James’s criticism helps us to see how the irony and compassion of Madame Bovary keep each other alive. There may be episodes in which irony outweighs compassion and becomes malice, just as in other episodes Flaubert’s feeling for Emma can sap his irony so that he relapses into simple pity; the abiding impression the novel leaves is of irony and compassion indissolubly married — married, that is, in one of those marriages where the strain of cohabitation is only surpassed by the unthinkableness of divorce. A strangely fused tension of opposite emotions is at the source of the book’s unique capacity to provoke and move its readers in the same breath. It is, I think, with this tension that criticism must begin.
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