Bouvarde and Pécuchet on Women
Bouvarde et Pécuchet is Flaubert’s comic reworking of the Faust myth. Bouvarde and Pécuchet are two copyists, who, having suddenly come into some money, set out to master the world’s knowledge. However, Second Empire France is not the age of romantic heroes, rather it is the bourgeois age of self-help and do-it-yourself. In Chapter Seven Bouvarde and Pécuchet set out to understand, and to conquer, women.
In Goethe’s poem, Faust seduces the innocent Gretchen whose resulting pregnancy drives much of the plot. In Bouvarde et Pécuchet, Pécuchet attempts to seduce Mélie, their housemaid. Like all enterprising bourgeois he needs to begin his studies and learn how this is to be done.
He questioned Bouvard on how libertines go about getting women.
“They give them presents! They treat them to a restaurant!”
“Fine, but what about after?“
“Some pretend to faint so that you’ll lay them out on the couch. Others drop their handkerchief. The best ones openly set a date with you.” Bouvard abounded in descriptions that fired Pécuchet imagination like obscene etchings.
Like most do-it-yourself projects, things don’t always go as expected.
Mélie did not faint, did not drop her handkerchief and Pécuchet did not know what to do. His desire was made all the keener by fear of satisfying it.
But somehow they manage to consummate their affair, largely by imitating the standard clichés of romantic novels.
A stack of kindling was behind them. She left her herself fall onto it, her breasts out of her blouse, for head thrown back. Then she hid her face beneath her arm–anyone else would have understood that she wasn’t entirely inexperienced.
However, unlike Faust, the result of this affair is not a pregnancy that sends the poor girl to her ruin and death.
Pécuchet, after much hesitation, confessed that he just discovered he was suffering from a shameful illness.
In this case, Goethe’s dictum “Das ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan” (The eternal-feminine leads us onward) is more fully realized in Peer Gynt‘s more earthy rephrasing “Das Ewig–Weibliche zieht uns an” (Eternally, women lead us on).