dilemma when it comes to love.” In the debate between heart vs. head, the “head” represents a person’s logic when it comes to “love” that leads to vows, boundaries, and the propriety of courtship and marriage. The “heart” represents uncontrollable, delirious passion. Flaubert’s motif of ‘hats’ pays homage to both sides of the argument of “heart/passion” versus “head/logic” for his novel addresses passion fulfilled and logic ignored. His novel is also a cautionary tale for both sides.

One of the functions of a ‘hat’ is to cover one’s head. Therefore, if one’s head is covered literally in the heart vs. head dichotomy, the heart, unfettered by logic, would win the contest. Follow one’s heart would lead to freedom to do whatever one’s “heart” led one to do. After all, “logic” would be covered up and one’s passion could flourish without boundaries.

If, on the other hand, one’s head is literally not covered allowing logic to figuratively prevail, then individuals would be more circumspect in their choice of a mate and more thoughtful in their loving relationships.

Flaubert’s deliberate positioning of ‘hats’ in his narrative as well as his deliberate choice not to mention ‘hats’ at all for twelve pages in the middle of the novel ultimately serve to diffuse the “heart vs. head” argument. He does this by allowing those wearing ‘hats’ to feel passion and champion logic and the lovers who are bareheaded for twelve pages (125-137) to give in to their passion while the logic of consequences prevails in their knowledge. Flaubert, in his nonjudgmental way, acknowledges that passion and logic both have consequences and it is vital to a thriving love for both passion and logic to be integral parts working in harmony.

Emma Bovary’s choice of passion over logic cost the most prized possession she owned: “her life.” Charles Bovary’s choice of logic over passion cost the most prized possession he owned: “his wife’s love for him.”

Flaubert gave them the opportunity to know this. Yet even though Emma was a doctor’s wife and Charles was a doctor, neither of them understood that one’s “heart” and one’s “head” are not just parts of one’s body operating separately. Instead they are integral parts of one’s body and soul, both vital to a thriving love of logic and passion working in harmony together.

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