Bovary would have on literature. In The Art of Fiction, Henry James says that it was this book that raised the novel’s status in Europe to that of a great artistic form, on a level with poetry. Mario Vargas Llosa, in his The Perpetual Orgy: Flaubert and Madame Bovary, calls Bovary the first modern novel. And in How Fiction Works, James Wood tells us that “Novelists should thank Flaubert the way poets thank the spring: it all begins again with him.” Indeed, books filled with realistic details about ordinary people living ordinary lives dominate American fiction to this day. A novel that satirizes the insipidity of bourgeois life and captures the aimless dissatisfaction of the upper-middle classes living in small towns and suburbs: couldn’t this just as easily describe a Jonathan Franzen bestseller as Madame Bovary? One of Bovary’s greatest innovations is its use of the style indirect libre—or free indirect style—in which a third-person narrator conveys a character’s thoughts as if from a first-person point of view. This technique liberates the writer to present a character’s internal monologue without the use of quotation marks or an intrusive “she thought.” It also allows the writer to ironically point out a character’s foolish or flawed way of thinking without saying so directly, as when Emma contemplates the fact that she has taken a lover: “So at last she was to know those
joys of love, that fever of happiness of which she had despaired! She was entering upon a marvelous world where all would be passion, ecstasy, delirium.” This is Emma’s perception of her situation, not the narrator’s. The narrator is aware, as we are, that Emma has once again been swept away by fantasy. Through the free indirect style, Flaubert simultaneously gives us Emma’s musings and his own cool analysis of them. The free indirect style has become not just a hallmark of contemporary fiction, but so pervasive that we don’t even notice it anymore: it is simply the way stories are told now. Pick up any contemporary literary journal or fiction anthology, and you’ll find countless examples. Here is Richard Ford using the technique in his story “The Womanizer”: Martin Austin, a travelling salesman from Chicago in Paris on business, is considering having an affair with a Frenchwoman. Ford writes, “He wasn’t looking for a better life. He wasn’t looking for anything. He loved his wife, and he hoped to present to Joséphine Belliard a different human perspective from the ones she might be used to.” Using the free indirect style, Ford shows us how his character justifies his affair to himself. At the same time, he invites his readers to scoff along with him at Martin’s self-deception (“he wasn’t looking for anything”) and his dopiness (“a different human perspective”).