Discuss how the use of objects and landscapes betray the characters, concerns, and themes of Flaubert’s Madame Bovary (1857), T S Eliot’s selected poems (1925), and Pinter’s Betrayal (1978).
The use of defamiliarisation (as first pioneered by Shlovsky in 1917), proxemics, and phenomenology are all central modernist techniques, introduced primarily in the 19th and 20th centuries. Very much in the style of our ‘ivory tower’ authors, these methods slide the signified under the signifier. A cap is no longer a cap, but an amalgamation of various social statuses, ‘an assemblage of decontextualized quotations’ (Adultery in the Novel, Tony Tanner). We can no longer look and see an empty room; the space itself has become embodied, and construes meaning simply from its being. Objects and images no longer belong simply to the scene, but instead have allusions and meanings that span the entirety of Western literature. A simple silk cigar case can become the key to the entire mind of the character, and show the window through which we shall perceive the novel. These techniques can be seen in some of the greatest modernist writers and their works: Madame Bovary by Gustave Flaubert; Prufrock, The Waste Land, The Hollow Men by T.S. Eliot; and Betrayal by Harold Pinter.
With these writers, nearly every single small object, backdrop and scenery hold special importance, as it is that which introduces us to the cultural and emotional context of the characters and the world they inhabit. However, the central themes of the texts are embodied in various leitmotifs appearing in the form of physical objects and literary motifs. The picture in all three texts is of people ‘trapped either by themselves (by who they have become) or by an anonymous and autonomous social order or societal machine’ (Fatalism in American Film Noir (p.11), Pippin). Constriction and constraint is especially emphasised in Flaubert: throughout Madame Bovary there is recurrent imagery of circles and wheels. This imagery is both personal to Emma’s life: representing her emotional repetitive circles, and to the novel as a whole: representing the cyclical and repetitive nature of life. Contained within the town name ‘ Rouen’ is ‘roue’, meaning ‘wheel’. It is poignant that this city, which is the centre of the activities that bring Emma’s downfall, should be named so. Seemingly solid and beautiful on the surface, giving way to a hollow centre devoid of meaning, wheels and circles represent the absence within objects, and show what the world lacks. This mirrors Emma’s emotions: strong yet superficial, and far too close to the ‘abyss beneath the pavement’ (Virginia Woolf). She hovers above the darkness precariously, but can all too easily fall into it – indeed, it is this predisposition to depression that leads her to move to Yonville, closer to Rouen. If Emma had lived in the present day and age, the circulatory nature of her emotions may have been seen as a type of mood disorder, but instead, whilst she is seen as unwell, it is a type of hysteria – a weakness of the constitution, coming from the word ‘ὑστέρα’ (hystera) meaning ‘uterus’ – that plagues her instead. These problems are simply seen as traits of the female sex, and therefore the entirety of the problem is not seen in its full magnitude.
This imagery runs throughout the novel: the napkin rings; the man with the musical box, always turning the handle, making life go on; and the Marquis’ ball. The ball is especially significant, as a sphere is simply a circle with an additional dimension, much like the ball is Emma’s imagination with an additional dimension – reality. It is this catalyst which leads to her obsession with Paris, the ‘halo [the Vimcomte] wore shift[ing] away from him, to shine on other dreams’, through which she becomes obsessed with the furniture and clothing of Parisian ladies, leafing through catalogues. She trains her new maid to act like a Parisian maid, and she herself begins to dress like one. This mimetic desire and fetishism of objects is a key component of Emma’s personality and the novel itself. Her lust (for it is not really the emotional and spiritual nature of love, but instead a need and passion for the object, characteristic of lust) of the green silk cigar case her and Charles find leaving the ball is a perfect example of this; she stows it away, and then taking it out, constructs an entire story around its simple physical form. ‘Perhaps it was a gift from his mistress’ turns into a story that recounts everything from the wood of the frame it was stitched on, to the Vicomte taking it away one morning – a story one could consider proleptic of her affair with Rodolphe, if slightly less negative. She dreams of this story, dreaming the Vicomte away to Paris, and then repeating ‘Paris’ to herself until it ‘blaze[s] before her eyes’.
The Marquis’ ball is Emma’s only real experience of the world she wishes to inhabit, and all other attempts fall fatally short; her affair with Rodolphe, and her and Leon’s hotel room in Rouen. In this way, the ball is her imagination brought to life, built up from the two-dimensional page of the novel to the three-dimensional chateau.
Eliot’s work also uses this circular imagery in the aptly named The Hollow Men. An adaptation of the children’s rhyme ‘Here We Go Round The Mulberry Bush’ appears at the start of the fifth section, with one alteration: ‘mulberry bush’ is changed to ‘prickly pear’. This substitution dramatically changes the tone of the rhyme, and the playful fun and games are now centred on a spiked and uncomfortable fruit, instead of a tasty and harmless berry. It is once again a hollow circle, with a painful darkness in the centre. That this is a children’s rhyme signals ignorance and naivety, and is a possible reference to the world-maintaining belief systems that keep humanity from falling into the abyss and impaling ourselves. Choosing the prickly pear instead of another harmful plant links in well with ‘What the Thunder Said’, the fifth section The Waste Land. This correspondence of sections may not be coincidental, as ‘What the Thunder Said’ is set in a rocky desert, which would be the natural habitat of prickly pears. Whether the fact that they both appear in the fifth section of the respective poems is accidental or not is not clear; there are Five Wounds of Christ, there are five elements, and five Platonic solids.
There is another place in Eliot’s works that refers to people walking around in rings. This occurs in the psychic vision of Madame Sosostris, which concludes the Tarot Card reading. In the Tarot reading, the Wheel is drawn – being the Wheel of Fortune – that usually symbolises change in the reader’s life, and if sometimes depicted with the four Evangelists (the Lion, the Ox, the Man, and the Eagle) with can also be read as the four fixed astrological signs (Leo, Taurus, Aquarius and Scorpio). The use of this card seems prophetic for Eliot, as this poem is written not long before he turns Christian. It is also prophetic for the nature of the poem itself; starting at ‘the arid plain’, the narrator ends up ‘Fishing, with the arid plain behind me’, showing both a large geographical change, but also a large change of heart about the nature of humanity and the world, for Eliot sees art as having dried up (and with it humanity) – seeing the narrator fishing indicates a hope for the world.
Although Betrayal does not have such obvious circular imagery, it still exists within it. The closest moment to transcendence within the play is when Robert goes and reads Yeats on Torcello – and yet there is a futility in it, since Yeats’ work so often uses the imagery of ‘rings’ and ‘gyres’. These rings do not show a sense of unity, but instead often signal ‘things fall[ing] apart’ (The Second Coming, Yeats), and creatures ‘scatter wheeling in great broken rings’ (The Wild Swans at Coole, Yeats). This scene that appears transcendent at first is in vain once one follows the whole scene through. Betrayal is Pinter’s play that is profoundly shallow or shallowly profound; one tries to look beneath the surface, but fails, as it is entirely empty. Whenever the characters try to go into more depth, and become emotional, it fails, as demonstrated in Scene 1. Here, there is a circular conversation that keeps returning to it’s beginning, cycling from phatic speech to in-depth speech, and back again. There is a specific form to their conversation, one which Jerry even indicates: ‘You remember the form. I ask you about your husband, you about my wife.’ The form is empty of emotion; it is simply what is perceived as correct for that occasion and social situation. Although these two characters had an affair, there is never any sign of true passion and emotion between them – indeed, never between any of the characters.
The emptiness in Betrayal is not just in the conversation; it also appears in the set direction, and the political and cultural influences, both of which are very sparse. First performed in the November of 1978, the writing of Betrayal preludes The Winter of Discontent by only months, and yet there is no reference to this political turmoil within the text. Remembered for its large public sector strikes, the most notorious being that of the waste collectors, meaning that after a short while the councils had large amounts of waste that were attracting rats everywhere, and also the strike of the gravediggers, leaving large amounts of bodies unburied, The Winter of Discontent was a very obvious and harshly felt time of politics, and yet Pinter makes no reference to it in his play. Pinter only wrote political plays as the citizen-artist (Nobel Prize acceptance speech) after this play. Betrayal by Pinter indeed cuts many ways.
The largest amount of furnishing needed in a scene is in Scene 8, which calls for ‘Table [to be] set; crockery, glasses, [and a] bottle of wine’. At odds with this relatively crammed set, however, is the primary set direction; ‘Flat empty.’ It is strange that in the most embellished scene, human presence should be absent. In contrast, all the other scenes with their sparse furniture open with at least one of the characters already on set. The stark emptiness of the sets, and the lack of political and cultural background may at first seem to confine the play to a claustrophobic world, but instead it can open it up. The lack of furnishing opens out vision, and brings more meaning to the objects that are present. The concept of emptiness itself is a beguiling one, as it is almost impossible to conceive of it; once one imagines emptiness, it is no longer empty, as the concept of nothing is something that can fill it.
This ‘intimate immensity’ (The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard) is also seen in The Waste Land, in its ‘arid plains.’ These are more than just a metaphor for the perceived barrenness of modern culture, nor simply an allusion to Christ’s forty days and forty nights in the desert. Diolé (Ibid.) states ‘Neither in the desert nor on the bottom of the sea does one’s spirit remain sealed and indivisible’. Exiting the realm of polite society, and leaving behind cultural norms, Eliot takes us away from one’s usual sensibilities and enters a new space, which is ‘psychically innovating’ (Ibid.) and revealing. The stillness and stagnation of the landscape, while partially negative, also allows us to look further into the poem and see clearly. In a desert one can see for miles, as there are no buildings or forests to block one’s view. Conversely, the desert can also bring about delusions and hallucinations from the heat.
Returning to Betrayal, Scene 8 is the first time (chronologically) that we see Emma and Jerry’s flat, and it parallels with the last time we see it (in the earlier Scene 3). Here, Emma and Jerry are breaking up, and therefore discussing leaving the flat and what do to with it. Emma despairs about the ‘empty home’ with ‘the crockery and the curtains and the bedspread and everything’, whereas Jerry states that a home without children is ‘not the same kind of home.’ These views mirror the views of Emma and Charles in Madame Bovary, especially so with the two Emma’s. Emma Bovary maintains what Betrayal’s Emma seems to be saying; that the contents of a home are paramount in its definition as such. Emma Bovary creates her home by buying the furniture and decorating it; does not become so simply because of the presence of her family. This links in which the earlier mentioned mimetic desire; when Emma wants to create a home she does it by copying that which she has seen in the pages of books and magazines. However, she does not copy the emotional situation, but instead seems to believe that by creating the physical situation, the emotional will appear.
A particularly special object for Emma Bovary is the green silk cigar case, and the use of cases appears in all three works. There are more than a dozen references to Casey throughout Betrayal, and yet as Emma points out, he is rarely called by his first name, in contrast to the other characters, whose last names we have no notion of. David Lodges states that ‘names are never neutral’9, and this is most certainly the case with Casey. This is most prominent in Scene 4, where Jerry and Robert are discussing ‘girl babies’ and ‘boy babies’. Here, the word ‘case’ is repeated, before Emma enters the scene and announces that she just had tea with Casey. Pinter does not often make his subtext obvious, and yet the double emphasis on ‘case’ is just that.
‘Case’ is both a noun and a verb, and is used as both simultaneously throughout the play. Robert and Jerry are discussing whether it is ‘the case’ that ‘boy babies cry more than girl babies’ when they leave the womb, where they had been encased. Is it the case that Emma has betrayed Robert and Jerry betrayed Judith? Is it the case that this is actually a betrayal by Harold Pinter? Are the characters encased? What is the case for the play? Are we, as an audience, encased? All of these questions are prominent ones when reading or watching Betrayal. It doesn’t feel like Robert or Judith have been betrayed, as we see no emotion in them (and don’t even see Judith at all). The only character who expresses feeling betrayed is Jerry, who feels betrayed that Robert knew of his affair but didn’t tell him, much like Pinter felt in his affair with Joan Bakewell. The play is most definitely a betrayal by Harold Pinter, as it betrays his usual writing – he moves away from the lower classes to the middle classes here – but it is also a betrayal of plays, as it does not deliver what an experienced theatre-going audience expects and wants from a play.
The characters here are most definitely encased. They are encased within their own world, with no comment on the political turmoil that was going on at the time. Their emotions are encased and hidden away, not seen throughout the whole play, apart from Jerry’s outburst in the final, yet initial, scene. And are we, as an audience, encased? Again, yes. We are trapped with only a very narrow view on the play. We cannot properly see the characters; we could never fight their case, as we know nothing of them. We are unable to make judgements or see the ‘real people’ behind the actions, as there seem to be none.
The use of the ‘green silk cigar case’ in Madame Bovary is remarkably similar to the use of ‘cases’ in Betrayal. However, the use of the case in Madame Bovary brings another element to light. Cases can be opened, and therefore can exist in two states. When closed, case are in ‘the general community of objects’ and ‘take their place in exterior space’ (The Art of Fiction, David Lodges). When opened they bring with them a new dimension – the ‘dimension of intimacy’ (Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard). The hidden and the illicit are within this dimension, and it much appeals to Emma Bovary. There are also cases in The Waste Land; more specifically, there are ‘satin cases’ and ‘vials of ivory and coloured glass’. These cases are described within ‘The Game of Chess’, whose beginning chronicles a lavish yet stagnant boudoir. It is a ‘pseudo-paradise’ (The Waste Land, Helen Williams), filled with artifice, and reflections of reality. The entire passage is in the past tense, and yet happening now; it is overwhelmingly static. A central image in the passage is the seven-stemmed candelabrum, which provides the light that reflects of all the other objects, and therefore in a sense is the creator of them.
There is a similar candelabra mentioned in Madame Bovary, in the meeting of Emma and Rodolphe in the meadow, just before they plan to run away together. Here, the candelabrum is one of the three images of the moon. That there are three images of the moon parallels the three phases of the moon; maiden, mother and crone. Emma is most definitely a maiden, and never leaves this state – but there are three Madame Bovary’s (Charles’ mother, former wife, and Emma) and each fits one state.
The initial image is that of the rising moon as a ‘crimson disc’, which holds Emma’s state of mind; lunacy, as this is one of the moments when Emma is deepest inside her delusional fantasy world. She sees herself and Rodolphe as madly in love, but lamentably kept apart because of the cruel constraints of society and marriage; but he is going to take her away from it all, and they can live happily ever after. She envisions herself much like one of the heroines in her much adored fairy-tales romances. The crimson of the moon first seems to concur with this, indicating passion, but red is also Mars’ (the god of War’s) colour. War brings with it cruelty, suffering and anger – a premonition of what is to come.
Another image seen of the moon is its light as a headless snake, reminiscent of the sin of The Fall, but without the device that accompanied it – here it is not the woman who sins and betrays the man, but the man who corrupts and betrays the woman. Returning to Eliot’s candelabra, the final image of the moon (and the stars and their light) is that of the candelabra. However, Eliot’s candelabra is still and stagnant, an artifice which is used to create reflections of reality, with no real emotion. In contrast, the image of the candelabra in Madame Bovary is alive, with ‘droplets of molten diamond streaming from its arms’. This reflects the vivaciousness of the young Emma, with her passion, imagination, and currently, almost delusional hope. Eliot in turn is expressing a manner of disgust and artifice in the world he sees, which has ground to a halt. He sees no real hope in The Waste Land till the end of the poem, with the ‘arid plains’ behind him, and the first sight of water appearing.
The final image to consider in the passage in the meadow is not one of the moon, but of a ‘single ripe peach dropping off the espalier’. In the original French this would have been ‘pêche’, a homophone to ‘péché’, meaning ‘to sin’. This pun shows Emma and Rodolphe’s doing, but it is not reproachful; Emma takes a certain type of pleasure from knowing she is sinning by the conventional rules of society – it bring excitement, mystery and scandal to the courtship, things she never had with Charles, but desires. A peach is also referred to in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (Eliot), when Prufrock puts forward the question ‘Do I dare eat a peach?’ Prufrock is the antithesis of Emma Bovary; being careful to stick to convention, and worrying about the sensibilities of society – he does not ‘dare/Disturb the universe’ as Emma Bovary so clearly wishes to do.
All three authors use object and landscape, as well as the absence of these, in their works to betray their characters. Objects and landscapes become a ‘concentration of the entire psyche’, and can through this become more important than the characters and the dialogue in modernist novels, a feature not seen in many other genres. With Freud’s ‘The Interpretation of Dreams’, published in 1899, the idea of consciousness and the mind took on a new light in both the scientific and artistic community. Sanity was now a quality that could be measured and labelled in a way that it had not been before, and through this ability many new disciplines grew up. Consciousness went from being the spiritual to the scientific, and this was a heavy influence of the artistic community at the time. The mind was a clockwork product of its surroundings, it seemed, and the events and experiences of life simply provided new cogs and gears. However, this new method of thought could also be turned on its head. If a human mind was simply the product of its surroundings and nothing more, could its surroundings be a product of the human mind? Phenomenology, the study of objects through consciousness, looks at this, and greatly influenced Flaubert, Eliot and Pinter. This aesthetic modernism brought about some of the greatest works of literature in the 19th and 20th centuries, and I believe it can continue to do so in the future.
This essay was written for my A2 coursework, and received full marks! It was the first time I worked fully independently on a piece, spending days in the British Library researching the topic, as well as coming up with the topic before term had even started, based purely on my preliminary reading of the texts. For those reasons, it is definitely my favourite written piece I produced from my secondary education!
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