The Tournament of Literary Sex Writing: Gustave Flaubert vs. Kate Chopin
Roxane Gay Chooses a Winner
GUSTAVE FLAUBERT VS. KATE CHOPIN
Kate Chopin, “The Storm”
They did not heed the crashing torrents, and the roar of the elements made her laugh as she lay in his arms. She was a revelation in that dim, mysterious chamber; as white as the couch she lay upon. Her firm, elastic flesh that was knowing for the first time its birthright, was like a creamy lily that the sun invites to contribute its breath and perfume to the undying life of the world.
The generous abundance of her passion, without guile or trickery, was like a white flame which penetrated and found response in depths of his own sensuous nature that had never yet been been reached.
When he touched her breasts they gave themselves up in quivering ecstasy, inviting his lips. Her mouth was a fountain of delight. And when he possessed her, they seemed to swoon together at the very borderland of life’s mystery.
He stayed cushioned upon her, breathless, dazed, enervated, with his heart beating like a hammer upon her. With one hand she clasped his head, her lips lightly touching his forehead. The other hand stroked with a soothing rhythm his muscular shoulders.
Gustave Flaubert, Madame Bovary
And he reached out his arm and put it around her waist. She tried gently to free herself. He held her that way as they walked.
But they could hear the two horses, who were browsing on leaves.
“Oh, just a little long!” said Rodolphe. “Let’s not go yet. Stay here!”
He drew her farther on, around a little pond, where duckweed made a patch of green on the water. Faded water lilies lay motionless among the rushes. At the sound of their steps in the grass, frogs leaped away to conceal themselves.
“I’m wrong, I’m wrong,” she said. “I’m insane to listen to you.”
“Why?… Emma! Emma!”
“Oh, Rodolphe!….,” the young woman said slowly, leaning on his shoulder.
The material of her riding habit caught on his velvet coat. She tipped back her head, her white throat swelled with a sigh; and weakened, bathed in tears, hiding her face, with a long tremor she gave herself up to him.
The evening shadows were coming down; the horizontal sun, passing between the branches, dazzled her eyes. Here and there, all around her, patches of light shimmered in the leaves or on the ground, as if hummingbirds in flight had scattered their feathers there. Silence was everywhere; something mild seemed to be coming forth from the trees; she could feel her heart beginning to beat again, and her blood flowing through her flesh like a river of milk. Then, from far away beyond the woods, on the other hills, she heard a vague, prolonged cry, a voice that lingered, and she listened to it in silence as it lost itself like a kind of music in the last vibrations of her tingling nerves.
JUDGE ROXANE GLAY DECLARES:
Sex writing is tricky, or so conventional wisdom goes. I tend to agree but I also know writers complicate matters when it comes to literary sex. If you’re going to write about sex, actually write about sex. Don’t be coy and metaphorical. Put two (or more) bodies together. Make them sweat and strain. Make it pretty or ugly, thrilling or mediocre. Just… make it happen. Before 1900, though, not all writers seemed to understand this.
Now, I am a fan of Kate Chopin so I was naturally predisposed to her excerpt. The Awakening offers such an elegant indictment of the expectations placed upon women in marriage and motherhood. And, though Chopin is fond of flourish, when she writes about sex, even for her time, she does so while acknowledging that human bodies are coming together in a lustful way.
In the scene from The Storm, Chopin is not shy about writing tremulous passion with abandon and excess. Oh, the crashing and roaring and quivering and the swooning. It’s all! So! Passionate! She is a bit circuitous in this scene but she does acknowledge the physical reality of what is happening, LIKE A LADY! And there seems to be mutual satisfaction. Chopin was ahead of her time in more ways than one.
Flaubert’s Madame Bovary leaves much more to be desired. He is certainly fastidious in detailing the where of Rodolphe and Emma’s conflagration but mostly he writes around the sex in a profoundly unsatisfying way. You basically have to read the passage four or five times to be sure that there was, indeed, some kind of intercourse. No one wants to work that hard for sexual pleasure.
I’ll tell you what, though. Both Chopin and Flaubert are keenly interested in the whiteness of a woman’s skin as a marker of her desirability. Emma’s white throat swells. In The Storm our lady is a creamy lily and her skin is as white as the couch upon which she reclines which, of course, begs the question of how her lover could possibly find her amongst the cushions.
Regardless, this round goes to Chopin because the man’s heart hammers as he hammers his paramour. Subtlety is overrated.
WINNER: Kate Chopin!