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L'Allusion et l'Accès

Peter Vernon
Claudine Raynaud

The Dynamics of Negation in Flaubert’s Parrot

Ben Winsworth

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1In Julian Barnes’ Flaubert’s Parrot, the narrator Geoffrey Braithwaite’s interest in the life of Gustave Flaubert enables him to avoid speaking about his wife’s suicide, but at the same time it allows him to do just this. There is a sense in which his obsessive researches into Flaubert’s life operate as a denial of the trauma of Ellen’s death, and yet also offer a coherent structure within which to come to terms with that loss. The primary function of his interest in Flaubert within the novel is obvious enough: that which has been a life long passion now becomes an obsessional occupation in which he escapes the need to answer questions relating to his own past life. It is, however, an occupation that leads him into a world of confusion and paradox not dissimilar to the complicated emotional environment that he is attempting to leave behind, and yet it is one that comes some way towards reconciling him to the uncertainty of the past and the future. On one of his out-of-season channel ferry crossings to France Braithwaite reveals that “Three stories contend within me. One about Flaubert, one about Ellen, one about myself” (85-86). He refers to his own as being the simplest, and self deprecatingly acknowledges it to be little more than a “convincing proof of my existence” although he adds, “I find it the hardest to begin”. Ellen’s is, he explains, “more complicated, and more urgent” and yet he “resist [s] that too”, (86) most obviously because it forms an important part of his own story, and is central to the self-narrative that he is struggling to tell. He wonders whether his constant deferral of this episode is to do with saving the best until last, but concludes that it is “rather the opposite, if anything”, (86) suggesting that the worst is often very hard to work towards. At the end of this same paragraph, Braithwaite laments that “Books are not life, however much we might prefer it if they were”, (86) which reveals an ambivalent position in both wanting to escape into fictional worlds at the same time as it acknowledges the regressive nature of such an escape. “Ellen’s is a true story”, he tells us, adding that, “perhaps it is the reason why I am telling you Flaubert’s story instead” (86). This once more confirms the powerful attraction that fiction has for him, even though he half suspects his telling and re-telling of Flaubert’s story is a reaction to his grief. What he doesn’t realize, and yet what is being worked out in the wider narrative that he is constructing within Flaubert’s Parrot, is that fictions while “not life”, do have the capacity to contribute towards life and to the individual’s understanding of the experiences that take place within it. Paradoxically, fiction is both the symptom of Braithwaite’s emotional distress and also the cure.

2A useful way of understanding the ambivalence surrounding (or contained within) Geoffrey Braithwaite’s involvement in the life and fiction of Flaubert, an involvement which is at the cost of more pressing stories that need to be told, but also closely related to them, is to be found in Freud’s brief paper from 1925, entitled “Negation”. Here Freud is interested in the way in which the narratives that his patients construct often reveal the origin of that which has been repressed at the same time as they offer protection from the full emotional force of that repressed material. It is almost as if a game of hide and seek is being played out in the patient’s mind, with negation (the refusal or inability to grant an idea or association its full significance) providing both a defence against being found and a means of being found in allowing the repressed a way into consciousness:

Negation is a way of taking cognizance of what is repressed; indeed it is already a lifting of the repression, though not, of course, an acceptance of what is repressed. We can see how in this the intellectual function is separated from the affective process. With the help of negation only one consequence of the process of repression is undone – the fact, namely, of the ideational content of what is repressed not reaching consciousness. The outcome of this is a kind of intellectual acceptance of the repressed, while at the same time what is essential to the repression persists. (438)

3With this in mind it becomes possible to read Geoffrey Braithwaite’s reading of Flaubert as being something akin to what Freud observes in the course of his analytic encounters. What we are for the most part presented with in Braithwaite’s narrative is a process of intellectualizing in which he frees the ideation of Ellen’s death while remaining split off from the affective process.... or, to put it more simply, the acceptance of Ellen’s death is intellectual rather than emotional. Ironically enough, Braithwaite is aware of this tendency towards negation when he describes his reactions on revisiting Arromanches. Even though he is physically close to “where friends had died” during the traumatic events of 1944 with which he was involved, he remains unmoved: “Memories came out of hiding, but not emotions; not even the memories of emotions” (14). Shortly after this, while in Bayeux, he asks an often repeated question: “How do we seize the past?”, although one wonders how much, if at all, he really wishes to do this. If anything, in turning his attention to the historical past (that of 1066 and 1944), and more specifically, later on, to Flaubert’s past, Braithwaite is trying to avoid dealing with his own. However, taking Freud’s theory of negation into account, he is commenting on his own past, albeit in an oblique manner, and in his own way he is attempting to make sense of it.

4There are several moments in the novel when Braithwaite comes close to speaking directly about Ellen before he finally allows himself to do so. As we have seen from the pressure of the three stories contending within him, he is unable to get down to the real business of telling the “true story”, and continually retreats from such open revelations. There are plenty of other examples of Braithwaite stalling and so postponing Ellen’s story:

my wife... died. (13)
I never thought my wife was perfect. I loved her, but I never deceived myself. I remember... But I’ll keep that for another time. ( 76)

Just getting braced to tell you about... what? about
whom? (85)

My wife... Not now, not now. (105)

5Braithwaite is conscious of this recurring pattern, at one point apologizing for it and referring to himself as being a “hesitating narrator” (89). However, Flaubert’s story (as told by Braithwaite) is already telling the tale of Ellen and Geoffrey, even to the point of how difficult a tale it is to tell. Here is Braithwaite quoting a well known line from Madame Bovary that communicates not only Flaubert’s awareness of “the underlying inadequacy of the Word”, but his own knowledge of this universal deficiency as well : “Language is like a cracked kettle on which we beat out tunes for bears to dance to, while all the time we long to move the stars to pity”. (19) This has a particular relevance for Braithwaite who sees himself as a failed writer (13), lacking the stylistic consolations and the ease with which words came to Flaubert (19). Even so, the biographical enterprise that Braithwaite undertakes in which he quotes from Flaubert’s fiction and non-fiction, and that contains his self reflexive speculations on both Flaubert and the art of fiction and biography, offers a narrative that is more articulate and moving than at first appears.

6Returning to “Negation”, Freud writes that one of its most obvious characteristics is displayed when patients express the opposite of what they really mean to say. For example, a patient denying that one of the characters in his dream is his mother leads the analyst to suspect the reverse. Freud continues:

In our interpretation we take the liberty of disregarding the negation and of picking out the subject matter alone. It is as though the patient had said: “It’s true that my mother came into my mind as I thought of this person, but I don’t feel inclined to let the association count.” (437)

7We can see a similar process taking place in Braithwaite’s attempt to deflect the reader of his narrative from making any interpretations of a personal nature regarding his own life and character. It is perhaps significant that this deflection, delivered (and partially disguised) in the form of a weary complaint, quickly followed by confirmation in the words of Flaubert, appears just after his attempt to take the reader into his confidence and explain the fact of the three stories contending within him:

You expect something from me too, don’t you? It’s like that nowadays. People assume they own part of you, on no matter how small an acquaintance; while if you are reckless enough to write a book, this puts your bank account, your medical records, and the state of your marriage irrevocably into the public domain. Flaubert disapproved. “The artist must manage to make posterity believe that he never existed.” For the religious, death destroys the body and liberates the spirit; for the artist, death destroys the personality and liberates the work, (86)

8Braithwaite is denying the subtext of his narrative, stating that his biographical and meta-biographical writing is devoid of the personal interest that it so obviously contains. He is unable to see that in raising objections to his marriage entering the public domain he is really expressing the tension involved in this wanting to be both unconscious and conscious property. Similarly, in trying to take an objective approach he fails in referring to both marriage and death, the major themes of the true story that he wants and doesn’t want to tell. What we have in this passage, to quote from Freud, is “repudiation, by projection, of an idea that has just come up” (437) and an affirmation that a “repressed image or idea can make its way into consciousness, on condition that it is negated.” (437-438). Braithwaite’s appeal for the invisibility of the writer is something that he only half subscribes to, and while he uses his own writing to hide, he also wants to be found within it. It is for this reason that he locates his other stories in Flaubert’s life and work. The unhappy marriage, the adultery and suicide of Ellen, are at one and the same time revealed, negated, and intellectualized; in other words, the autobiographical content of Braithwaite’s narrative is emotionally decathected in the biographical context of his work.

9Before we get to the chapter entitled “Pure Story” – where allusion finally gives way to a much freer access to the repressed – Flaubert is used to both carry and communicate Braithwaite’s emotional burdens. Many of the episodes from Flaubert’s life, many of the words written or spoken in that life, say as much about the biographer as the novelist. The quotations listed in Part III of the “Chronology” that Braithwaite compiles are a case in point with their many references to loss and separation, and the pain that this involves:

1846 My life is riveted to that of another [Mme Flaubert], and will be so long as that other life endures. A piece of seaweed blowing in the wind, I am held to the rock by a single hardy thread. If it broke, where would this poor useless plant fly off to? (32)

1852 As you get older, the heart sheds its leaves like a tree. You cannot hold out against certain winds. Each day tears away a few more leaves; and then there are the storms which break off several branches at one go. And while nature’s greenery grows back in the spring, that of the heart never grows back. (34)

1875 I feel uprooted, like a mass of dead seaweed tossed here and there in the waves. (36)

10As well as pointing out Braithwaite’s own sense of being lost and without direction since Ellen’s death, these quotations also suggest reasons for the strong identification he is trying to make with the literary host in which he resides. In his uprooted emotional state, Flaubert offers Braithwaite something to cling on to and climb in to, and it is within such a position of security that he can use Flaubert to voice his own concerns. We can also think of him doing this with Flaubert’s fiction, most obviously with Madame Bovary, a novel that explores unhappy marriage, adultery and suicide: a novel about a doctor and his unfaithful wife that tells Braithwaite’s story for him. He is, of course, not in a position to make such an explicit parallel himself, and when he does devote time to Flaubert’s celebrated novel he explores the critical debate surrounding Emma Bovary’s “rainbow eyes” (75), or the practicalities of Emma’s seduction in the carriage, “probably the most famous act of infidelity in the whole of nineteenth-century fiction”, so he tells us! (91). Even so, it is tempting to suggest that Braithwaite’s identification with this text arises from the fact that it allows him to tell his own story by proxy, and that he uses the novel to express something of his own experience without having to fully acknowledge it. (Something that we all do as readers... from time to time, at least!) Flaubert’s text contains the ideational content of that which Braithwaite is repressing, while he is able to negate the full personal significance that Madame Bovary has for him in his digressions concerning the heroine’s colour changing eyes or the size of, and space within, a Rouen cab. We can see this compromise (or conflict) at work when that which is of real concern to Braithwaite breaks into the narrative that goes to make up the chapter entitled “Emma Bovary’s Eyes”. In considering the difference between academic critics and ordinary readers with regard to their interest in a particular author, the metaphor that Braithwaite develops belongs just as much to his own and Ellen’s story as it does within an attack on the celebrated Flaubert scholar, Dr Enid Starkie:

Whereas the common but passionate reader is allowed to forget; he can go away, be unfaithful with other writers, come back and be entranced again. Domesticity need never intrude on the relationship; it may be sporadic, but when there it is always intense. There’s none of the daily rancour which develops when people live bovinely together. I never find myself, fatigue in the voice, reminding Flaubert to hang up the bathmat or use the lavatory brush. (76)

11Criticizing Dr Starkie for her failure to be as tolerant with Flaubert as himself, Braithwaite moves on to even more personal territory and reveals himself to be using Flaubert not only as a vehicle for his own unconscious narratives, but also as a way of coming to terms with, one might even go so far as to say excusing, the imperfections of his married life: “Look, writers aren’t perfect, I want to cry; any more than husbands and wives are perfect. The only unfailing rule is, if they seem so, they can’t be.” However, as we have already seen, when he follows this with a direct reference to his own wife language breaks down: “I remember... but I’ll keep that for another time”, he is unable to proceed, and he uses the diverting tactic of remembering something else (76). The pure story has come too close to consciousness for comfort.

12Another writer that Braithwaite tells us he has been reading recently is Mauriac, in particular “the Mémoires intérieurs, written at the very end of his life” (95). What appeals most about these Mémoires is the fact that instead of treating the reader to a conventional autobiography, Mauriac describes “the books he’s read, the painters he’s liked, the plays he’s seen” (96). In other words, “He finds himself by looking in the work of others” (96) which is, in many ways, something that Braithwaite is doing with Flaubert. However, it would be misleading to think that this is an approach that offers a clearly defined autobiographical reflection. On the contrary, of equal appeal to Braithwaite is the fact that Mauriac’s Mémoires hide as much as they reveal to the reader:

Reading his “memoirs” is like meeting a man on a train who says, “Don’t look at me, that’s misleading, If you want to know what I’m like, wait until we’re in a tunnel, and then study my reflection in the window.” You wait, and look, and catch a face against a shifting background of sooty walls, cables and sudden brickwork. The transparent shape flickers and jumps, always a few feet away. You become accustomed to its existence, you move with its movements; and though you know its presence is conditional, you feel it to be permanent. Then there is a wail from ahead, a roar and a burst of light; the face is gone for ever. (96)

13It is interesting that this appears in a chapter in which Braithwaite tells us that he is “aiming to tell the truth”, in spite of inevitable mistakes. He refers to himself as being “honest” and “reliable” (97) and yet is unable to see that for much of his narrative he is playing the “Mauraiac game”, even though he dismisses this in a playful interlude which finds him listing a set of rules dictating the future of fiction (98-100), In effect, Braithwaite is playing the Mauriac game in choosing to refer to his memoirs in the first place, and he is still playing it when he states his intention to play another game and embarks on his list. On the one hand we have the reflection of a man self consciously alerting us to the game of cache-cache with which he is involved, and then the reflection disappears, as it does many times, Braithwaite making his escape by entering the matrix that has been momentarily revealed to be both a source of refuge and retrieval. In so doing, it becomes possible to suggest that he is negating the process of negation that he half glimpses himself to be caught up in; that his references to Mauriac, which point out the ways in which he uses Flaubert to intellectualize his own unconscious difficulties, have themselves to be distanced from what we have seen Freud call the “affective process”.

14Braithwaite continues in this vein when he asks us to forgive him for being enigmatic and irritating, suggesting that this is due to a feeling of embarrassment, and the fact that he doesn’t like “the fall face” (102). At first this appears to have the ring of a true confession, but he quickly swerves away from this into an objective analysis of how he is trying to make things easier for the reader by confusing and misleading him or her:

Mystification is simple; clarity is the hardest thing of all. Not writing a tune is easier than writing one. Not rhyming is easier than rhyming. I don’t mean art should be as a clear as the instructions on a packet of seeds; I’m saying that you trust the mystifier more if you know he’s deliberately choosing not to be lucid. (102)

15What are we to make of this? In a certain sense it is hard for Braithwaite to be clear, particularly because of the painful things he has experienced, although we cannot help but wonder how much control he really exercises over his inability to be so. Is he “deliberately choosing not to be lucid”, or is he unable to be anything else as the real narratives seeking to be told are subject to the censorship of negation and are consequently distorted versions of a clearer picture beneath? Braithwaite suggests that we “trust Picasso all the way because he could draw like Ingres” (102), but he is unable to offer the same kind of security himself. It is for this reason that passages in which he argues that we don’t need to know “everything”, and in which he states that “Directness also confuses” read like further attempts to stall that which is repressed from coming into full consciousness, rather than as examples of mystification in the sense that Braithwaite means above. Of course, Braithwaite does choose to hide behind Flaubert and try to create a smoke screen between himself and the past, but turning things around we can also argue that Flaubert chooses Braithwaite in as much as his voice expresses the biographer’s internal conflict and that the narratives surrounding the writer’s life and work, while seemingly providing a neutral shelter, reveal much more than Braithwaite himself is aware of.

16“Louise Colet’s Version” (chapter eleven), which we can first think of as an example of the mystification that Braithwaite wishes to propagate, also finds him to be taking the Mauriac game, albeit unconsciously, a stage further. In other words we are able to find Geoffrey Braithwaite in the biographical/fictional voice of another, even though he believes that in telling Louise Colet’s version, which is really another autobiographical narrative, he is taking himself and the reader away from his personal life. In this sense Braithwaite is trying to echo one of the observations that Louise Colet notes about Flaubert within the body of the imaginative text that he is creating: “He wanted his prose to be objective, scientific, devoid of personal presence” (150). However, on closer inspection, this is something that he is clearly unable to do, so that the fictional voice he creates reflects not only aspects of Louise and Gustave’s personal history, but that of Geoffrey and Ellen as well. The earlier relationship becomes the locus in which Braithwaite is once more able to talk about his own past and dramatize his marriage in a safe environment where the fictional paradoxically works to both allow and disallow the reality of the repressed a conscious platform. Once again, the filter of negation is at work. At times Braithwaite appears to identify more with Louise Colet, “Now hear my story” (137), in using Flaubert as a container for many of his wife’s failings (infidelity, promiscuity), as elsewhere he uses Flaubert to contain and communicate aspects of his own self. However, such identification is never fixed, so that Louise Colet also comes to reflect Ellen, “I represented life”, and Flaubert’s fears communicate those experienced by Geoffrey, “he wanted to drive me away because he feared that he might love me completely” (147). Of greater importance are the subjects and themes discussed (sexual betrayal, heartbreak, loss, death, and the survival of love in spite of all this) rather than the characters to whom they attach themselves, but one is able to sense the struggles of Braithwaite’s own domestic life playing themselves out within the wider conflict of a mind negotiating what can and cannot be revealed.

17By the time we reach “Pure Story”, Braithwaite at last finds himself in a position to speak more directly about the above mentioned themes in relation to his own experience. Flaubert is still there, and the narrative is peppered with references and quotations, but the link with Braithwaite’s life is made more explicit. In many ways, “Pure Story” decodes the process of intellectualizing (in the sense that we have seen Freud to mean) and reveals how and why Braithwaite has been using Flaubert in earlier sections of the novel to negate the material contained in this chapter. “Other people think you want to talk”, he complains when describing the grieving process, concluding that whether or not one wants to communicate one’s feelings, “The words aren’t the right ones; or rather, the right words don’t exist” (161). We are on familiar ground here, and Braithwaite quotes once again from Madame Bovary on the inability of language to “move the stars to pity”. While this is undoubtedly true, Flaubert’s Parrot shows that Geoffrey Braithwaite still wants to talk, or at least find another way of communicating. In trying to speak, he tells us, “You seem to be talking about other people’s griefs”. Interestingly, in talking about other people’s griefs, something that takes up much space in the novel, Braithwaite is talking about himself. As well as talking, and in spite of the familiar, conversational tone in which he often addresses the reader, it is also important to think of Flaubert’s Parrot as being the space in which Braithwaite is engaged in the process of writing about himself. Ultimately, “Pure Story” shows him to have made an important transition: his reading and writing have brought him from a place in which he unconsciously uses these creative encounters as a way of mediating experience, towards a fuller revelation and understanding of experience.

18While the forces of denial implicated in the dynamics of negation are lessened in “Pure Story”, there is what appears to be an interesting blind spot. In arguing about the superiority books have over life in their ability to offer explanations, Braithwaite writes: “Books make sense of life. The only problem is that the lives they make sense of are other people’s lives, never your own” (168). This seems particularly surprising in a chapter where Braithwaite continually uses books to illustrate, and so understand, his own life: something that he is doing, whether consciously or not, throughout the entire novel. Perhaps what he is acknowledging here is the fact that while books can, as the first statement confirms, make sense and/or articulate aspects of self experience in conscious and unconscious ways, they cannot offer any final solutions or offer individual replies to the reader’s particular questions. Reconciliation, as well as being found in a sometimes difficult place to get to beyond negation, also lies in accepting that the narratives we use to try and make sense of our lives, both those created by others and those which we create for ourselves, will never be satisfactory. However, they can help us to cope and come to terms with the pain and misfortune that life inevitably brings, and thus while there is, as Braithwaite laments, a “limited choice of prayers on offer”, we will still continue to “gabble the syllables” (161). Such is the task upon which Geoffrey Braithwaite is engaged, even though he continually complains, like his literary master, about the inadequacy of language. While his reading of Flaubert allows him to voice painful subjects that he finds difficult to fully acknowledge, it is a reading that feeds back into his own perception of the world, one that finally enables him to write, as he does in “Pure Story”, with a startling clarity of vision about the mechanics of grief and the complications of married life. While it is true to say that the common denominator linking the various parts of Braithwaite’s narrative is, of course, Flaubert, it is equally this untold/told story struggling, however unwillingly, to make itself heard.



Barnes Julian, Flaubert’s Parrot, London, Picador, 1985.

Freud Sigmund, “Negation”, 1925, On Metapsychology, The Penguin Freud Library 11, Harmondsworth Mddx., Penguin, 1991.

© Presses universitaires François-Rabelais, 2005

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