Date of Award


Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


French Studies

First Advisor

Nathaniel Wing


This study focuses on the problematic of description and meaning in literature, based on three master-works by Gustave Flaubert: Madame Bovary, Salammbo, and L'Education sentimentale. Description generally tends to create digressions and gratuitous accumulations that can break the narrative development. However, in the classical realist text descriptive details are to represent a global image and be available to a possible interpretive recuperation which can be mimetic and establish the basic story line, or symbolic, that is, primarily connoting the themes of the novel or the characters' feelings. Using Flaubert's works as examples, this study analyzes the constant tensions of these two tendencies of literary description. Contrary to normative, thematic, or structuralist criticism, and different from the common interpretation which integrates descriptive passages into the finality of narrative in Balzac's novels, this study emphasizes how Flaubert's images waver between the possibility of a meaning which is functional to the narrative continuity, and a certain resistance to interpretation which anticipate the techniques of the modern self-referential novel. On the one hand, in the passages analyzed in this study of three novels, adequate signs offer a basis for mimetic or symbolic interpretation; on the other hand, a more critical reading reveals the presence of stylistic elements which disrupt a thematic or realist integration. Examples include excess of detail; fluid and vague contours; geometric and exotic landscapes; petrifying features, such as colors or adjectives, which stop the narrative temporal progression; disorder of space; excessive literariness; confusion of forms; insistence on the proliferation of the ornamental to the detriment of the human traits; and accumulations of objects which exceed the limits of verisimilitude and lead to the uninterpretable. Therefore, this study indicates that language continuously fails to sustain a stable semiology: Flaubert's literary work is subjected to various possibilities of meaning and "non-meaning" which disorient the reader. In these three novels, his style exhibits the tensions of the transition from the readable novel to the self-referential text, which expresses only the means of its own fabrication. (Abstract shortened with permission of author.).